Nuclear site where Deep South's old attitudes live on

Savannah Plant: Did one sophisticated processing facility in South Carolina put African American workers at greater risk than whites?

Andrew Buncombe,South Carolina
Tuesday 13 August 2002 00:00 BST

Locals call it simply "the site". It covers about 300 square miles, its workings hidden behind a silent, scented forest of dense Georgia pines. Along its perimeter fencing, yellow plastic signs posted every few yards make clear that trespassers are not welcome. At its entry gates, guards armed with scowls and semi-automatic weapons scrutinise every approaching vehicle.

This is the Savannah River Site (SRS), a nuclear plant established in the Cold War using state-of the-art technology to produce the tritium and plutonium-239 needed for America's nuclear arsenal, and which more recently has been using the same sophisticated science to reprocess nuclear waste.

But this plant in South Carolina is also home – if a series of ongoing lawsuits are to be believed – to a process that has nothing to do with sophistication and which many might have believed had been left behind in the American Deep South of a previous, less enlightened age.

Thirty-two plaintiffs accuse the plant, operated by the Westinghouse Savannah River Company (WSRC) of which British Nuclear Fuels Ltd is a partner, of perpetrating a racist environment in which black workers were repeatedly overlooked for promotion.

They do not say it was simply a matter of such racism being quietly tolerated by the management: the lawsuits allege there that is evidence of racism so apparently ingrained that it affected the company's operational practices. "[It's] entrenched by bigotry and racism and good ol' boy country-club systems," says the plaintiff Willar Hightower, 59, a former employee with 23 years' service, who is a local councillor.

"I don't know why we want to waste talent like that. It is a large waste not to let each employee reach his limit rather than his employer's limit. I should have retired two grades higher than I did, according to my evaluation. I hit a ceiling.

"People would come into the department and get promoted but for some reason I could not. The people who got promoted were white, invariably. That is the only thing I can possible see. I am not bitter about it but I am disappointed. I thought the American dream was available to everybody. It's not for everybody, but it's for everybody that chose it. That is the problem."

Another plaintiff, a woman with 30 years' service who still works for the company, and who asked for her name not to be used, said: "They have a way of running things not to give minorities a chance. We will not get the same compensation as our white counterparts. They will get the promotion even if they don't have a degree."

The lawsuits against Westinghouse, which took charge of the site in 1989, claim such practices were common in a "hostile environment" of racism. Racist graffiti was regularly scrawled on lavatory walls. "Nigger watch your back" and "Nigger go home" were among insults allegedly found. Black workers also discovered nooses left around the plant, which they interpreted as racist provocation.

The company launched inquiries several times and says that an employee was fired in one instance. "We have disciplined employees, including terminating an employee for incidents involving nooses," the WSRC president, Robert Pedde, said in a letter to the Augusta Chronicle newspaper. "Fortunately, we have had very few such cases."

Perhaps the most disturbing accusation concerns the alleged practice of assigning black workers to jobs with the highest radiation exposure. The lawsuit says such areas of the plant were commonly referred to as "coon areas". To prove this, the plaintiffs' lawyer asked James Ruttenber, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, to assess radiation readings of SRS employees, from 1991 to 1998, taken from the individual Geiger counters worn by workers on site.

Mr Ruttenber's report found: "When all annual dose measurements are grouped by race, the doses for blacks are higher than for whites in all dose categories ... The annual penetrating doses for blacks are about 1.8 times as high as the doses for whites." His report ends: "I also conclude that the analyses support the hypothesis that these differences are due to job-placement practices that put blacks in jobs that have higher radiation exposures than whites."

The plaintiffs tried to have the report entered as evidence. A federal judge, after listening to WSRC's lawyers, refused to accept it, saying Mr Ruttenber's analysis was flawed. Westinghouse convinced the judge the analysis was not appropriate, Mr Ruttenber said. "The fact that we can show there was a preference for blacks to be assigned to jobs with higher radiation levels points to the subtleties of the ways we deal with race, gender and other biases in the workplace."

Mr Ruttenber said that, in the cases he examined, workers were still within the legally permitted radiation doses. He said it would be hard to show a link between job assignment and poor health.

One exception might be the case of Jimmy Walker, 48, who in 1977 inhaled plutonium at the plant. Company documents obtained by The Independent show that, as a result, his radiation level exceeded the permitted life-time dose of 50 rems (radiation exposure monitoring system) and "Walker's work must be planned with consideration for the special control level".

Despite this acknowledgement, Mr Walker says he was still assigned to tasks that exposed him to radiation. A report from 1991 shows radiation was detected on his shoe; proof, he says, that he was assigned to such areas. Mr Walker, who has three children, has retired because of ill health, his radiation level exceeding 80 rems. He says that he was recently given a leaflet by the company doctor suggesting he consider donating his body to a radiation research project at Washington State University. In return, his family would receive $500 (£325).

"I feel betrayed by the company, by the government," he said. "Now they have admitted radiation causes cancer. All the time they were telling me there was nothing to worry about."

BNFL: Its links to the site

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd has extensive interests in the United States in conjunction with its American partner, Morrison Knudsen (MK). They bought the 112-year-old Westinghouse company in March 1999, paying $1.1bn and splitting it into three separate elements.

Westinghouse Electric Company, the company's nuclear power business, became wholly owned by a new BNFL subsidiary, BNFL Nuclear Services Inc (BNSI).

Westinghouse Government Environmental Services Company (WGES), the firm's non-defence-related government and environmental business, became jointly owned and managed by BNFL through BNSI (40 per cent) and MK (60 per cent).

Westinghouse Government Services Company (WGS), a defence-related government operations business, became 100 per cent owned by MK, which later became known as the Washington Group. BNFL, through BNSI, holds a 40 per cent economic interest. The Savannah River Company is a subsidiary, with two other partners.

Meanwhile, BNFL's US-based nuclear clean-up business, BNFL Inc, has continued as a separate company.

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