Agency blames poor communication for Piketon, Paducah scares
Friday, August 13, 1999
By Jonathan Riskind
WASHINGTON -- The presence of highly radioactive plutonium at southern Ohio's uranium enrichment plant hasn't been a secret in recent years.
Not officially, anyway.
The federal government has quietly revealed the existence of the substance -- but only to those who can figure out complex scientific charts and understand such esoteric terms as transuranics.
Federal officials acknowledge they failed to properly inform workers potentially exposed to the deadly material during the height of the Cold War, a U.S. Department of Energy spokesman said yesterday.
The department also reported late yesterday that an investigative team would arrive Tuesday at its uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Ky.
The department is determining whether to ask for more money in the 2000 fiscal year to address health and safety issues in Paducah; Piketon, Ohio; or other sites.
Plutonium is 200,000 times more radioactive than uranium; even a millionth of an ounce can cause cancer, experts say.
The officials are scrambling to answer questions about how much plutonium workers came into contact with at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon and whether the exposure could have caused cancer or other illnesses.
"There is no question . . . communications should have been a lot better,'' said Steve Wyatt, an Energy Department spokesman.
"Quite frankly, it all falls in the realm of openness.''
Or a lack thereof.
The presence of plutonium at Piketon stems from a secret Cold War initiative during the 1950s, '60s and '70s to recycle spent nuclear reactor fuel into more uranium.
The enrichment plants were used to produce nuclear weapons-grade uranium.
The plants, privatized last year, now produce only commercial-grade uranium used as nuclear power plant fuel.
Most of the plutonium-laced uranium went to Piketon's sister plant in Paducah, where workers now are asking whether it caused a cancer cluster. Some of the material, in a diluted form, was shipped to Piketon.
The Energy Department said bulletins issued by plant officials in 1993 and 1996 noted the presence of plutonium and other transuranics -- related radioactive material.
But the bulletins, written in highly technical form, apparently were not highly publicized and did not receive much attention.
The presence of plutonium also was divulged during a public meeting last September in Waverly, Ohio.
But the few people who attended the meeting would have had to understand what transuranics are or studied a chart to know plutonium was being discussed, judging from a summary of the meeting.
A local newspaper article about the hearing never mentioned plutonium.
Mark Griffon, a health physicist consulting for the union that represents Piketon workers, said he would have sounded alarm bells if he had known the extent of plutonium found on plant grounds in recent years.
Griffon said former workers he's spoken with knew nothing about working with plutonium at the time -- and did not find out in recent years, either.
"The line for years was, the plutonium . . . was there but in trace quantities. It wasn't concentrated enough to cause exposures to even warrant monitoring,'' Griffon said.
"Now the data is causing people to question that. My feeling is, let's go back and investigate further.''
In 1997, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency turned up evidence of significant quantities of plutonium and other transuranics.
Radioactivity from the plutonium has measured as high as 110 picocuries per liter.
Levels as low as 1 picocurie per liter would have mandated a cleanup effort, said Maria Galanti, the state EPA's project coordinator for the ongoing Piketon cleanup.
The agency did not find any plutonium in the Piketon groundwater.
Trace levels found once in sediment in Little Beaver Creek off the plant grounds did not reappear, so the EPA did not issue a public notice.
But the land where the plutonium was found is considered so highly radioactive that it still is cordoned. People must wear protective gear to walk there, Galanti said.
She said other plutonium-contaminated sites at Piketon might not have been detected.
The state EPA has been testing 10 percent of all soil samples for plutonium and related materials because the Department of Energy said only "trace'' levels should be present.
The state EPA intends to return to nearby locations to test for plutonium to make sure it's all been found, Galanti said.
While most of the plutonium- laced uranium used during the Cold War was removed from the Piketon facility, at least 6 tons of the material remained on site as recently as 1985, according to a Department of Energy report obtained by Louise Roselle, a Cincinnati lawyer.
The report received little attention when it was released.
Roselle filed a $300 million class- action suit several years ago that alleged plant emissions contaminated the area surrounding the plant. The case is pending. Some residents around Piketon have said those emissions have caused health problems.
The processing of plutonium- laced uranium took place in 1952-64, 1969-74 and 1976-77, according to the 1985 report.
The result was a potentially dangerous buildup of highly radioactive material, which can require "special precautions to assure safe exposure levels to personnel,'' the according to the report.
The Paducah plant converted about 100,000 tons from solid to gaseous uranium, and did the initial enrichment. Much of that material then was sent to Piketon for further enrichment.
About 328 grams of plutonium were in that 100,000 tons; about one gram was left after conversion and before the initial enrichment.
Also, Piketon received about 570 tons of converted but unenriched plutonium-laced uranium, Energy Department officials said this week.
One expert said that amount of plutonium spread through that amount of uranium over about 25 years was unlikely to cause cancer.
But the plant-workers' union questioned whether more plutonium was in the shipments than the government has acknowledged.
Energy officials promised that the issue will be investigated thoroughly.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson pledged this week that an independent board of scientists will conduct the investigation that will start Oct. 1 and finish by March.
According to the Energy Department, the amount of plutonium handled at the Piketon plant was minimal.
Most of the material was handled at Paducah, but quantities there also were relatively small, officials have said.
But there's an information gap that must be remedied, Wyatt said.
"The issue of transuranics has been with us for years,'' he said.
"Was it communicated well? No. We can't change the past. (But) from that, we can learn better ways to communicate.''