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Oklahoma Town Ponders Impact of Nuclear Fuel Plant's Fatal Accident

January 08, 1986|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

GORE, Okla. — Before the lethal white cloud killed James Harrison, this tiny town was the kind of place where a drunk driving arrest got the boys talking over at the Jolly Roger Cafe.

The people of Gore are farming people, in soybeans and wheat mostly, and it shows in their cracked and calloused hands, the roughness of their lined and weathered faces. But the talk at the cafe Tuesday morning, as the sun was inching its way up on the horizon, was not about crops or freezing weather, but about Harrison and the deadly cloud and the press people coming in from all over and what the town was going to have to do about all this.

Like other townspeople, those in the cafe wanted to know what would happen now that a man had died.

Saturday, on the morning shift, a chemical tank at the nearby Sequoyah Fuels Corp. ruptured, allowing 14 1/2 tons of radioactive gas to escape into the atmosphere. Harrison, 25, was on a platform above the tank, overloaded by 2,000 pounds, when it split apart while workers heated it in an effort to remove the excess. Four hours after he breathed the poisonous gas, Harrison died of lung complications.

More than 100 other people, who either worked at the plant or were downwind of it when the tank burst, were treated after breathing the highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid. It is an acid that formed when the nuclear waste came in contact with the Earth's atmosphere and is so powerful that it can etch glass. On Tuesday, the burning pain was still bothering 89-year-old Charles Roark.

"I sucked my lungs full of that stuff and it's been bothering me ever since," he said.

The Sequoyah Fuels Corp. plant here is notable for two reasons. It is one of only two uranium processing plants in the country refining raw, low-radiation uranium that is later used to produce nuclear fuel rods. And it is a subsidiary of the Kerr-McGee Corp., which is perhaps best known for its connection with the Karen Silkwood case.

Silkwood, who was a laboratory analyst for the company's nuclear fuel plant in Crescent, Okla., became contaminated with plutonium in 1974 and died soon afterward in a car crash, while on her way to deliver documents to a New York Times reporter, documents she contended would prove the plant was contaminated. Her story became the object of national attention, a focal point for anti-nuclear activists, and the basis of the 1983 movie "Silkwood."

Activists Meet

On Tuesday, Gore's 500-or-so residents were wrestling with the idea of having a local industry that could kill, while in nearby Sallisaw, the county seat, local anti-nuclear activists and those from neighboring Arkansas held a meeting to discuss why the plant should be shut down.

In Gore, Police Chief Jerry Fields sat at the Jolly Roger and talked about how, in the past, the gases spewed from the plant were so corrosive that employees sometimes had to have their cars repainted and windows replaced at company expense.

His deputy, J.W. Partain, was saying that a better alarm system is needed, that the one at the plant can't be heard in town. And, he said, there was also the question of the Carlisle elementary school, located very near the plant, but fortunately not in session when the tank ruptured.

"We need alarm systems," said Partain. "We need an emergency procedure. We couldn't find anyone out there to tell us what action we should take. What contingency did they have for those school kids? Who was going to notify them?

"It wouldn't cost that much to put in an alarm system, something we can hear," he said.

Arthur Matthews, a farmer who is also the county's radiological defense officer, said that when the plant started up in 1970, it was welcomed by the community because it provided almost 150 jobs. Then, as now, jobs were scarce.

"They wanted it." he said. "I went to some of the meetings (before the plant was built) and asked questions I didn't get answers to. Now they're all asking those questions."

Across the street from the Jolly Roger, Mayor Bill Summers said that Gore's only other outside income comes from tourist business--the summer fishermen who try their luck at Tenkiller Ferry Lake and on the Illinois River. He denied that the incident at Sequoyah was enough to close the plant down. In fact, he said, he was for a proposed expansion of the plant that would mean 10 more jobs.

"The people at the plant attend our schools, attend our churches, are members of the Lions' Club, are on our school board," he said. "These people have been a part of the community and still are. They're just everyday people like us.

"I think they'll get their problems worked out," he said.

Controversy Continues

But Tuesday the events and controversy continued. At a morning press conference, Rick Pereles, director of corporate communications for Kerr-McGee, said that employees at the plant had acted improperly when they chose to heat the tank in an attempt to convert some of its toxic contents to gas so that the excess that had been discharged into it could be removed.

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