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.

"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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