Some local residents call it "the atomic laundromat," and it's the sort of place that just naturally breeds rumors.
There's the one about how the flies in this suburban Philadelphia town where the plant is situated are much bigger than normal.Or the one told by an environmental activist, who reported to the county commissioners that workers at the plant drink large quantities of beer so the radioactivity will pass more quickly through their bodies.
Welcome to the Interstate Nuclear Services Corp. plant, which cleans the work clothes of employees at 15 nuclear power plants and laboratories.
Housed in a squat, windowless, concrete building a few yards from the banks of the Schuylkill, it is one of 20 such plants in the country.
To environmentalists from outside the town who periodically demonstrate against it and complain about it to the Montgomery County commissioners, the plant is a menace.
Richard McNutt, an environmental activist in adjoining Bucks County, has termed it "a nuclear waste dump" and has called, so far unsuccessfully, for the testing of fish in the Schuylkill near the plant.
But the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the plant is safe, and it appears to have become an accepted part of the town since it was opened in 1983 in a building previously occupied by a bleaching plant.
"I think they take all the safety precautions they can," said Alma Porter, owner of Porter's Pie and Pastries, down the street. "They have to wash the stuff somewhere. And it brings work to the town. We're a nice little town."
Neither do the workers seem worried.
"It's long hours but it's steady work," said one plant employee, who did not give his name, as he waited outside the manager's office for his paycheck. As he spoke, another of the 50 employees arrived for her paycheck, carrying a baby in her arms.
The plant is off-limits to visitors. Its manager, William R. Roschewski, describes the cleaning process there as complex.
The garments, which include such items as coveralls, rubber shoe covers and respirators, are brought in by company trucks and put on a sorting table by workers in protective clothing, he said. Above the table is a fume hood, through which air is sucked into a filter system where radioactive particles are trapped and held.
Each of the five industrial-size washers and four dryers has its own set of filters, Mr. Roschewski said.
Once the clothes are washed and dried, they are monitored for radioactivity, and the process is repeated if necessary, he said.
Before the water is discharged into the sewers, it is treated. All plant filters are taken for burial to a nuclear waste dump out of state.
As a precautionary measure, Mr. Roschewski said, plant workers are urged not to put their hands to their faces at work for any reason. The workers constantly wear dosimeters, inch-long devices that measure personal radiation levels.
"All workers are required to properly monitor themselves," Mr. Roschewski said. "If it's on their clothes, the clothes stay here. All our washmen are expected to shower every day before they go home, not because they're contaminated but because it's an additional precaution."
Although officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the plant now meets federal safety standards, this has not always been the case.
In fall 1984, the plant was cited for 11 violations of federal regulations, ranging from the storage of prohibited radioactive waste on the site to improper radiation-level surveys of the workers.
"They have been cleaned up to my satisfaction at this point," said John D. Kinneman, chief of the NRC's Nuclear Materials Safety Section. "I think we saw substantial improvement."
However, he added, "I can't say there isn't any threat to the environment. If there weren't any threat, we wouldn't issue a license for this kind of work.
The threat, he said, comes from "mostly cobalt 60 and maybe a little bit of plutonium," two radioactive materials. The particles cling to clothes brought into the plant in sealed 55-gallon drums and can fall onto the laundry workers' clothing and skin before the particles are caught by the plant's filters.
Environmental groups have questioned whether radioactivity from water released from the laundry is getting into the Schuylkill or the water supplies of neighboring communities and whether the laundry is releasing radioactive emissions into the air.
NRC officials say that minute amounts of radiation have been found in the river, in the air near the plant and in sewage sludge from the local treatment plant, which processes used water from the laundry. They say, however, that these emissions are within allowable limits.
The treated sludge is spread on nearby farms for fertilizer.
Royersford borough manager Robert L. Weikel said officials from the nuclear commission assured borough leaders "that there wasn't a problem, and we haven't found one at this point - despite all the anti-nuclear people demonstrating."