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Alexander Lumans: Centaurs Eat at Cracker Barrel

March 17, 2014

This January, a radioactive tritium plume was found in Barnwell County groundwater. Did you hear about it?

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Image from Flickr via InnoventionAustralia

By Alexander Lumans

Citizenship

I grew up next to the bomb plant. That’s what everyone still calls it.

The bomb plant is the Savannah River Site, only eighteen miles from my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. For better and for worse, it is as much a part of my town’s character as the Triple Crown horse races, the Christmas lights and donut-stealing swans at Hopelands Gardens, and the postcard corner where Easy Street meets Whiskey Road.

In Pat Conroy’s 1973 essay about Aiken called “Horses Don’t Eat Moon Pies,” he writes about how transformative it was when the trinity of “horses, wealth, and aristocracy entered the bloodstream of Aiken.” Since then, it is an understatement to say that Aiken feels proud of itself. As part of its 1999 “Character First Initiative,” banners co-designed by a friend’s mother and my eighth-grade English teacher now hang from streetlights all over town, extolling our citizens’ virtues: Compassion, Forgiveness, Respect. But the bonds of Conroy’s trinity and our virtuous self-image were tested mid-century when, as he puts it, “some eggheaded son of a bitch who probably didn’t know a pastern from a coronet, split the atom.”

Like anything exposed to radiation, Aiken has changed in perceptible ways and in ways deep beneath its skin.

In 1950, the Dupont Company built the Savannah River Site (SRS) to produce the fuel needed in thermonuclear weapons. Yankee engineers, or “Duponters,” then invaded Aiken’s pristine winter colony and received the warm welcome befitting “a gonorrhea epidemic.” By 1956, five reactors were capable of extracting plutonium and uranium products from irradiated materials. In only six years, eminent domain transformed Aiken County farmland and several small towns into three hundred heavily guarded square miles dedicated to producing the country’s main source of weapons-grade plutonium-239. Like anything exposed to radiation, Aiken has changed in perceptible ways and in ways deep beneath its skin.

Patience

In his essay, Conroy asks, “What in the South is worth preserving? What deserves protection? What qualities of southern life are holy parts of the region whose absence would change the very nature of the region? What does it mean to be a southerner in June of 1973? What will it mean to southern children in twenty years?”

In 1993, a year after the last SRS reactor shut down because the Cold War was over, I was nine years old, the age when you first begin to form opinions based on evidence. I learned to see Aiken as several things: a national top-five retirement community with nursing homes outnumbered only by churches and stables; a bastion for aggressive, overexcited Southern Baptist youth groups; and a place so deeply imbued with equine culture it surpassed obsession into the realm of mythological devotion, as if every night after they turned the lights out Aikenites would step out of their human suits and stretch their centaur legs. None of these aspects were appealing, let alone made sense; I was allergic to horses and I faked allergies to the elderly and the overly religious. In my eyes, Aiken never amounted to anything more than a boring, backward place.

At nine, I knew two things about SRS: 1) mutant half-deer-half-alligators warped together by radiation wandered the site’s property, and 2) everyone’s dad worked there.

Meanwhile, in that same twenty-year span, SRS had gone from being a production facility to a toxic dump, housing spent nuclear fuel rods and radioactive liquid waste. The site tripled Aiken’s population to well over 20,000, and the town stretched itself in the direction of the plant. That’s the side of town where the Wal-Mart was built, the Aiken Mall, the Target; last I checked, the newest thing is—what else?—a Cracker Barrel, that bizarro interstate-exit version of the South in which every meal’s main ingredient is salt, the walls are covered in quaintly sharp tools painted rust, and you have to wade through an avalanche of rock candy just to get there.

At nine, I knew two things about SRS: 1) mutant half-deer-half-alligators warped together by radiation wandered the site’s property, and 2) everyone’s dad worked there. And I mean everyone’s dad—except mine, who taught history at USC Aiken. And while no one’s dad was legally allowed to discuss what happened at the bomb plant, things still leaked out.

Loyalty

There was a reason that all the upper-level SRS personnel lived in my hometown: it was upwind and upriver from the plant. As a result, there was a long spell where more PhDs per capita lived in Aiken than anywhere else in the country. If there were ever an incident that required town-wide evacuation, my parents had a plan to meet at the courthouse in Edgefield (also upriver). While my schools never practiced “nuclear drills,” in retrospect I wonder why, considering such a thing seemed far more likely to happen than what we routinely prepared for: earthquakes, tornadoes, fires. One half-joking rumor was that every SRS employee had to bring home a bucket of irradiated water each day and flush it down the toilet. Long before it stopped extracting radioactive elements, the site had disposal and containment problems. It had to ship transuranic waste across the country to facilities like Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

His internship involved experimenting with safe disposal techniques such as vitrification, in which the waste is turned into glass and then stored on-site in “the canyons.” He was never allowed to see the canyons.

A friend of mine who interned at the site said the clip that affixed his badge to his shirt also measured his accumulated exposure to radiation. They checked his clip once a month to see how much he’d been “dosed.” His internship involved creating simulated radioactive waste, called “sludge batches,” in order to experiment with safe disposal techniques such as vitrification, in which the waste is turned into glass and then stored on-site in what are called “the canyons.” He was never allowed to see the canyons.

According to one SRS employee of thirty years, who was also a good friend of my family’s, the plant was supposed to supply all of its workers with bottled water to drink. He told us this and scoffed at the idea, as if he’d never once been handed a bottle on the job and instead drank straight from the tap. Last year, he died of lung cancer, only after having survived four previous unrelated cancers, which his doctors found very unusual but his family did not. In the wake of this, his wife received an undisclosed settlement from the government.

Because of their exposure to radiation through groundwater, food chains, and air, there’s a term for them: downwinders.

This is not an isolated case. But it’s also not a well-publicized phenomenon.

Now, in 2014, I’m waiting to hear about dads of people I went to school with, dads of people I played t-ball against, dads of my good friends—I’m waiting to hear updates on terminal conditions that will sound as inescapable as Mutually Assured Destruction did at the height of the Cold War. I don’t even want to think about the towns southeast of the bomb plant. Towns like Allendale and Barnwell. These towns have death rates up to twenty percent higher than normal—principally from cancer and heart disease, traceable to ionizing radiation, a known hazard from working at nuclear facilities and environmental contamination. Because of their exposure to radiation through groundwater, food chains, and air, there’s a term for them: downwinders.

Self-Control

I’ll admit, I didn’t think much about SRS until I moved to Denver when I was twenty-five. Once there, in the plutonium shadow of Rocky Flats, another nuclear weapons plant, I read a novel called The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. Its fictitious Earth is covered almost entirely in fallout from a war fought with Go-Away Bombs. The fallout goes by the creative name Stuff, and it physically manifests people’s thoughts. The novel’s narrator explains:

“For the most part, a human mind is not a concentrated thing. A mind at rest is a mind considering a hundred things with only the faintest intensity, and Stuff touching it ends up making biscuits, agendas, fleeting images of past times, random smells. No problem. They go into the great muddle of the Unreal, and mostly they just fade away. A mind under stress, afraid of dying, is a different thing. That kind of mind is very concentrated, and it makes far more vivid impressions. It can make monsters. Birds like flying piranhas, shadowmen with smooth faces like eggshells which somehow see you anyway and turn towards you like snakes. Or perhaps these are the product of more than one person; perhaps these things are made when nightmares blend together in the moment of creation.”

Stuff scared me. And it concentrated my thoughts around the bomb plant I once lived so close to.

Harkaway’s Stuff is exaggerated fiction. But it’s the same omnipresent threat we face in a world that continues to develop nuclear energy and weapons. We don’t even have to wage war to be adversely affected. Within twenty-four hours of say, drinking contaminated groundwater, radiation can change the body, though the changes can remain invisible for decades. While it doesn’t cause us to grow claws or wings, what is cancer if not simply a radical changing of cell structures? What is nuclear disaster if not something caused by many people when their shared aspirations go awry?

Attentiveness

Another friend of my family’s, a chemical engineer who also happened to be a self-proclaimed hippie, pacifist, and practicing Buddhist, was hired by the plant in 1980. Soon after he started working there, he was grocery shopping in Aiken’s Kroger one day; when the cashier saw his banking checks unique to SRS employees, she said, “You must work at the bomb plant.”

“Bomb plant?” he asked.

“Yeah, the bomb plant. Where y’all make the bombs.”

In his non-weapon-specific job, he’d had no clue he worked for a plutonium manufacturer.

Behold Aiken’s bizarre cognitive dissonance, a term that might as well be on one of its own Character banners whose color bears more than a marked resemblance to that iconic nuclear blue. We’re willing to acknowledge nuclear power’s existence and purpose, but we don’t talk about its dangers, even when they’re in our own backyards.

This January, a tritium plume was found traveling through groundwater in Barnwell County, including into Mary’s Branch Creek southwest of SRS. Did you hear about it? Granted, it happened in the same week as the chemical spill in West Virginia that affected thousands, and yes, tritium is one of the least radioactive isotopes because its emitted beta particles cannot penetrate skin, and when they do, their half-life in the body is only ten days. Yet the moment you equate “least radioactive” with “not dangerous,” you redraw some boundaries in the world, make it possible to carve out a special, three-hundred-square-mile patch of former farmland near your town for the “not dangerous” thing. The tritium plume will eventually reach the Savannah River, which provides drinking water to downwinders. Combined with water, tritium does enter the human body. Even though we also receive tritium doses from certain medical procedures and general background radiation, given greater than average doses over a long period of time, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission still says that tritium buildup potentially increases the risks for developing cancer and genetic abnormalities in later generations.

Larger questions loom: What else will leak? When will it seep into deeper aquifers? What’s being done to stop this leak that, according to some sources, has lasted for thirty years? A cursory online search finds several articles in alarmist-sounding publications (Signs of the Times, RedFlag News, The Resistance United), all discussing the leak’s dangers and implications. Yet, The Aiken Standard’s article, entitled “Officials: Residents are not endangered by radioactive plume,” claims the leak has been “blown out of proportion.” Tritium has been detected in groundwater monitoring wells since 1978 (with no clear way to stop the leak), the writer admits, but it’s fine because the creek is off limits to fishing, swimming, and drinking.

Responsibility

Like a racehorse with its blinders up, Aiken’s attitude toward the plant focuses only on its forward progress. You could say it’s because the area’s longstanding conservative politics support the military in any form, including a bomb plant next door. Or you could say the Southern culture in which certain topics simply aren’t discussed in public means it wouldn’t be proper to openly acknowledge the site’s glaring threats. Or you could say it’s a religious ignorance in favor of nuclear bliss where splitting the atom would solve everything, and if it didn’t, God would. Conroy writes, “Aiken thunders with discordant echoes of itself” and in the same paragraph, “Aiken is holy ground.”

But the reason is simpler than that.

When the Savannah River Site came to Aiken, it shifted the town’s iconic industry from horse breeding to military chemical engineering. That brought jobs. Not just PhD jobs, but all kinds of well-paying blue-collar jobs. Mechanics, forklift drivers, crane operators. Somebody had to move those sludge batches from the reactors to the canyons. They were dads, too. The plant has continually employed at least 10,000 people; its initial construction offered nearly 40,000 positions. With that economic shift, the town’s main demographic morphed from the homogenous winter colony of old money Hitchcocks and Bostwicks to an ethnically diverse working class that would become the region’s driving social force. As long as the plant stayed in business, those jobs had security. Though the plant’s activities have since shifted from production to storage, it’s still Aiken’s bread and butter. Without it, the racehorse that is Aiken’s economic existence would break its leg; if you’ve ever seen this happen in a race, you know what happens next when they bring out the black tarp. This is why public support of the plant is so overwhelmingly positive. On the site’s long list of minor incidents, its contamination of local water sources is not exactly secret. But disparaging SRS would mean slinging mud on what’s enabled so many families and businesses to thrive here; it would be akin to the claim that playing polo is an act of animal cruelty. Thanks to the plant, you no longer have to own a ninety-room cottage and a shingled stable to be part of the community.

This cheery outlook has no doubt spread to certain local news outlets. But it doesn’t explain the national level of misinformation regarding nuclear technology and radioactive waste. There have been at least fifty-six accidents at nuclear reactors in our country alone, a number that does not take into account waste disposal sites like SRS, facilities hosting other dangerous stages of nuclear weapon development like Rocky Flats, or incidents costing less than $50,000 in damages with no immediate fatalities. Lately, I keep seeing new reports about environmental impacts from Fukushima and the reports keep getting worse, many of them ending with the claim that the same thing is bound to happen here.

Truthfulness

Unless the incident is impossible to hide, like the West Virginia chemical spill or Three Mile Island, it can take years before corporations go public with the facts about these kinds of accidents. This is partly due to “regulatory capture”: the agency established to regulate an industry becomes controlled by that industry. The FDA, the EPA, and the Federal Reserve Bank are all prime examples. Same goes for the nuclear industry. In his 2011 post-Fukushima New York Times article “It Could Happen Here,” Frank N. von Hippel, Co-Chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, notes that our nuclear regulations have grown increasingly lax. According to him, this regulatory capture can be countered “only by vigorous public scrutiny and Congressional oversight.”

Just as “horses, wealth, and aristocracy” entered Aiken’s bloodstream, so did atomic power and its glowing byproducts.

When the industry controls the agency, it can also dictate release of information, which could easily account for why news coverage of such incidents comes so piecemeal. When information does come out prematurely, it’s typically in alternative publications readers view as less credible, even if their reporting is accurate. We trust CNN over RedFlag News because the former’s a more identifiably trustworthy source, but CNN may never even cover something like the tritium plume in SC (as of this writing, it has not).

Courage

Conroy asks his 1973 readers what in the South is worth preserving and what deserves protection. Different questions with very different answers.

No one wants to talk about the dangers of SRS. That breeds stress, then fear, then the fear of dying. That kind of concentration turns you into a monster.

Aiken wants to preserve its quaint, virtuous image as well as its continued prosperity: the Cracker Barrel façade of a small yet thriving town that looks backward fondly while moving forward indomitably. That comes at a price. Just as “horses, wealth, and aristocracy” entered Aiken’s bloodstream, so did atomic power and its glowing byproducts.

When the former invades your city limits, maybe you start playing the Triple Crown ponies and hanging around the Green Boundary; when the latter does, it’s still refined, but not nearly as harmless. No one wants to talk about the dangers of SRS. That breeds stress, then fear, then the fear of dying. And if Harkaway’s novel shows us the end result of this, that kind of concentration turns you into a monster. Aikenites are afraid of becoming monsters.

What deserves protection is this list of virtues espoused on Aiken’s streets. Compassion, Forgiveness, Respect. They speak of people willing not only to acknowledge mistakes and culpability but also promote scrutiny and empathy. Giving up those virtues—hallmarks of self-aware humanity—will make you not just a monster, but a monster hidden in plain sight.

Cataloging the different reactions to Stuff’s fallout, The Gone-Away World’s narrator describes one character in this way: “the little girl who wished she were a horse, and was immersed while sleeping in a storm of Stuff, and wakened to find herself transformed, hopelessly muddled with horsey parts and unable to breathe.” The same could one day be said of all Aikenites, thanks to Conroy’s “discordant echoes” of affluence combined with industry, turning us half-human and half-horse. It sounds like my hometown’s strangely ideal vision of the future:

Centaurs racing in the Steeplechase while still being able to hold their mint juleps.

Centaurs foxhunting in Hitchcock Woods, rifles aimed, charging down the Sand River.

Centaurs sitting down to dinner at the new Cracker Barrel after a long day out at the plant, enjoying their cheese grits, country ham, and—if the front store’s not sold out of them—a couple Moon Pies on the way out.

Alexander Lumans is currently the 2014 Spring Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Sycamore Review, and Colorado Public Radio, among other publications. He co-edited the anthology Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days (Upper Rubber Boot Books).

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