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Mitch McConnell's Paducah Ad Call into Question for Accuracy
Mitch McConnell's political ad about the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant workers not accurate at all!
Sat, 04/19/2008 - 22:17 — Mark Donham

I just have to comment about the political ads that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, minority leader of the U.S. Senate, is running in the Paducah , KY market. The ad conveys the message that McConnell is the savior of the workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion uranium enrichment plant, who, according to the ad’s slant, were sort of “innocent (but patriotic) victims” of the justified fervor of the cold war. As the ad says, quoting former atomic workers union president David Fuller, the “star” of the ad, “"We found out along the way that it was more dangerous than we were made aware of."

I’m not making these comments as just a regular citizen. I sat on the DOE’s Citizen’s Advisory Board (CAB), a (supposedly) federal advisory committee chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, for 8 years, and was chair or co-chair for 6 of those years. In fact, I was chair of the CAB when the Washington Post broke their expose about workers at Paducah which now McConnell is trying to make a positive rather than the negative that it really is. It’s actually incredible that McConnell has the nerve to portray the situation as he is portraying it. And, it is probably more outrageous that Fuller is now going to bat for McConnell.

Let’s have a little review of what happened. From the time that the residents that live and own land around the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion came to find out that their wells were badly contaminated in the late 1980s and that they could no longer use them, they and other local activists pushed to find out what was really going on at the plant.

During the decade between 1988 and 1998, McConnell did little or nothing to speak out for local residents and workers. In fact, DOE continually lied to local citizens about the presence of plutonium at the facility. It was brought up a number of times in public meetings, and was always denied. In fact, it was usually ridiculed, and McConnell was never on the side of those calling for more openness and more environmental controls of the facility.

This changed August 8, 1998, when the Joby Warrick, of the Washington Post, had a headline story published about how workers had been lied to for decades about what they had handled. Many times workers were told that they were handling “safe” and “low level” uranium when in fact they were handling materials that contained the full range of transuranic elements and fission products, including plutonium, neptunium, technetium and all the others. The materials that contained these elements were recycled reactor tails from plutonium reactors from Hanford , Savannah River , and elsewhere. At the time, materials that contained uranium in any form that could be extracted and used for fission was rare and very valuable. We tried to recycle everything.

While a lot of the lower level workers were told continually that they were “only” handling “low level” uranium, which they were told was “safe” or of low risk, in actuality, they were handling product derived from these plutonium reactors which were a hundred thousand times or more radioactive than uranium would have been. This is critical because these workers weren’t even properly protected from handling uranium, let alone plutonium contaminated materials. Untold cancer and non-cancer illnesses occurred, both from the workers and from their families as they brought home contaminants in their clothes, shoes, hair, skin, etc. and exposed their families.

But, for Fuller and McConnell to portray to the public that this was all kind of an innocent, accidental occurrence that, as soon as it was discovered, McConnell went out of his way to correct, is really a huge distortion. First, it was known within the DOE system since the early 50s, and there are documents which prove this, that using these plutonium reactor tails would significantly increase risk for workers exposed to the materials. Apparently, workers hadn’t been told, but not because no one knew, but purposefully to keep them in the dark.

Secondly, McConnell and other politicians were aware of the concerns of workers and local residents about the possibility of plutonium at the facility, and, those concerns, which dated back to the sad saga of Joe Harding, a worker who had been badly exposed and had suffered such serious health effects as having fingernails growing out of his knees. Harding became the first real whistleblower at the plant in the late 1970s, and was followed around and ridiculed by plant officials whenever he spoke in public. Harding knew that he had been exposed to more than “just uranium.” McConnell was certainly aware of this.

In fact, the deception was so bad and the impacts of the deception so serious that the U.S. Sec. of Energy at the time, now Gov. Bill Richardson from New Mexico, came to Paducah 3 times, and once delivered an official apology to the workers on behalf of the U.S. government. From what I saw, Richardson was the leader in the government trying to come face to face with the problem. McConnell was late to get on board. To the best of my recollection, McConnell never once appeared with Richardson when he came to Paducah . Richardson ’s actions led the way to the compensation program, and McConnell went along to save face because he had been caught so off guard by the entire controversy.

David Fuller’s cooperation with the deception about McConnell’s involvement isn’t anything new. In an article in the Paducah Sun just a few days after the initial expose in the Washington Post, Fuller, then president of the Atomic Workers union, was quoted as saying that prior to the Washington Post story, “he had ‘no inkling’ " that plutonium was in the plant. Personally, I find that hard to believe. I do not think that Fuller was being totally forthcoming, and I don’t think he is now. He is running inaccurate, unnecessary and less than helpful political cover for McConnell, and one can't help but wonder what is in it for Fuller?

But even if that small group of former workers that McConnell got to appear in his ad did get help from McConnell in getting the governmental compensation package, thousands and thousands of sick workers across the DOE complex who deserve compensation aren’t getting it. In some, if not many cases, the failure to receive compensation seems to have a political or retaliatory aspect to it.

Maybe McConnell can fool a lot of people around here, but he doesn’t fool me. And neither does Fuller. I was there when it was going on, and I know. McConnell did little or nothing to further environmental concerns at the plant until he was so embarrassed about his failures that he felt compelled to do something to cover his political butt. Fuller, as a former union official, does not represent the overwhelming majority of his union members when he speaks out in favor of McConnell, who has a less than shining record in supporting union issues. Finally, when one of the former workers states at the end of the ad that “The guy cares for the working man." Give me a break. When was the last time a Republican leader “care(d) for the working man?” They care for the corporations. That’s a fundamental of U.S. politics. But it does show that McConnell is desperate and will say anything to stay in power. When, at the end of the ad, McConnell says, “I approve this message,” my only comment is that “I’m sure he does.”

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