Sunday, April 10, 2011


Radiation Sickness
Given that its founder came from a company called General Atomic it is hardly surprising that SAIC has been heavily involved in the nuclear business. One early project came in the 1970s and 80s, when SAIC received Pentagon contracts to reconstruct the amount of radiation absorbed by military personnel during atomic-bomb tests and other service-related exposures. The government's bookkeeping was so erratic from the early days of the Cold War that it was often difficult to tell how much radiation soldiers had received and whether it might have been responsible for their various cancers. When SAIC did the numbers, few veterans qualified for compensation. The Pentagon's nuclear testing was in effect off the hook, and ailing veterans were out of luck. After years of hearings, Congress in 1988 passed the Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation Act, which gave veterans the benefit of the doubt. It was presumed that their cancer was attributable to nuclear exposure without considering the radiation dose. By then many of the veterans were dead. A health physicist who testified later on behalf of the veterans spoke unkindly of the original SAIC work: "Atomic veterans have been deprived of benefits intended by Congress through [SAIC's] deceptive internal dose reconstructions and poor understanding of radioactive material distribution in the body." SAIC disagrees, saying that it "continues to work with the government to apply the best science to performing dose reconstruction for atomic veterans."

Periodically over the years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy, prodded by executives in the nuclear industry, have sought to ease the rules against re-using "lightly" contaminated radioactive waste. The impetus has been the inexorably growing stockpile of nuclear debris—much of it lethal—that has been accumulating at weapons sites and power plants in America for decades. One way to draw down the stockpile would be to recycle large volumes of discarded nickel, aluminum, copper, steel, and other irradiated metals into usable products. If slightly radioactive metal were combined with other metals, the resulting material could be made into all kinds of consumer items—knives and forks, baby strollers, chairs, rings, eyeglass frames, bicycles, reclining rockers, earrings, frying pans. It also could be used in construction.

Lest any of this sound improbable, in the 1980s radioactive table legs began turning up in the United States everywhere from restaurants to nursing homes. A radioactive gold ring cost a Pennsylvania man his arm. The public outcry was so great that in 1992 Congress set out to ban this form of recycling. The N.R.C., D.O.E., and nuclear industry saw the ban coming and were not happy about it, but they also saw a way out: maybe it would be possible to develop broad guidelines that would allow the contaminated waste to be recycled based on what were deemed "safe" exposure levels. Never mind that there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation. Two months before the ban was signed into law, the N.R.C. gave the multi-million-dollar job of formulating the guidelines to an outside contractor. The contractor was SAIC.

As the years slipped by, across town, another federal agency, the Department of Energy, was handing out a $238 million contract to B.N.F.L. Inc., at that time the U.S. subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels, "to clean up and reindustrialize three massive uranium enrichment facilities" at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee. The agreement called for B.N.F.L. to recycle "hundreds of thousands of tons of metals." British Nuclear Fuels had a questionable track record in the nuclear industry. For decades it had dumped plutonium and other radioactive waste into the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic. Its workers had falsified critical quality-control data. When the D.O.E. announced the contract, SAIC was identified as a major subcontractor in the recycling of radioactive scrap metal.

Because the N.R.C. and the D.O.E. for some reason weren't talking to each other, the elegance of this arrangement escaped everyone's attention. To connect the dots: SAIC was writing the regulations for one government agency, the N.R.C., which would set the permissible limits of radioactive contamination for recycling, even as it partnered with another company, under contract to a different federal agency, the D.O.E., to recycle the radioactive metal for which it was drafting the regulations.

The synergy of this arrangement was discovered accidentally by a Washington lawyer, Daniel Guttman, whose longtime passion has been conflicts of interest that inevitably—purposefully—arise from government outsourcing. Guttman called attention in public hearings to what was happening, thoroughly embarrassing officials at the N.R.C. and the D.O.E. and stirring the ire of public-interest groups. The N.R.C. killed its contract with SAIC. The recycling project was put on hold. And the N.R.C. filed suit against SAIC, alleging "false and/or fraudulent representations to the effect that [SAIC] was providing services to the NRC which were free from bias." SAIC has denied the conflict-of-interest claims, and the suit is still pending.

But SAIC is by no means out of the nuclear business. It may be under a cloud at the N.R.C., but it's still a partner, with the construction giant Bechtel, in the largest nuclear project of all—the $3.1 billion effort to build a repository for America's high-level radioactive waste. The firm Bechtel SAIC is constructing the repository deep under Yucca Mountain, Nevada, where the buried waste will remain lethal for at least 10,000 years. It could provide a revenue stream for SAIC as far into the future as one can imagine.

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