Children's disabilities blamed on Tennessee nuclear site

P. Casey Daley / The Nashville Tennessean
Photo: Susie and Scott Woods, above, wonder if the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation caused their son Alex, 3, to have the body and mind of a youth half his age.
By Susan Thomas, Laura Frank and Anne Paine /The Nashville Tennessean

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- The number of children's mental, physical and learning disabilities are mushrooming downstream from the federal government's giant Oak Ridge nuclear reservation.

While nobody has found a direct connection between the escalating number of disabilities and the huge Oak Ridge complex, nobody has seriously looked for one either.

But people who live nearby and see the disabilities have their suspicions about poisons leaked into the environment from Oak Ridge, where nuclear weapons parts were manufactured for the last quarter century.

In nearby Roane County, the school population has changed little since 1990, but an analysis of state records shows:

"There just seems to be a tremendous increase in minimal brain dysfunction," says Robert J. McCracken, Roane County's director of special education until 1995.

He does not know why. The numbers alone do not suggest a cause. And experts say the numbers should be viewed with caution. But in the streets and stores of Roane County communities, there is a sense something is wrong with too many kids.

"As a parent, I am very concerned that the contamination coming from the government plants could be causing the disabilities and other problems the children are having," says Marcella Russell, 33, who volunteers as a teacher's aide at Oliver Springs Elementary School, which her two children attend. "I mean, you constantly hear about more and more children who live around here who are having unexplained problems, so you can't help but wonder if the plants may be hurting them."

The U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge reservation is a toxic tapestry of some of the worst, longest-lasting poisons known.

In 1991, an incinerator on the reservation began burning radioactive, toxic waste laced with cancer-causing PCBs, once widely used for electrical insulation. A group of sick reservation workers complained the emissions may be causing or contributing to their illnesses.

The Energy Department says the incinerator is safe. At the same time, some people here wonder if the growing number of kids' disabilities could reflect a more complex problem.

In addition, Roane County is downstream from two private companies that began burning nuclear waste about the same time as the Oak Ridge incinerator.

For decades, several companies in Roane and neighboring Anderson County have released toxic metals and chemicals. The Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-burning power plants in each county, like other coal-fired plants, also have emitted arsenic, mercury and radioactive particles for years.

Like the Energy Department, these facilities' operators say they emit nothing at harmful levels. But some wonder if the poisons from the reservation and these other sources are combining and accumulating in ways now proving harmful.

"What if we're dealing with multiple toxic substances here?" asks McCracken, recently named Anderson County High School principal. He recalls sitting in his old office at the Roane County schools administration building in Kingston, overlooking the Clinch River downstream from these sources: "I used to sit at my window and look at the stacks from the TVA plant, and wonder where all these things are going? Who knows what happens when you sprinkle in a little mercury and a little radiation? Nobody knows."

Bruce Hall Greenpeace Nuclear Disarmament Campaign <> Compliments of Proposition One Committee