NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

December 27, 2012

Recognizing a wartime sacrifice

To call conditions at the old Metal Hydrides plant dangerous is a vast understatement.

During the 1940s, employees at the Beverly plant were exposed to massive amounts of radioactive material while working on part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s top-secret plan to develop the world’s first atomic weapon. (The work was so secret its ultimate intent was kept from the workers themselves.)

The plant’s 100 or so workers converted uranium oxide into uranium metal powder, which was used in the first reactor that helped produce the atomic bomb. Metal Hyrdides also melted and recast uranium metal, processes that likely exposed workers to contamination from radium, radon and uranium, according to an August report by federal research scientist Samuel Glover.

Workers routinely scooped uranium powder into tins using their bare hands, according to Glover’s report. Material was thrown outside and allowed to burn. Every few weeks, metal left outside in leaching liquid would spontaneously ignite.

Roger Demers, who worked at the plant for almost a decade, used to remove his work clothes on his porch before he entered his home. His daughter, Mary Lennon, said it wasn’t because he was afraid to make a mess.

“I think he was worried about what was on his clothes,” Lennon told Salem News reporter Paul Leighton last week.

Effective safeguards at Metal Hydrides and similar plants across the United States were obviously few and far between. Yet for years, the government has made it difficult for surviving workers and their families to get compensation for the health effects of working for so long under such dangerous conditions.

Demers died of brain and lung cancer in 1991. Lennon and her sister, Kathy Demers of Salem, applied for compensation from the government last year but were denied after a computer determined there was a less than 50 percent chance Demers’ cancer was caused by working at Metal Hydrides.

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