A note on the "Cold Warriors"
July 4, 2001
By Frank Munger News-Sentinel senior writer
This being the Fourth of July, patriotism is in the air (along with fireworks and the lingering scent of badly burned burgers). So it's a good time to honor those who served their country, especially in the U.S. military.

It also seems like an opportune time to talk about a gross misuse of the phrase "serving their country during the Cold War" -- when referring to anybody who ever worked at one of the U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear facilities.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary was the first person I ever heard use the term "Cold Warriors" to describe the DOE population, some of whom suffer from illnesses blamed on workplace exposures to radiation and a range of toxic substances.

O'Leary used that term whenever she wanted to add a little drama to her point of the moment, and God knows she loved theater, although she wasn't alone. The media (myself included) certainly played a role in this unending stream of misapplied hype.

Let's set the record straight.

It's fair enough to link those people who worked on the design or production of nuclear weapons (or the materials needed to produce them) to the Cold War, but that does not cover the entire DOE complex. Nor does it include all of the Oak Ridge plants, not even the increasingly notorious K-25 plant.

In the beginning (we're talking the World War II Manhattan Project), all of the Oak Ridge plants were involved in the A-bomb project, and that stood true for a certain time after the war as well.

But later on, Oak Ridge National Laboratory gradually shed its defense relationship and became a multi-purpose science research institution (although, yes, there are still a few research projects funded by the military agencies).

And K-25, after the early 1960s, no longer enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons. The plant's principal role was to enrich uranium (to a few percent U-235) for use as fuel in nuclear reactors.

If you want to argue the point, you could say K-25 generated feedstock for later enrichment at a plant in Ohio that produced uranium fuel for U.S. Navy reactors, but it's really stretching it to refer to K-25 employees in the 1960s, '70s and '80s as Cold Warriors.

The Y-12 plant, of course, is different. After World War II, the Oak Ridge plant was converted from a uranium-enrichment facility (that produced the critical stuff used in the Hiroshima A-bomb) to a manufacturing plant that produced parts for the early H-bombs and every generation of nuclear warheads since then.

It would not be incorrect to refer to Y-12ers as having served in the Cold War, although to be honest I think most of the employees -- and I've known many over the past 20 years -- simply looked at it as a job. Most of those folks went there because it was a good job with a good salary and good benefits, not because they wanted to serve the country.

Why bring this up?

Well, for one thing, issues are being blurred needlessly, and the differences need to be understood.

The young men and women who joined the military (voluntarily or not) understood they were serving their country and generally accepted the risks therein. That's not necessarily the case with those who hitched up with the U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear enterprise, and some folks -- now sick -- resent the implications of being called a Cold Warrior.

Among those is Harry Williams, a former K-25 worker and president of the Coalition for a Healthy Environment. He also is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, having served during the Vietnam era (although not in Vietnam).

"I am a very patriotic guy. I love this country dearly. I have fist-fought over those principles, and when I served in the military, I would have gladly paid the ultimate price for this country if that's what was required.

"But, when I got out of the military and went to K-25 looking for a job on the recommendation of a friend, I didn't go out there to be involved in any defense project. I simply went looking for a job just like somebody going down to Kroger."

Nothing he ever did in his 20 years of work at K-25 (1976 to 1996) had anything to do with the Cold War or protection of his beloved United States, Williams said.

In that same vein, he said he would not have willingly placed his life on the line in order to produce fuel for nuclear reactors. Williams said he didn't need to take a risky job to provide food for his family, and he said he was repeatedly reassured during his time at K-25 that the operations were safe.

"I asked all the right questions, and never once was I told it was dangerous," he said.

That's why he feels betrayed, now that he suffers from a range of illnesses he believes are due to his exposures at the Oak Ridge facilities.

Brave, patriotic Cold Warriors? Williams said he believes DOE officials are trumping up that image to serve themselves.

"I don't think DOE gives a crap about patriotism," he said. "I believe DOE is just using that Cold War stuff to invoke sovereign immunity. That's all."

That view may be overly cynical, but one point probably bears repeating: It's time to back off this Cold War rhetoric.

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Department of Energy for the News-Sentinel. He can be reached at 865-482-9213 or at
twig1@knoxnews.infi.net. This column is also available on the Web at