The History of Fernald


March 1951: Atomic Energy Commission announces $30 million plan to build a uranium ore refinery at Fernald Station in Crosby Township. The location was selected in part because the site was considered safe from enemy attack. AEC says the plant will involve no hazardous operations.

March 1953: Production begins at Fernald.

1962: Cuban missile crisis brings U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Production at Fernald soars. Employment peaks above 3,000 workers, then declines to as low as 1,300 workers. Strikes are called in 1961, 1964, 1966, and 1969.

1970s: With decades-worth of bomb-building supplies in the pipeline, and political support growing for disarmament treaties, demand for processed uranium plummets. Employment at Fernald sinks to 650 while plant officials vie for contracts to produce armor-piercing shells from depleted uranium.

January 1980: Anti-nuclear group Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment claims radiation levels in Paddy's Run Creek, near Fernald, exceed federal safety standards. Federal and state EPA officials deny the report. Three days later, state EPA officials can neither confirm nor deny the report. By 1985, EPA officials confirm contamination in Paddy's Run Creek.

June-September 1980: Government documents reveal that thousands of pounds of radioactive dust has escaped Fernald due to equipment failures, routine leaks and carelessness. Tests reveal ground contamination as high as 100 times normal, but scientists say it's no threat to residents living near the plant.

1984: Department of Energy officials admit radioactive leaks at Fernald have contaminated off-site residential wells. The tests were made in 1981 and 1982, but officials delayed releasing the results. Early government estimates place the total amount of uranium dust released by Fernald at 200,000 pounds. Questions about health risk abound.

February 1985: Fernald residents file suit against Fernald operator NLO Inc. for failing to control leaks and allowing environmental contamination that harmed property values and caused fear of illness.

December 1985: In addition to concerns about uranium, thorium and plutonium at Fernald, DOE acknowledges that radon gas is leaking from K-65 silos. Although experts claimed the gas dissipates too quickly to cause significant harm, millions would be spent shoring up and sealing off the deteriorating silos.

September 1986: A congressional subcommittee reports that plant officials knew as early as 1960 that radioactive materials buried in uncapped waste pits were leaching into groundwater, but never acknowledged the problem. Months later, more evidence reveals that the U.S. Geological Survey warned the AEC about the risks of groundwater contamination in 1951.

1988: The Great Rivers Girls Scout Council decides to close Camp Ross Trails, 2 miles from the Fernald plant. Although estimates of emissions vary widely, local experts say they are confident that radioactive releases from Fernald were not enough to cause major health problems. Phil Donahue airs a show about Fernald from Hamilton High School.

1989: After a bitter political fight, the Fernald plant stops production and becomes a environmental clean-up project. Government settles Fernald neighbors' class-action lawsuit for $78 million. The agreement sets up a medical monitoring program and calls for further health studies.

1993: Early phase of Fernald Dose Reconstruction Study reveals that radioactive emissions at Fernald were more than double previous official estimates.

1994: Government settles Fernald workers' class-action suit for $15 million, plus lifelong medical monitoring - the first legal victory by any group of atomic workers.

July 1995: The most dangerous wastes at Fernald suddenly appear to have a useful purpose. An Enquirer investigation reveals that medical researchers want to preserve radium stored in the K-65 silos - believed to be the world's largest stockpile - for cancer treatment. Plans to encase the radium in glass-like chunks are questioned.

February 1996: A six-month Enquirer investigation reports that the company hired by the Department of Energy to clean up Fernald, the Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO), has cheated the government out of millions of dollars and jeopardized the safety of plant workers and neighbors. The series prompted members of Congress to call for an independent probe by the General Accounting Office. The GAO report is expected in December.

Published Aug. 23, 1996.