Atomic Cake: The Story of American Atomics

Recently a 40th anniversary event at Himmel Library recognized an ecological disruption uncovered in 1979 that subjected a downtown neighborhood and many residents of Tucson to four years of a steady diet of low-level radioactivity. Local activist Ted Warmbrand, who led protests then, organized the recent gathering.

The article below, published in 1979 in Rocky Mountain Magazine, describes how Arizona allowed and then dispersed the invisible cloud created over Tucson.

It was ominous. The National Guard in protective gloves, coats and boots moved into Tucson at the order of Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt to occupy the plant of the American Atomics Corporation. Over the following three days, the Guard, working under the supervision of the State Atomic Energy Commission, packed a half million dollars’ worth of radioactive gas into army trucks for removal. Then, while the president of American Atomics stood in the street watching, a heavily armed caravan bearing the tritium left Tucson for an 11-hour trip to a temporary storage area in unpopulated Northern Arizona. For Tucson, the caravan ended a string of discoveries: children had been eating radioactive cake, old people were being fed radioactive Jello, families were living in radiation-contaminated homes; all of this and more had been going on for years. And all in the interest of making digital watches glow in the dark.

Back in the early 1960s, American Atomics slipped unnoticed into a working-class area in Tucson. The company’s plant blended in among the warehouses and light industry of the neighborhood. There never was a sign out front. Across the street was a kitchen that prepared meals for senior citizens. Down the block was the kitchen for the 40,000 elementary school children of the Tucson Unified School District, the largest school district in the state. The rest of the neighborhood, near downtown Tucson, was residential.

American Atomics’ basic concept was brilliantly simple. Take a bit of radioactive gas, wrap it in phosphor-coated glass and it could light just about anything–highway signs, for example–from the inside out. Nuclear magic: a bright, steady glow with no wires, no electricity, no outside energy source needed. The problem was finding a way to make a profit from the concept. Krypton-lighted road markers and self-illuminating exit signs proved economically unsuitable. Then, when the digital watch market exploded a few years back, American Atomics found its niche: manufacturing the little chips, called “back lights,” that keep the digits glowing  continuously.

The glow comes from a nuclear gas called tritium, a waste product of nuclear power generation, which produces what is considered low level or “soft” radiation. In scientific terms, tritium is a hydrogen molecule that has two neutrons. It is these neutrons that make it unstable, or radioactive. A tritium-lit watch will glow non-stop for ten years.

Tritium watches were a big improvement over the old digitals. Those had a bulb, a battery and a button that had to be pushed when it was too dark to read the digits. American Atomics had been experimenting with tritium for several years under its license with the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission, the state’s nuclear regulatory agency. Possessed with both tritium and technical expertise, the company was in the right position to capture 60 percent of the digital lighting market. In three years, from 1975 to 1978, American Atomics went from six daytime employees to 200 workers on round-the-clock shifts. The future looked as bright as the product, but then the dark side of the American Atomics story began to emerge.

 

Early this year, the Arizona AEC began listening to employee complaints about radiation hazards at American Atomics. Follow-up investigations revealed that up to 85 times the maximum permissible amount of tritium had escaped the plant. The next discovery drew nationwide attention: the school kitchen down the block from American Atomics was checked out and a cake, intended for a school lunch, was found to contain alarming amounts of tritium.

The community was stunned. School children all over town had apparently been eating food contaminated with radiation for some time. National media jumped all over the story, but the public didn’t need to hear more to decide what to do about American Atomics; they wanted to shut it down. But instead of the plant halting production, the kitchen closed and the kids started brown-bagging it to school, while various branches of state and local government wondered who had the power to do what about American Atomics.

Tritium was showing up all over the neighborhood. It was in the senior citizens’ jello. It was in the Catholic school’s swimming pool. Special clinics were set up to test samples of food, water and urine.

American Atomics didn’t deny releasing the radiation. Business had been so brisk that the company did not have time to upgrade equipment to handle the large quantities of tritium it used daily. Anyway, it had proved cheaper to blow the waste gas out of the roof stacks, and since tritium is radioactive hydrogen, it was hooking up with hydrogen and oxygen and forming water. As water vapor, tritium could go anywhere moisture could go. But the company kept insisting the emission levels from the plant were harmless. American Atomics’ public relations man said, “This is not a story of corporate greed.”

Company officials offered to go on television and eat tritium cake. They were willing to take a televised swim in the contaminated pool. Media and local officials were invited to tour the plant. Yet nothing in the stepped-up public relations campaign stopped the townspeople’s unofficial quarantine of the neighborhood. Customers avoided nearby businesses, the school kitchen closed, the senior citizens’ kitchen was shut down and the Catholic school’s swimming pool was declared off-limits. The plant was ordered to cut back on tritium production, but what the community could not understand was why American Atomics was still in business at all.

Nuclear Free State, a group of anti-nuclear activists formed to fight the proposed Palo Verde nuclear power plant outside Phoenix, began to include American Atomics on a list of targets for action. When the group staged a demonstration near the plant, nearby residents put a sign on their lawn saying, “We would like . . . to offer you water . . . But it seems our neighbors have contaminated our water.” Most of the demonstrators were from the immediate neighborhood, working class families that suddenly found themselves in league with the no nuke crowd. Some took the bullhorn to describe how powerless they felt when they learned that for at least four years they’d been subjected to low-level radiation by American Atomics. Test results had confirmed that people living around the plant had tritium in their bloodstreams and urine. The residents feared property values would drop. A man worried about his grandchildren who had visited often during the last four years. Paranoia, like tritium, was in the air. Some whispered that a man in sunglasses standing in the trees was an American Atomics “spy.” One young demonstrator best captured the mood of the day when he raised his fist in the air and shouted to the crowd, “Do you want to die for luminous watches?”

 

“It’s a very friendly light to look down and see when it’s dark and you’re on the freeway between Phoenix and Tucson,” said Susan Sealey, personnel director for American Atomics. She was staring at a tritium watch and worrying about what was going to happen to the 200 employees if the plant were forced to close. Unemployment is one thing, and the workers’ health is another. Some American Atomics employees had been subjected to significantly larger doses of tritium than the people living around the plant. When weekly urine test results showed that a worker had a tritium count above federal guidelines, the worker would be moved to an area of less contamination. This is relatively common within the nuclear industry. What is not so common is to find workers who consistently receive radiation doses 80 to 90 percent higher than the average for those handling radioactive isotopes like tritium. And such was the case with the workers at American Atomics.

“If tritium were such a terrible thing,” said one American Atomics worker, “I don’t think all these bright people I respect would work with it.” But after the city council toured the plant, one council member, surprised by worker loyalty, said he believed employees had been brainwashed.

In June, public hearings were scheduled by the state AEC to consider revoking American Atomics license. The day before the hearings began the commission suspended the license and shut down tritium operations at the plant. The 16 charges the regulatory agency brought up for consideration at the hearings described American Atomics as a company that treated tritium as if it were no more radioactive than sawdust.

In a single incident at American Atomics, the amount of radiation released was ten times the amount a normally operating nuclear power plant emits in one day. And because of a faulty monitoring system, the amount of radiation released over a five-year period can only be estimated. One point agreed on by experts on both sides of the controversy is that American Atomics’ “normal” tritium releases since 1975 were massive. And, besides blowing tritium out of its stacks, American Atomics rinsed it down drains into the city sewer system.

The kinds of radiation released by American Atomics and nuclear power plants differ slightly. Because scientists do not experiment with any kind of low-level radiation on human subjects, no one can say for sure what the effects will be in either case. It is not unreasonable to speculate, however, that the long-term effects in Tucson could turn out to be very serious. This is because of tritium’s unique ability, among radioactive substances, to travel as water vapor to DNA, the genetic template, in human cells. Tucsonites seem to have become the subject of a singular experiment on the effects of low-level radiation on humans.

 

American Atomics is a subsidiary of the California-based Dole Corporation, of pineapple fame. To understand how American Atomics was able to operate as it did for as long as it did in Tucson, one need only look at Arizona’s tradition of cozy relationships between businesses and their controlling agencies. American Atomics, for instance, appears to have regulated itself. For the 12 years that Harry H. Dooley, Jr. held an appointed seat on the state’s Atomic Energy Commission, he was first vice-president, and then vice-chairman of the board of American Atomics.

With the shutdown of American Atomics, the public hearings to examine the company’s right to continue business in Arizona began. Employees showed up in support of the company, some wearing t-shirts proclaiming, “I’m not brainwashed–I’ve got the facts,” while others passed around “Save American Atomics” bumper stickers. At the same time, several employees waited to testify that their former bosses falsified documents, illegally shipped radioactive materials, skimped on protective clothing for employees and provided workers with little radiation safety training.

When it came time for American Atomics to defend itself, the company made a move that begged the entire question: it handed its license over to the state. There have been no fines; the questions about falsified documents, safety procedures and illegal shipping have not been answered. The license resignation let American Atomics and the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission off separate prongs of the same hook, at least for a while.

American Atomics was gambling that another state, Nevada, would allow it to set up shop. At a meeting with North Las Vegas officials, American Atomics’ relocation pitch deleted any reference to the public-safety questions its operations had raised in Tucson. When this was discovered, one North Las Vegas city council member said that while her city was hungry for a new industry, “We’re not hungry enough to eat radioactive cake.” However, at this writing, American Atomics is still hoping to relocate there.

 

The radiation is still settling over Tucson. The school district has had to dump more than $300,000 worth of contaminated food. Although the food was not radioactive, each time the district selected a disposal site, nearby residents protested. Three months later, an old bomb site was chosen as the food’s burial ground. While area residents began legal maneuvers to halt the dumping, trucks filled with contaminated food made a surprise trip to the site and the school-district workers buried the problem by the light of the moon.

This last September, as the new school year began, tritium continued to show up in the school kitchen. Kids still brought their lunches from home. The senior citizens move their kitchen three blocks from the plant. The Catholic school renamed its swim team the Saint Ambrose Reactors. A half-dozen lawsuits were piling up against American Atomics.

The company had been told to get out by mid-October, but it was becoming clear to everyone, especially Governor Babbitt, that American Atomics would not only miss the deadline, but that security at the plant was lax as well. Under a declaration of emergency, Governor Babbitt called in the National Guard.

It is difficult to say if the city of Tucson or the state of Arizona will change as a result of their experience with American Atomics. The state AEC, which was at first so shockingly casual about the problem, is supposed to get a facelift–it is conceivable that it will be dissolved, leaving nuclear-industry regulation in Arizona to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The city of Tucson, meanwhile, is considering becoming a “nuclear-free city.” A proposed zoning ordinance would outlaw firms that use radioactive materials, but opposition to the ordinance from the business community is strong. The chamber of commerce believes the proposed regulation would become too restrictive in what it considers to be an approaching nuclear age.

As for Nevada, and the possibility that American Atomics will relocate there, a joke is going around about having your cake, and being forced to eat it.

Dr. Michael Gray, who practices in Benson, spoke at the 40th anniversary gathering about his work as principal investigator, tritium studies, for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health from 1979-1981. His original ten-year grant to study the effects of low density radiation on humans, halted after two years without explanation, was accompanied by the disappearance of his data. A lawsuit by residents in the neighborhood closest to the plant ended with a settlement that included non-disclosure.

Images of title page of “Atomic Cake” by Norah Booth from a 1979 issue of Rocky Mountain Magazine and photo by H. Darr Beiser from that article.

Photo copyright 1979 H. Darr Beiser All Rights Reserved.

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