Stealth plant

A nuclear neighbor catches Denton residents by surprise

"I don't see any possibility of that happening," says Miller. "They won't be doing anything that will be affecting the ground or groundwater systems. We have very strict regulations about what goes into our wastewater system."

Although the plant will discharge into the city's wastewater system, "the water that we put into the water system will be cleaner than what you get out of the tap," says Virgil Simmons, the company's vice president of international marketing. The company intends to be a "model, good citizen", Simmons says, adding that the only impact International Isotopes will have on the city will be a positive one. "We will not, in any way, make any contamination in the area," he maintains. "All of the material we manufacture is low-level radiation. It is not harmful."

Although Texas, unlike many other states, allows companies to release spent radioisotopes into the sewer system, it is only allowed after "all the radioactivity is gone," Thompson says.

But Dr. Nabarun Ghosh, a biology professor at the University of North Texas, says a plant like this should be "at least 40 or 50 miles from any urban area." The effects of radioisotopes on the human body are unclear, adds Ghosh, who advocates strict, regular testing of radioactive levels before dumping. "You may not see the effects for 20 or 30 years, but I have hundreds of documents that prove that [radioisotopes] cause diseases, including cancer," Ghosh warns.

Helen Woodson agrees. She fears that radioactive material might make its way into the creeks around her home. "Water travels, you know," she says, and she ought to know; her neighborhood floods every time there's a good rain.

Says Shannon Bull, another plant neighbor: "It's ironic. You have to get cancer to use their products. I don't want [the company] here, and the fact that it is so close scares me."

Dr. Roland Vela, another concerned resident and retired University of North Texas microbiologist, says he's worried about potential accidents at the plant. "What happens in the case of an accidental spill or fire and this stuff gets into the air conditioning systems?" asks Vela, who has emerged as a vocal opponent of the plant.

Samuel Woodson echoes Vela's fears. "I want the police and fire departments trained to be ready just in case, to take care of any kind of catastrophe," he says.

Company officials point out that their linear accelerator is nothing like a nuclear reactor, but more like an x-ray machine. "If anything goes wrong, it just shuts off," says Thompson. "There's no fissioning going on." You don't get a fire or an explosion, just a breakdown in production, he says.

Yet worries continue to haunt the Woodsons. "We won't be able to give these houses away, I guarantee you," says Woodson, referring to what he predicts as a decline in property values. "And the road won't do us any good."

In the best of all possible worlds, the Woodsons would rather not have a linear proton accelerator a mile from their house. They realize, however, that they live in this world, and what they want right now is to know more about the ghost in the machine.

They may find out soon. The company has agreed to meet with residents on July 10 at Denton's Martin Luther King Recreational Center to answer questions and--if possible--allay any fears.

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