It all started with a workplace accident. But, before it was over, the tritium leakage at American Atomics Corp. led to the closure of the plant, nearly half a million dollars of food destroyed and neighbors who feared for their health.

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1979 Star files

An American Atomics worker and glass tubes containing tritium.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. Founded in the early 1960s, the American Atomics plant, at 425 S. Plumer Ave., produced tritium filled tubes for hand held military devices like compasses and gun sights. It employed about 15 people until 1976.

In 1976, a way to use tiny tritium-filled tubes for back-lighting watches was devised. The company took off growing to about 200 employees by 1978. Sales were expected to hit around $10 million. But, the rapid growth that followed outpaced the company’s safety controls.

It all began to unravel when a worker at the plant, in 1978, spilled tritium-laced oil over himself. He was fired about six weeks later and he then complained to the state. That brought in an inspector from the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission. Concerned over the loss of large amounts of tritium, the inspector suspended the company’s license.

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1979 Star files

A neighbor looks over his wall to the American Atomics plant.

By early March 1979, further inspection confirmed that conclusion. An estimated 300,000 curies of tritium had been lost, emitted as a cancer-causing gas through the plants stacks. It also revealed that contamination in the surrounding neighborhood was intense and widespread.

This included the nearby TUSD kitchen. The district had to destroy $300,000 worth of fresh food and $270,000 worth of canned goods. The kitchen remained closed for over a year. Also nearby was Senior Now Generation which prepared lunches for 1,400 elderly people a day. All of their food also had to be destroyed.

High levels of radioactivity were found in neighbors’ lawns, fruit trees, swimming pools, food — and urine.

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1979 Star files

A guard stands watch after the plant was shut down.

Following the suspension of their license, in Sept. 1979, Gov. Bruce Babbitt seized about 550,000 curies of tritium still stored at the site. It was taken to Flagstaff and ultimately back to where it came from – Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The company tried to reopen in other states, but failed. They filed for bankruptcy. Lawsuits were settled out of court for a total of more than $235,000 in cash.