Stealth plant

A nuclear neighbor catches Denton residents by surprise

Samuel and Helen Woodson live on a homey cul-de-sac in southeast Denton. Their kids grown and gone, they keep themselves busy working and playing with their five grandchildren.

Two weeks ago, the Woodsons found a flyer on the front door of the home where they have lived for 10 years. It told them they are about to get a new neighbor--a linear proton accelerator that will begin churning out radioactive isotopes sometime next summer.

It turns out that International Isotopes Inc. is building a new plant in an industrial park near their home. A young company with big plans, International Isotopes hopes to become one of the nation's largest producers of radioactive medicines.

The company--formed just a year and a half ago--is building its business literally from the wreckage of the defunct Superconducting Super Collider. For a bargain $2.9 million, the company was able to buy about $50 million worth of leftover equipment from the collider project, which was barely under way near Waxahachie before Congress pulled the plug on its funding.

If all goes as planned, International Isotopes will be whipping protons around in a cyclotron by the middle of 1998, creating radioisotopes that are used by doctors to target and treat cancerous cells in the body.

But the Woodsons and some of their neighbors say ground had already been broken on the project before they learned about their new nuclear neighbor. Though the die has already been cast, only now are Denton residents banding together, trying to find out if the plant poses a threat to their health.

"I think it's ridiculous for them to put it in a residential area," says Helen Woodson, talking excitedly over the din of Oprah coming from her television set. "A lot of people still don't know."

"I'm not against progress, that's not the idea," says her husband, Samuel. "But nobody knows anything."

The first hint to residents that something was afoot came when the city began building a new road across the 400-acre research park near Woodrow Lane. At first, neighbors thought the road would simply cut across the land, providing easier access to the highway. Instead the road--which will cost the city of Denton $700,000--will lead to the new plant.

International Isotopes Inc. was founded by a bevy of brainy scientists and businessmen. The heads of chemistry, radiology, physics, and engineering departments from various universities are advising the company, and the chief executive officer is Carl W. Seidel, who is leaving industry leader Du Pont Merck to head the new firm.

According to plans outlined in a filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, the company believes its accelerator can produce five times more medical radioactive isotopes than any other such machine in the country. Using equipment salvaged from the supercollider, the company hopes, will allow it to manufacture the radioisotopes more cheaply than its competitors.

International Isotopes plans to sell about 2.5 million shares of stock to finance its start-up.

But so far, the company hasn't actually tested the salvaged equipment to see if it will meet the high hopes. That and general concerns about radioactivity have got some residents of Denton worried.

Company officials point out that they haven't been able to discuss the plant because SEC regulations require a company to be in "quiet mode" while offering stock for sale. "I believe that put us at a disadvantage," says Tommy Thompson, the company's chief operating officer.

But the company's silence is only feeding the anxieties of residents like Chris Coil, who has jumped into the thick of the issue.

One of Coil's first concerns, he says, is that the plant is being built on the site of an old city dump that dates back more than 100 years. "When you start digging that stuff up to build," he says, "you can run into some problems."

Thompson says the company has not been able to find any documentation indicating that the site was used for anything other than unofficial dumping.

"The facility won't be anywhere near the old dump site," says Linda Ratliff, director of economic development for the city. The dump was originally in the far northwest portion of the 400-acre plot. International Isotopes will locate in the southern portion.

Denton's mayor, for one, isn't worried about the dump question. "I'm not sure if there is a landfill there," says Mayor Jack Miller. "But that's not uncommon. Candlestick Park is built on a landfill. Half of Boston is built on a landfill."

And after all, the company will bring good things to Denton. One hundred jobs with salaries averaging $60,000, high-level technology and expertise, and a "brand image," according to Ken Burdick of Denton's Chamber of Commerce.

But the image the Woodsons and their neighbors have is of health problems related to radioactivity. "People are going to start dying of cancer, and it won't discriminate against color," says Helen Woodson, an African-American. "It's going to affect everybody. I don't want to pay taxes for them to kill me."

Opponents worry that radioactive particles from the plant will find their way into the water system, but the company and city officials downplay that possibility.

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