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Nuclear Weapons Facilities Dangerous to Public, Health Officials Say

November 15, 1988

BOSTON (AP) _ Public health officials should take advantage of upheavals in the nuclear weapons industry to demand a full accounting of the plants’ activities, members of the American Public Health Association said Monday.

″What’s happening today is very, very important and is a real opportunity for change,″ said Anthony Robbins, professor of public health at Boston University and treasurer for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

″We must not miss the opportunity to end this ever expanding but largely hidden public health disaster,″ he said at a news conference called by the Radioactive Waste Campaign, one of several events in the APHA’s four-day meeting in Boston.

Concern has grown as the Energy Department has disclosed problems at some of its nuclear production plants and has wholly or partly closing down four of its 17 major facilities. Officials have estimated cleanup will cost $110 billion.

The three reactors at the Savannah River plant, a nuclear weapons facility near Aiken, S.C., have been shut down because of safety problems. DOE officials have said tritium gas has accidentally leaked from the reactors on several occasions, but they added the amounts of the gas did not pose a danger to public health.

The Savannah reactors make tritium and plutonium needed in nuclear weapons. They will have to be reopened within six months to ensure a continued supply, said Chris West, a DOE spokesman.

″We do not want to operate unsafe reactors or any unsafe facilities, but on the other hand we’ve got the crunch,″ West said.

He said Energy Department experts are evaluating the Savannah plant and hope to have it restarted by December, although that date is tentative.

″The bottom line is that this country’s national defense is based on the nuclear deterrent, and basically it has been since the Truman administration,″ West said.

Last year, the APHA endorsed a resolution calling for a ban on nuclear testing.

″These facilities must be phased out,″ said Jennie Tichenor, a nurse and assistant director of the New York City-based Radioactive Waste Campaign. She said the federal government should ″close them down, undo as much as possible and never repeat it.″

The panel called for appropriating money to retrain workers who would lose their jobs if the plants were closed down; exhuming on-site waste; making the Energy Department subject to public scrutiny; and conducting epidemiological studies of workers.

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