Fields of sun-parched corn and tobacco line the narrow road that stretches from the Ohio River to Wilma Kelley's store. In recent days, customers who usually come here to chat have been consumed by a single topic, the frightening discovery of plutonium in their midst.
Visitors lean across the counter and recite illnesses that have befallen their families, listing everything from stomach aches to deadly cancers. The litany always concludes with the same question: Could plutonium from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant be the cause?
"People are scared," said Kelley, a 69-year-old grandmother working the counter in a flowered blouse. "Everybody who comes in mentions it."
Paducah is a one-industry town where mistrust of government is as common as weathered tobacco barns. But within the past two weeks, residents have discovered from news reports that the federal government left them unknowingly exposed for decades to plutonium and other highly radioactive materials that thousands of plant workers were not told about or equipped to handle.
Plutonium, a cancer-causing metal used in nuclear bomb production, was secretly introduced to Paducah in 1953 as part of a plan to recapture uranium from the spent fuel of military reactors. Carelessly handled inside the plant, it seeped into surrounding areas and has been found in nearby public lands, even in local deer.
Since an investigation by The Washington Post brought the issue to light, government officials have come to town with apologies and promises. Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton (D) toured the plant. Officials from the Department of Energy, which oversees the plant, met with local residents and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has promised a broad investigation.
On Thursday night, dozens of residents met to discuss their concern and outrage with federal and state officials. The first hour was tense but generally polite. Then a woman in the audience suddenly shouted, "You don't care if people get sick!"
Later, tempers flared. Kentucky's manager of radiation control, John Volpe, thrust his finger at an activist who challenged Volpe's contention that small amounts of radiation found in streams do not endanger public health.
"Don't call me a liar," Volpe warned.
The meeting stretched long into the night, heavy with talk of transuranics and technetium-99. Some residents complained that faced with such complex science, they had little chance of understanding precisely what happened at the plant or how much risk it poses.
As Kelley later put it, "We're just average people and we can't prove nothing. I don't know if we'll ever get to the bottom of it."
Some residents always have been a little scared of living next to the plant, a sprawling Department of Energy facility built in the 1950s to process uranium. About 10 miles west of Paducah, population 27,000, rolling fields end abruptly at the plant's barbed wire fence and roads are dotted with huge orange signs bearing bold black letters.
"WARNING. What to do if sirens sound. If unable to move away from the area for at least two miles, take shelter in a substantial building."
Others signs advise visitors that vehicles approaching the 3,500-acre complex and its cavernous concrete buildings "are subject to search." More than 2,000 area residents report to work here each day, making the plant by far the largest employer in McCracken County.
It also offers some of the best-paying jobs in a region plagued by low salaries.
"The plant is the economy" of Paducah, said city planner Steve Doolittle. "An awful lot of households have depended on those jobs through the years. People clamor to work there."
Everyone recognizes that a uranium plant poses risks, Doolittle said. But overall, he stressed, most residents consider the plant well run and the risks acceptable.
That does not include Ronald Lamb, 47, whose tractor churned up a storm of dust this week as he mowed grass on his farm near the plant.
"The creeks deposit stuff from the plant on the farm, and you stir it up and breathe it," he said during a lunch break. "You don't know what you're breathing."
Lamb said he's been worried about such things since a test of his well water identified plutonium nine years ago. The Energy Department called the reading an error, but Lamb said he was suspicious when his parents developed severe digestive problems about the same time. Four years later, his father died of cancer.
Lamb sued the contractors who ran the plant at the time, but a federal judge ruled that he failed to prove contamination. Since then, his attempts to rally neighbors against the plant have met with limited success.
"A lot of people are worried but they are scared to talk," Lamb said. "It's been bred into workers that you don't ask questions over there. For years it was a top-secret facility."
A lawsuit filed recently by workers and an environmental group contends government contractors concealed the true radiation exposures at the plant for years and let hazardous metals spread into the local environment. Plant managers allowed contaminated waste to be dumped in surrounding fields and an unprotected landfill, the lawsuit contends.
Richardson has promised that the Energy Department will promptly address the contamination and has asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct the first study of possible worker health effects.
But for storekeeper Wilma Kelley, the proof of the plant's dangers is in her apple trees.
They grew in her front yard for years, rising from a drainage ditch that led to the plant, a mile away. Over time, she said, the 15-foot trees began to warp in a peculiar way and died.
"They were just shrunk up, deformed," she said in a soft southern drawl. "The one side facing the plant was the worst."
Kelley now worries about all the apples her family ate, the well water they drank and the vegetables they pulled from their garden. She recalls her son's congenital heart defect, her brother's chronic stomach problems, the dusty coveralls worn by her husband, a plant worker for 31 years.
"I've just got all these thoughts," Kelley said, shaking her head. "I wonder if my husband brought something home. You can think it and say it, but you have to prove something to say it's a fact. And the workers can't prove nothing."