Like a dark family secret long suspected but never confirmed, the shock of discovery is all the more lurid for coming into the light years later. So it is with the news of radioactive material released into the air -- at levels higher than any seen in the nation -- at closed nuclear fuels plants in Armstrong County.
Incredulity feeds the first reaction: Surely this could not have happened. But apparently it did, according to good authority.
That would be Joseph P. Ring, a Harvard University radiation safety officer who teaches at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts. He wrote a 37-page report that was filed Tuesday as part of federal lawsuits brought against plant operators Babcock & Wilcox Co. and Atlantic Richfield Co. by about 90 cancer victims.
The plants operated in Apollo and Parks Township from 1958 through 1984. Mr. Ring found "numerous large-scale releases of ionizing radiation into the neighboring environment" during the operating lives of the plants. The emissions added up to "the largest quantity ... of any nuclear facility in the United States."
But putting dirty plants in neighborhoods -- something that should never have been done, Mr. King wrote -- was only one part of the equation. Worse yet, he cited internal documents that said the operators knew of the problems that began with faulty construction but never did enough to stop them.
These revelations are not news to those who live near the plants -- after all, they are the basis of the allegations in the lawsuits. Patricia Ameno, a plaintiff in a previous round of litigation, told Post-Gazette reporter Rich Lord that, due to health problems, "A lot of people have lost not only their entire savings but their homes." Families have been torn apart by illnesses and deaths, she said.
The lawsuits, brought by plant workers and neighbors in 2010, are before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster, who will have the ultimate say on Mr. Ring's report and other expert opinions filed. But on the face of it, what happened at the old plant sites seems an outrage.
While the Apollo site has since been cleaned up, a lesson can be drawn. The nuclear industry -- which this newspaper has long supported -- doesn't lack for regulation, and indeed the Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes cited the facilities over the years. But apparently not enough.
That raises a larger point: We live at a time when conservative politicians are strongly pushing the idea that prosperity will come when free enterprise is allowed to operate unfettered by regulations -- as if the natural laws of human behavior have been repealed. To see how that might work out, a person need only go to Armstrong County and ask the people who live there.
First Published April 27, 2012 5:45 AM