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Monday, May 22, 2017

Ch. 4. General Groves's Problem: the fluoride deception by Christopher Bryson from archive.org


Ch. 4. General Groves's Problem: the fluoride deception by Christopher Bryson from archive.org
Ch. 4. General Groves's Problem: the fluoride deception by Christopher Bryson from archive.org
General Groves's Problem     On the edge of the marsh water, near the monumental K-25 factory at Oak  Ridge, Tennessee, stands a solitary blue heron, its head angling for prey.  "Danger. No Fishing Radiation," reads a sign. Across the pond, the gray  walls of the plant glitter in the late evening sun. The smokestacks are cold  now, the big machines silent and patient as the heron, waiting to be  dismantled and hauled away. Close your eyes and the ghosts return.  Mausoleum now, this half-mile-long steel colossus was once among the  biggest industrial buildings in the world. Here, in the spring and summer  of 1945 and throughout the cold war, tens of thousands of women and  men worked through the night in a cacophony of heat and smoke, their  backs bent to the purpose of a nation. Here, in the shade of Tennessee's  Black Oak Ridge, lay America's biggest wartime secret, where nature was  rendered in man's image more powerfully than ever before. Here, on the  banks of the Clinch River, exotic ore and minerals from the corners of the  globe were transfigured with an elemental genius by scientists, farm  laborers, and migrants from across the United States, punching time  clocks, sculpting the future, and enriching uranium for the Hiroshima  atomic
bomb. https://www.blogger.com/null  I T WAS A cold December morning in 1943 in northwest Washington,  DC, and Brigadier General Leslie C. Groves had another problem on his  desk. The portly, tough-talking engineer was in charge of the United  States biggest and best-kept wartime secret. He was the army s chief of the  Manhattan Project, and its staff was     CHAPTER FOUR     building an industrial infrastructure to manufacture the world s first atomic  bomb.   It was a gargantuan task. In complete secrecy Groves and the Army  Corps of Engineers were overseeing the work of tens of thousands of  laborers, scientists, and engineers who in just three years would create  factories and laboratories rivaling the size of the entire U.S. automobile  industry. The budget of the Manhattan Engineer District, as the project was  officially known, eventually would run to over $2 billion and would be  concealed almost entirely from the U.S. Congress.'   The Generals days were a blur of covert action. There were secret  flights to mysterious giant new factories being carved from virgin sites in  Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington State; huddled conferences in  the Manhattan Projects New York and Washing-ton, DC, offices; and  endless telephone calls, troubleshooting with top military lieutenants. The  United States was in a nuclear arms race with Germany, Groves believed.  Yet some of the key industrial processes needed to make the U.S. weapon  had not even reached pilot-plant stage. Much of the nations atomic  program, he knew, was still mired in laboratory development.   Groves had a new headache that December morning. There were  disturbing reports of workers and scientists being gassed and burned in the  bomb project's laboratories and factories. Colonel Stafford L. Warren,  chief of the Manhattan Project's Medical Section, needed help. He wanted  General Groves to use his authority to pry loose some secret information  from the army's Chemical Warfare Service. Warren wanted to know what  the military's poison-gas experts could tell the Manhattan Project about the  toxicity of fluoride.'   General Groves immediately agreed to help. Getting more information  about fluoride toxicity was vital. Despite the many uncertainties facing the  Manhattan Project that bleak winter of 1943, Groves was sure of one thing:  fluoride was going to be essential in making the United States' atomic  bomb. Manhattan Project scientists were planning to use a "gaseous  diffusion" technology to refine uranium. In that process uranium is mixed  with elemental fluorine, forming a volatile gas called uranium hexafluoride,  which is then "enriched" by diffusing that gas through a fine barrier, or  membrane. The lighter molecules containing fissionable uranium     GENER AL GROVES S PROBLEM     47     needed for a nuclear explosion pass though the membrane more  quickly and are captured on the other side. But because only a handful  of the lighter molecules make it through the membrane each time,  many hundreds of tons of fluorine, and thousands of stages of  progressive enrichment, would be needed to produce enough uranium  for a single atomic bomb. By January 20, 1945 when the K-  25 gaseous diffusion plant on the banks of the Clinch River was loaded  with fluoride for the first time, the plant's fantastic appetite would  include a work force of 12,000, a hunger for electricity that rivaled the  city of New York, and a diet of some 33 tons of uranium hexafluoride  each month. 4   The hunger for fluorine was one of the most closely guarded  military secrets of World War II. A special office of the Manhattan  Project in New York City, known as the Madison Square Area,  coordinated much of the fluoride work. Elemental fluorine was  designated simply the gas or fresh air. Scientists at the University of  Chicago were advised in a secret 1942 memo that all fluorides are to  be disguised ... in that they give definite clues to the chemistry  involved. '   Dragooning fluoride into military service was also one of the cen-  tral technological challenges of the war, requiring the full resources of  academia and industry.' While the idea behind gaseous diffusion was  simple, elemental fluorine and uranium hexafluoride were  extraordinarily corrosive and toxic: Fluorine was easily the Earths  most reactive element, scientists knew, often combining violently with  other chemicals even at room temperature, vaporizing steel in a flash  of white heat, for example, and presenting bomb-program engineers  with extraordinary challenges and nightmarish hazards. So dangerous  was the pure element that industry had avoided fluorine before the war,  regarding it as "a laboratory curiosity." 8   Wartime necessity became the mother of invention. Thousands of  researchers in crowded laboratories worked to enlist fluoride in the  fight against fascism. Scientists from Columbia, Princeton, Johns  Hopkins, Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State, Duke, the University of  Virginia, MIT, Cornell, and Iowa State studied the chemical, along-  side engineers from some of the biggest industrial companies in  wartime America. The companies included DuPont, Chrysler,  Allis-Chalmers, Westinghouse, Standard Oil, the American  Telephone     48     CHAPTER FOUR     and Telegraph Company (AT&T), Mallinckrodt, Eastman Kodak, the  Electro Metallurgical Company, Linde Air Products, Hooker Chemical,  Union Carbide, and Harshaw Chemical.'   Columbia University scientists made an early technological  breakthrough. In December 1940 a tiny two-cubic-centimeter capsule of a  liquid, code-named "Joe's Stuff," was delivered to the campus in New York  City. Researchers handled it with care. Inside was virtually the entire  world s existing supply of a radical new chemical compound known as a  "fluorocarbon" — in which carbon atoms were bonded not with hydrogen,  as in conventional "hydrocarbon" oil, but entirely with fluorine atoms. 10  The Columbia researchers soon confirmed that the liquid had Herculean  strengths. The fluoride atom was bound to the carbon atom so tightly that  even the hyperaggressive elemental fluorine gas was held at bay. The  discovery was crucial. Inside the Oak Ridge gaseous-diffusion plant, hun-  dreds of huge compressors and blowers would be needed to push the  uranium hexafluoride gas through the multiple enrichment stages. If  regular oils were used to grease these engines, however, the predatory  fluorine atom stripped the hydrogen from the hydrocarbon, destroying the  lubricant and the machinery."   The bomb-program scientists could now fight fire with fire. Fluoride,  bonded to carbon atoms in fluorocarbons, would protect the machinery  from the fluoride in the uranium hexafluoride gas. In other words, fluoride  would protect the machinery from fluoride's uniquely corrosive powers. A  crash research program at Columbia — led by a brilliant Russian immigrant,  Aristide V. Grosse — soon found a way of mass-producing the top-secret  compounds. 12 By 1945 thousands of pounds of fluorocarbon oils and seals  were being delivered to Oak Ridge. 13   DuPont mass-produced the fluorocarbons. Their prewar expertise in  manufacturing Freon was vital to the U.S. nuclear program. Thousands of  pounds of similar refrigerants were now needed to cool the K-25 diffusion  plant. DuPont's fluoride-based plastic called Teflon also gave the United  States a key wartime advantage. Japan's atomic scientists had struggled to  manufacture and handle small amounts of the corrosive uranium  hexafluoride. But Teflon — which had been first fabricated in a DuPont lab  in 1938 — allowed U.S. companies to move enormous quantities of fluoride  around the country.'     GENERAL GROVES S PROBLEM     49     "The basic problem in making the bomb, General Groves wrote,  "was to arrive at an industrial process that would produce kilograms of  a substance that had never been isolated before in greater than  sub-microscopic problems. '   Solving that problem required fluorine scientists. Without their  inventions, the United States atomic bomb would have been impos-  sible, noted the Manchester University scientist and historian Eric  Banks. Most historians have focused on the physics of the atomic  bomb, chronicling how the atom was split. The vast contribution of  chemical engineers to the Manhattan Project — and the radical debut of  a powerful chemical element onto the global stage — has largely been  ignored. It is a striking omission, pointed out Banks. " American  fluorine chemists had a huge impact on the production of the bomb."   But exploiting fluoride was a double-edged sword, as the bomb  programs scientists soon discovered. On January 20, 1943, the senior  Manhattan Project doctor, Captain Hymer L. Friedell, paid a visit to the  sprawling New York campus of Columbia University, where a  small-scale gaseous diffusion plant had already been built. Almost a  thousand researchers would eventually work on bomb-related projects  at Columbia's War Research Laboratory. 16 After his visit Captain  Friedell warned of possible health problems: The primary potential  sources of difficulty may be present in the handling of uranium  compounds, as noted above, and the coincident use of fluorides which  are an integral part of the process.'"   His warning was accurate. A fluoride-gas release at Columbia  later that year produced "nausea, vomiting and some mental con-  fusion"; in 1944 another researcher, Christian Spelton, developed  pulmonary fibrosis after repeatedly fleeing clouds of uranium  hexa-fluoride gas.' Other health problems were also reported. Dr.  Homer Priest, a leading Columbia University fluoride scientist,  complained that his "teeth seemed to be deteriorating rapidly." Dr.  Priest told a doctor that he bled more freely and that "there has been a  progressive increase in the degree of slowness of healing and of pain  in the period he has been doing this work.'"   The epidemic spread. At Princeton leaking fluoride gas left sci-  entists feeling more easily fatigued. There were multiple reports of  illness at Iowa State and of fluoride acid burns at Purdue, where     50     CHAPTER FOUR     two researchers were badly gassed with carbonyl fluoride in 1944. Health  problems hit industry scientists too. At DuPont rather severe weakness  was reported in 1943 by three chemists who had received "heavy  exposures to fluorine. The symptoms were ascribed by them to the  oxyfluorides formed, a report said'   Accounts of fluoride injury mushroomed as the laboratory work moved  into full-scale industrial production. At Oak Ridge in September 1944, 190  pounds of hexafluoride gas escaped into a room, drifted outdoors, and  formed a chemical cloud 20 yards by 20 yards." Nine workers were  exposed "for periods of twenty seconds to five minutes, injuring the  mouth, salivary organs, pharynx, skin, eyes and lungs.' The news got  worse: that same year, '944, General Groves got shocking new reports of  multiple deaths in the nuclear program. Details of those fatalities and  fluorides role have remained hidden, often for a half-century or more.   The stories of the DuPont workers, who may have been fluorides first  wartime fatalities, have not been made public until now. (And they remain  anonymous: once-secret military documents describing the deaths do not  record their names.) On January 15, 1944, a laboratory assistant, a chemist,  and a girl technician producing the fluorinated plastic Teflon for the bomb  program were exposed to waste gases. Shortness of breath followed twelve  hours later and by the end of 36 hours, all three were in the hospital,  Colonel Warren was informed.-' 3 The chemist recovered but the other two  died terrible deaths, turning purple and unable to breathe." When the  twenty-three-year-old female "expired at the end of ten days," her  autopsied lungs resembled a victim of a World War I poison gas attack.  Colonel Warren s deputy, Captain John L. Ferry, suspected that the DuPont  fumes contained "certain oxyfluorides" and suggested the military  investigate the possibilities of this material being used as a poisonous gas.   Although the army ordered up fresh toxicity studies, fearing " similar  compounds may be formed in some of the other fluoride manufacturing  operations," DuPont dragged its feet, investigators suggested, perhaps  seeking to protect Teflon s postwar commercial potential. The  manufacturer considers that we were buying a pack -aged product and is  not interested in our investigating the toxicity of the materials involved,  reported Captain Ferry. Several of the     GENERAL GROVES S PROBLEM     components thus far identified give good promise for commercial uses  other than that contemplated here, explained a second army official.  (Subsequently there were additional reports of sickness associated with  Teflon. British scientists visiting a DuPont factory just after the war  confirmed that heated Teflon fumes were linked with "excessive  weakness, tiredness, nausea and sore throat.")"   A Philadelphia Story   THE SECRET DEATHS continued. Arnold Kramish is tormented by  injuries sustained in perhaps the worst fluoride accident of World War II.  Sitting in a New York hotel eating breakfast one October 2001 morning,  pastry crumbs sprinkling his shirt, Kramish described how he still endures  painful fluoride skin eruptions on his legs — fifty-seven years after  surviving an explosion that killed two of his colleagues. In the 1970s he  sought medical help for the recurring sores. A Navy doctor explained to  him that fluoride stalks you the rest of your life.   He is stalked, too, by memories of the chemical hell that erupted in  South Philadelphia in September 1944. After the war Kramish became a  top nuclear scientist and government diplomat, well-versed in the ways of  government secrecy. But half a century after the fluoride accident, in a bid  to gain recognition for the victims, Kramish broke his silence and revealed  details of that disaster, including the names of the men who were killed and  why General Groves kept the deaths secret. 28   On the morning of September 2, 1944, twenty-one-year-old Private  Kramish and engineers Peter Bragg and Douglas Meigs reported for duty at  the sprawling Philadelphia Navy Yard. The Yard housed a super-secret  facility using hot liquid fluoride and pressurized steam to enrich uranium  for the atomic bomb. 29 Kramish was one of ten volunteers who had arrived  to train on the new equipment. Just three days earlier, at the Manhattan  Project's vast construction site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Harvard  University president James Conant had gathered the men and asked for  volunteers. Conant warned them that their work in Philadelphia would be  one of the more dangerous parts of the Project, remembers Kramish.   James Conant was acutely aware of the dangers the men faced from  fluoride. The chemist was one of President Roosevelt s top atomic     52     CHAPTER FOUR     advisers. He knew about the DuPont Teflon deaths. And he had seen the  secret army reports on fluoride toxicity that General Groves had requested  in December 1943. 10 The reports explained that the military was carrying  out wartime human experiments with fluoride gases at the armys  Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, searching for chemical warfare agents."  The army had received data about fluoride experiments on humans in  England that had produced powerful central-nervous-system effects. 12 And  there were reports from captured prisoners of war suggesting that the Nazis,  too, were investigating fluoride as a war gas. 33 Harvard's president was so  disturbed by the extraordinary toxicity of certain fluoride  compounds, especially those used in the human experiments, that he issued  a secret warning to a senior U.S scientist about the atomic industrial  fluoride work. As an organic chemist, Conant wrote, I think I should  point out to you ... it is conceivable that similar effects would occur with  any fluorinated organic acid, although probably the compounds would be  less striking in their action. It is further conceivable that these compounds  could be formed in small amounts by the action of fluorine gas on the acids  or related compounds.'   That fall day at Oak Ridge, however, as he asked for volunteers, Conant  did not mention fluoride. All ten men raised their hands. Any mildly  inquisitive guy was not going to opt out, said Kramish.   At first the Philadelphia mission was more Keystone Kops than cloak  and dagger. When they arrived at the Thirtieth Street train station, a  military official in street clothes ordered them into Wana-makers  department store to replace their uniforms with anonymous civilian garb.  But the Navy did not give them enough money, and all the men could find  were cheap Hawaiian shirts, says Kramish. He remembers ten men  furtively changing into their new outfits in a nearby subway station,  emerging into the sunlight wearing brightly colored shirts and GI boots.   Two days later Kramish, Bragg, and Meigs were at the Navy Yard,  working on the secret machinery. At lunch Kramish received a two-dollar  bill in his change. "Give it back," his friend told him, warning that it was an  omen of bad luck. Kramish pushed the bill into his pocket.   That afternoon, back at the plant, at 1:20 PM a massive explosion  suddenly tore at the machinery. Boiling steam and fluoride jetted     GENERAL GROVES S PROBLEM     53     onto Kramishs legs and back, clawing at his lungs and eyes. He fell  backward, temporarily blinded. A trained scuba diver, Private John  Hoffman ran into the smoking chaos holding his breath, pulling the injured  men from the room and slicing Kramishs clothes from his burned body.  This act of bravery would win Hoffman a Soldiers Medal, although the  award was kept secret. I pulled three guys out. Everybody was  shell-shocked, Hoffman told me. Fluorine gas had gotten loose — it was  pretty pungent. I had to watch what the hell I was doing." 35   The afternoon detonation echoed across South Philadelphia. A giant  white plume of uranium hexafluoride gas drifted over the dockyard and  into the nearby battleship USS Wisconsin. Douglas Meigs and Peter  Bragg lay in their death throes. A priest attempted last rites on Kramish,  whose wife was told that he had been killed. A once secret report of the  disaster makes gruesome reading: twenty -six men had been exposed to  460 pounds of fluoride and uranium in a huge chemical cloud. Douglas  Meigs was sprayed with live steam containing liquid, solid and gaseous  material in large quantities ; he died after sixteen minutes. Peter Bragg  expired an hour later with third-degree burns over most of his body. He  seemed in a great deal of pain, the report noted, and became violent  shortly before death and resisted all attention."   The remaining men survived, although many had serious and  slow-healing wounds. Some experienced intense pain in the scrotum,  penis, or about the anus, probably because of the hydrolysis of the  chemicals in these moist areas, the report notes. Survivors also suffered  unusual "nervous system" effects. One man was temporarily rendered  "almost incoherent." This "altered mental state" was "more than could be  explained on a purely fear reaction basis," the report said. "In all  probability the injurious effects observed on the skin, eye, mucous  membranes of upper respiratory tract, esophagus, larynx and bronchi were  all directly caused by the action of the fluoride ion on the exposed tissues,"  concluded a military doctor."   Kramish reports that at a closed wartime inquiry, he learned that part of  his suffering had been unnecessary. The head of the Navy project, Dr.  Philip H. Abelson, had known how to treat fluoride burns, according to  Kramish. But fluoride and uranium were     54     CHAPTER FOUR     considered so secret that Abelson refused to give the medical facts to the  arriving doctors, telling them, I m not sure you guys are cleared, Kramish  recalls. As a result, he adds, the doctors walked among the injured and  dying men that afternoon guessing what the burns might be. (Fifty years  after the accident, Kramish reports he cornered Abelson one lunchtime in  the Cosmos Club in Washington. Abelson refused to talk about the  accident, Kramish says. " It was clearly a trauma for him.")   The Philadelphia explosion traumatized the entire Manhattan Project.  In addition to the fluoride strewn over south Philadelphia, it was perhaps  the largest release of man-made radiation that had ever occurred. General  Groves feared that a nuclear fission accident had taken place. The military  quickly suppressed media coverage. The Philadelphia coroner was not  told the cause of the men's  death. 37   That disaster night, roused by Groves, the Manhattan Project's top  doctor, Colonel Stafford Warren, drove through the darkness from Oak  Ridge, Tennessee. He arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Hospital in time to  seize the organs of the dead men, stuffing the heart and lungs of Meigs and  Bragg into his briefcase before returning home, he later told Kramish.  (Warren and Kramish became friends after the war.) Warren explained to  him that the organs had become classified material, Kramish recalled,  and that they were sent to the University of Rochester for examination.  The deceased were buried without them," Kramish added.  Family members, such as Elizabeth Meigs, who was on her way to meet  her husband in Philadelphia for Labor Day, would never learn that fluoride  may have killed their relatives. General Groves kept silent about the  fatalities. In his book about the Manhattan Project, Now It Can Be Told,  Groves tells only that several persons " were injured" in Philadelphia and  that the investigation "held up the work for a while." Groves's fear of  admitting the deaths, Kra-mish says, was "not only that the atomic bomb  project might be compromised, but that if project workers learned of the  true hazards of working with uranium, they might balk. 39 Suppressing  toxicity information "would extend to fluoride," added Kramish. Working  with it was dangerous.   Arnold Kramish still has the two-dollar bill he received that lunchtime.  He keeps it wrapped in lead; it remains contaminated.     GENERAL GROVES S PROBLEM     55     Although fluoride played a nearly fatal part in Arnold Kramishs  wartime experiences, he believes that few people have any idea of the  chemicals wartime importance. It is not as exotic as the atom, he  says. For most historians, radiation is all they want to talk about.   The Fear Mounts   FEAR NOW GRIPPED wartime fluoride workers across the U.S.  atomic complex, and with good reason. 40 Thousands of them were  entering an abominable work environment, beyond even Victorian  horror, with daily exposure to a witch's brew of fluoride chemicals  — including, for the first time in human history, the ferociously reac  tive elemental fluorine gas. 41   "When a jet of pure fluorine strikes most non-metallic materials,"  began one 1946 secret memo detailing occupational hazards, " the  surface of the material is instantly raised to an incandescent white heat.  Personnel may be severely burned by heat radiated from the surface  even when they are not directly exposed to fluorine at all.... NO   PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT HAS BEEN DEVISED TO DATE  WHICH WILL RELIABLY AFFORD EVEN TEMPORARY PROTECTION   AGAINST A HIGH PRESSURE JET OF PURE FLUORINE, emphasized   the memorandum. 42   Incredibly, fluorine was not the most toxic gas to which workers  risked exposure. When excess fluorine was vented to the  atmosphere (a common procedure, as we shall see) a truly  venomous family of even deadlier   compounds — "oxy fluorides" — were formed. One of these  chemicals, oxygen fluoride, a bi-product of fluorine disposal, was  probably "the most toxic substance known," bomb program  researchers bluntly reported. 43   Another common workplace hazard was hydrogen fluoride acid  ( HF), which had the fiendish property, if splashed on skin, of ini-  tially escaping detection but then slowly and painfully eating into a  victim's bones. 44 One especially fearsome compound called chlorine  trifluoride, which was used to "condition" or clean machinery, was  so reactive that Allied intelligence agents suspected Hitlers SS had  also experimented with it, as an incendiary agent. 45 U.S. atomic  worker Joe Harding, who used chlorine trifluoride at the Paducah  gaseous diffusion plant in Kentucky, described the compound as a  violent monster that makes [pure] fluorine look mild by its side.     5"     CHAPTER FOUR     Working with chlorine trifluoride was more dangerous than handling TNT  while you was climbing a tree, said Harding.'   Fluoride posed another hazard. It dramatically boosted the tox-icity of  other cold war chemicals. The biological havoc wreaked by beryllium, for  example — a key metal that makes nuclear weapons more powerful — was at  least doubled by the synergistic presence of fluoride, bomb program  scientists found. By 1947 there had been nineteen or more deaths reported  in the nation s beryllium plants, with the carnage spreading rapidly. (When  newspaper reporters got wind of the fact that families living near the  beryllium plants were also getting sick, the Atomic Energy Commission  tried to suppress the story.)   Beryllium smelters were felled with an especially devastating one  -two punch, said the Manhattan Project scientist Robert Turner. Men  became ill with a foundry fever marked by shivering, high tempera tures,  and profuse perspiration. The knockout blow from fluoride fumes  followed sometimes days later, the scientist noted, with workers turning  purple, gasping for breath, and coughing up blood. Turner was critical of  other scientists. Investigators studying fluoride had shown a disregard of  the fundamental principles of modern toxicology. Discovering how  workers were being hurt required considering a range of factors, including  the size of the particles involved, ways the poison entered the body, and  awareness that the action of a compound is not equivalent to the sum of  the action of its component parts," he wrote" Turner described the  pathways by which tiny fume-sized particles of beryllium oxyfluoride  penetrated deep into lungs with missile-like force. When the molecules  arrived inside the alveoli, the atoms of fluorine and beryllium separated  "like a charge bursting." Both beryllium and fluoride were poisonous, the  scientist said, but it was the liberation of fluoride deep inside the lung that  produced the most catastrophic health problems, destroying tissue,  choking breath, and leaving permanent lung scarring."   Similarly, when uranium was converted into hexafluoride gas, that  poisonous metal also got a deadly new punch. This enhanced toxicity of  uranium presented nuclear planners with perhaps their most diabolical  quandary. Enormous quantities of uranium hexa-fluoride process gas  were required for even a single atomic bomb. But when the hex was  exposed to air, it rapidly formed a dense     GENERAL GROVES S PROBLEM 57     white cloud of HF gas and fume-sized particles of a highly toxic  compound known as uranyl fluoride or uranium oxyfluoride  ( chemical symbol UOF z ). The compound injured laboratory  animals in microscopic quantities, while even a few milligrams  ingested daily proved fatal, bomb program doctors reported.   Exposure to these two chemicals would be a daily fact of life in the  diffusion plants.' In the hidden chambers of the massive K-25 plant,  where precious uranium for the Hiroshima atomic bomb was first  captured, "there will be a continuous escape of U0 2 F in the cold trap  rooms," officials warned. Those workers would be exposed 8 hours  per day regularly, explained Medical Captain John Ferry in a secret  June 16, 1944 letter to an Oak Ridge contractor."   "Just Watch Anyone That Has a Tie On"   AS PREDICTED, WHITE fluoride smoke became a familiar sight and  smell to generations of workers in Americas gaseous diffusion plants.  I have never seen it that there wasnt a thick haze of process gas smoke  in the air, said Joe Harding, remembering his almost thirty years  inside the gaseous diffusion plant at Paducah,  Kentucky.   It does have a pungent odor, confirmed another worker, Sam Vest,  who in 1970 followed his father and two uncles into the Oak Ridge  nuclear factories. In a 2001 interview in his home near Oak Ridge the  fifty-four-year-old Vest tugged on a never-ending cigarette, recalling  his own three decades at America's first gaseous diffusion plant. His  soft Tennessee drawl transported a visiting writer back inside the  cacophonous K-25 building and to the apprentice electrician's first  encounter with uranium hexafluoride gas. Vest watched one morning  as clouds of smoke belched from equipment he was replacing. He  asked a more experienced worker about the strange white fogs' "I said,  "What is that stuff?' And he said, "That is process gas.' And I said,  "Should we be here? I don't see anybody with respirators on. - The  older worker explained an Oak Ridge safety rule: "Just watch anyone  that has a tie on." He added, And if he leaves hurriedly, you leave  behind him. That was my first indoctrination," Vest said. "I was just a  kid."   Medical advice given to men who had been in a chemical release,  said Vest, was to go home and drink a six pack of beer.'" Vest     58     CHAPTER FOUR     remembered thinking, "I dont know anything about chemicals or uranium  hexafluoride or anything like that. But none of this looks on the level to me.  These men are standing in this fog with no respirators. I thought "My God,  what kind of a place is this?   On another occasion Vest found himself high above the plant in the  pipe gallery, replacing electrical heaters. We were wading though this  yellow powder," he recalled. "I asked [a colleague] Clyde, I said, "Clyde,  what is all this yellow lying around here?' And he said, That is product. I  said, What do you mean? And he said, "Well, that is UO F 2 . After it cools  down, it solidifies and that is enriched uranium.' And I said, "Shouldn't we  have some kind of breathing apparatus or something? And he said, Hell no,  we work in this all the time. It wont hurt you.'"   Similar official safety reassurances, from the highest levels of the  United States government, were given to tens of thousands of fluoride  workers throughout the cold war. The assurances were false. Fluoride was  a state secret. Workers were neither told what chemicals they were  handling nor of the warned dangers. "The people hired by the contractors  were not, because of security, told of the hazards involved in their work,"  Colonel Stafford Warren wrote to a deputy, Dr. Fred Bryan, in September  24, 1947. 60   Despite an early awareness that cancer and occupational injuries were  extraordinarily frequent at the gaseous diffusion plants, work ers could  never prove that such was the case. "All medico-legal and insurance  statistics which refer directly to process hazards" were classified "secret,"  an AEC document noted. 61 In data that were declassified only in 1997, for  example, it was revealed that during the earliest months of the K-25 plants  operation, from June 1945 to October 1946, there were 392 chemical  injuries from uranium hexafluoride, 58 injuries from fluorine, 21 from  hydrogen fluoride, and six injuries from fluorocarbons. 62   Area C   WORKERS QUICKLY GREW suspicious at the endless medical testing.  Behind a barbed wire fence at a secret plant in downtown Cleveland, Ohio,  known as Area C, segregated young African Americans — who loaded a  chalky green salt into furnaces — gave regular urine samples to  government doctors.     GENE RA I, GROVES S PROBLEM     59     "You had to be tested all the time, said Allen Hurt, an employee of  the Harshaw Chemical Company, which ran the secret plant under  contract for the Manhattan Project. He was one of five former workers  who agreed to talk about his experiences.   The industrial complex on the Cuyahoga River was one of the  Manhattan Projects most important sites. Harshaw engineers had  invented a way to add extra fluoride molecules to uranium tetra  fluoride — the green salt the workers were handling —  manufacturing the vital hexafluoride process gas needed for  uranium enrichment. ( Hex means six and tetra means four.) By  June 1944 the plant was capable of producing a ton of hex each day  for shipment by truck to Oak Ridge for the K-25 gaseous diffusion  plant.   The government reassured the workers about the tests. In a 1948  visit to Cleveland, for example, a Manhattan Project senior doctor,  Bernard Wolf, gathered the workers together to tell them that all our  records indicate that no unusual hazard existed. The truth was very  different. Secretly, on August 5,1947, the AECs W. E. Kelly had  informed Harshaw s senior manager, K. E. Long, that the status of  health protection at Area C is unsatisfactory is several respects. He  cited in particular:   1 . Contamination of the Area C plant, Harshaw plant  area and an unknown amount of contamination of the  surrounding neighborhood with uranium and fluoride  compounds.   2. Exposure of operating personnel to uranium and   fluorine compounds by direct contact and inhala-tion. 64   Harshaw workers knew something was in the air. The moment you  stepped out of the time clock office, there would be an odor, a burning  sensation, recalled Henry Pointer. It would sting your face, you  would inhale it too. Union organizer John L. Smith was sick one day  after repairing a pipe. It was the fumes — next thing I felt breathing  difficulty and started vomiting and went to the first aid and started  shitting in front of them at the same time, he said. ( Although he never  knew what had poisoned him, Smiths symptoms were of acute  fluoride poisoning.)"     60     CHAPTER POUR     There were fluoride fatalities at Harshaw as well. Young black women  made up about half of the Area C workforce. Twenty-two-year-old Gloria  Porter started at the Cleveland works in 1943, filling hydrogen fluoride  tanks. On October 9, 1945, she saw a man eaten alive by the fluoride acid  when a storage tank at Area C exploded." I heard this rumble, remembers  Porter, who had just finished her shift. All of a sudden this cast iron  [storage tank] just burst open and the smoke, the fumes from the acid, you  just couldnt see nothing, and that stuff was rolling and the more it rolled  the further we would run."   A male worker helped Porter to scramble over the barbed wire fence that  surrounded Area C. As she stared back, a horrific image was seared in her  mind. She watched men struggling through a giant cloud of hydrofluoric  acid. I saw all of them coming out with hunks of flesh just falling off of  them, and the stomach, and their arms, and I said "My God, I cant look at  that. That man cant live. He looked just liked bone, but he fell right then.  Two men were killed in the accident, and a good friend was badly burned,  recalls Porter, who left Area C the following year." After the explosion, I  just wanted to get out, she added   African Americans may have been hired for fluoride work in order to  conceal the chemical s toxic effects. Most fair complexioned men could  not be employed in the production plant, reported a once classified  wartime study of Harshaw fluoride workers. 68 Acid fumes produced skin  that was dehydrated, roughened and irritated, the report noted. Some  workers had "hyperemia" or acute reddening of the face. When that report  was published, however, the black- and-white language of segregation had  grown less stark. The chemical sensitivity to the fluoride was now more  subtly described as "more severe in fair complexioned men." 69   Harshaw veterans confirmed that only African Americans were  employed inside the heavily guarded Area C plant. Outside, white male  supervisors oversaw the big cylinders being hoisted onto trucks for the  journey to Oak Ridge, remembered a former worker, James Southern.  Yeah, but they werent pulling, interjected worker Henry Pointer, the  labor people were all black.   One young white laborer, John Fedor, who joined the company in 1939  with a tenth-grade education, was never permitted to enter the     GENER AL GROVES S PROBLEM     61     Area C complex. He had no idea that the plant was performing secret  war work for the government. To work there you had to be cleared  and I was not cleared to go in, he explained. Nevertheless Fedor grew  worried about fluoride exposure at Harshaws big hydrogen fluoride  (HF) plant, which supplied Area C, and about the terrible conditions  those workers endured. (He became a union organizer after the war.)  His Safety Committee invited state inspectors inside the HF plant.  Inside, fluoride levels as high as 18 parts per million were measured,  six times the permitted safety standard. 70 "There were men walking  around with rags over their noses, there were no respirators, there  was no safety program," Fedor remembered. Burns and acid  splashes were common. "The good Lord knows what it did to the  inside of a person's body. How many people may have suffered  fatalities over the years I have no idea, he added?'   Allen Hurt carries visible reminders of his years at Harshaw  Chemical. He pulled a trouser leg up to reveal fifty-year-old scars he  blamed on fluoride. They didnt give you protection, he said. It  would eat the clothes and it would do the same thing to your skin.  Sickness has stalked former employees, survivors claim. By the time  the plant closed in 1952, an estimated 400 to 60o workers had been  employed at the Area C plant. Cancer and heart ailments have been  especially frequent among former workers, John L. Smith claims. The  people who worked there are dead. Those that ain't dead, there's five of  them in the nursing home." The remaining veterans smolder with  anger. Mostly, they wish they had been given the dignity of choosing  their wartime fate. "At least we should have been properly informed,"  said Smith. "What few is left is as pissed off as they can be." 72   Hazards to the local population could occur"   WHEN HE WAS shown several declassified documents describing  how fluoride and uranium were regularly vented from the Harshaw  smokestacks, union organizer John Fedor was suddenly concerned.  "I wonder about the immediate area," he remarked, "whether there  were illnesses caused by that, or whether it just dissipated when it  got in the air?"   Fedor is right to be concerned about the effects of fluoride on the  area around Harshaw. It was not, of course, just the atomic     62     CHAPTER FOUR     workers who were secretly at risk from fluoride. From the beginning of the  nation s nuclear program, officials worried about families living near bomb  factories. Hazards to the local population could occur if large amounts of  fluorine or if fluorides were to be discharged in effluents, wrote the  medical director Colonel Stafford Warren. 73   Again, the fears proved accurate. Fluoride was secretly vented, and it  spilled across communities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky,  Tennessee, and Ohio. 74 Those releases increased as the United States  expanded its cold war atomic arsenal and built two mammoth new gaseous  diffusion plants, at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio. 75   Environmentalists often cite Cleveland s Cuyahoga River — which burst  into flames in June 1969 — as the lurid spectacle that helped bring about  the Clean Water Act. The shocking sight of a waterway ablaze  precipitated a moment of national clarity, focusing attention on the  dumping of chemical wastes into the environment. Less well remembered,  however, is a $9 million lawsuit brought in 1971 by the local Sierra Club  against the Harshaw Chemical Company for fluoride pollution, which, the  organization charged, had eaten and corroded the main Harvard Dennison  Bridge over the same Cuyahoga river." That bridge had to be rebuilt.   The government had watched the situation in Cleveland nervously.  Following complaints in 1947, a team from the University of Rochester s  Atomic Energy Project was quietly dispatched to measure fluoride  pollution. The scientist Frank Smith secretly reported levels of 143 parts  per million of HF venting from the Harshaw smoke stacks. (By contrast, 3  parts per million is the stan dard considered safe today for workplace  exposure.) The results are on the low side, Smith wrote, since the  efficiency of the sampling procedure we used is not too good for  [elemental] fluorine and oxygen fluoride; if considerable quantities of  these two gases were present in the air, we probably missed a part of  them. 77 The AEC was worried about lawsuits. Dr. Smith pointed to several  lower fluoride readings in his data. Those measurements, he said, might  prove the most valuable ... [as they] in no case exceed the level declared  legally permissible in Massachusetts, California and  Connecticut.     GENERAL GROVES S PROBLEM G     63     Storm clouds continued to gather over Cleveland. A July 1949 AEC  report warned that although the complaints from civic organizations have  been concerned with general atmospheric pollution, and neither fluoride  nor uranium have been mentioned specifically, it is likely that as time  progresses, the extent of air pollution by fluorides will receive attention " 78  The AEC ran more secret tests after a consultant, Philip Sadtler, was hired  in 1949 by the local community to investigate Cleveland air pollution.  While uranium releases were within permissible levels, they concluded  that the fluoride data, however, satisfied none of the criteria.'"   Several of the former Area C workers confirmed that pollution was  rampant. Allen Hurt parked his car downwind from the plant whenever he  worked the night shift. Overnight, fallout would come, and my black car  was full of gray dust, and I washed if off and I could see little fine pits  where it had ate into the paint. If it does that in metal, what would it do to  us? he wondered. Hurt recalled that local residents complained: They had  a problem with the people up on the hill, because it was coming up there  and bothering their homes.   Environmental damage around atomic bomb plants was often  widespread. At Oak Ridge, officials planned, in 1945, to dump 500 pounds  of fluorides each day into the nearby Poplar Creek; a decade later, airborne  fluoride emissions had scarred a fifty-square-mile area of wounded and  dying trees, officials stated, and posed a clear threat to grazing animals.  And in 1955, some 615,000 pounds of fluorine was "lost in the vent gases"  from a single in-house plant making uranium hexafluoride at Oak Ridge. 80   Lawsuits alleging fluoride human injury and destruction of crops and  farm animals were sparked against DuPont's Chamber Works in New  Jersey and the Pennsylvania Salt Company's plants in the Pennsylvania  towns of Easton and Natrona.' At a second gaseous diffusion plant in  Portsmouth, Ohio, which began operations in 1954, fluoride exposure was  immediately declared a "significant liability" for both employees and the  general public," a document noted. 82 - At the AECs giant Feed Materials  Production Center in Fernald, Ohio, waste fluorides were the biggest  single problem, where some 15,000 pounds of fluorides were being  disposed of each month in the nearby Miami River, according to a pollution  expert,   Arthur Stern. 83     64     CHAPTER FOUR     And as late as the mid-1980s, thirty years after it began operation, the  gaseous diffusion plant at Portsmouth, Ohio, was still dumping 15.6 tons  of fluorides each year into the atmosphere."   Darkness hid fluoride releases at the K-25 plant in Tennessee,  according to former supervisor Sam Vest. "I could pull into the parking lot  at night and smell it. I could tell they were releasing fluo rine from the  fluorine plant. They waited until after dark to release it, because it was just  a horrendous cloud." Some workers found a strange beauty in the  nighttime releases at Oak Ridge, Vest added. "Operators described it as  being just beautiful, to just stand there and watch crystals on a clear cold  night go up [into the air]."     5     General Groves's Solution   Dr. Harold Hodge and   the University of Rochester 

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