The Columbus Dispatch


Thursday, August 12, 1999
Jonathan Riskind
Dispatch Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Employees at southern Ohio's uranium enrichment plant were unaware that they were exposed to highly radioactive plutonium as they produced nuclear bombs and fuel during the Cold War.

Unbeknown to workers, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon received plutonium-laced uranium for about 25 years -- from the 1950s into the 1970s -- a U.S. Department of Energy official confirmed yesterday.

Now, federal officials have pledged an "open-ended'' investigation to find out how much deadly plutonium Ohio workers were exposed to and whether health or environmental problems resulted.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, said it's too early to tell whether the exposure is cause for concern. But the years of secrecy deceived plant employees, family members and area residents, he said.

"Until this came along we knew of no reason to be concerned that proper procedures had not been followed and that full information had not been available to the community and workers,'' Strickland said.

"This creates a whole set of circumstances that requires a more scrutinizing approach to this.''

A scientist at a private laboratory said the amounts of plutonium described by the government probably wouldn't cause multiple cases of cancer, but an official of the union representing workers at Piketon and its sister plant in Paducah, Ky., said he questions the government's data.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that workers at the Paducah plant were exposed to plutonium-laced dust as part of a government attempt to recycle used nuclear reactor fuel.

The Post reported that while the health consequences in Paducah are uncertain, several workers tell stories of cancer clusters.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson yesterday pledged that his department would carry out a broad investigation to determine how much plutonium people were exposed to, what the health and environmental consequences were and whether restitution is owed for any illnesses.

Richardson also said he wants to investigate whether the civilian contractors operating the facility during the Cold War years misled workers and the government about health risks.

Late yesterday, Strickland met with David Michaels, assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety and health, and was told the department would appoint a board of independent scientists to investigate whether there is a link between hazardous exposures and illnesses at Piketon or Paducah. The board is to be appointed by Oct. 1 and finish work by March.

Strickland said Michaels, who impressed him as wanting to get to the bottom of the matter, offered to hold a public meeting in Piketon.

It appears much more plutonium was shipped to Paducah than to Piketon. But the fact that the entire operation was kept secret makes it hard to trust what the federal government is disclosing, Strickland said.

"The public should never have been deprived of this kind of information,'' he said. "What it does is, it unfortunately feeds mistrust.''

It also was revealed yesterday that evidence of plutonium was found several years ago at the Piketon plant. In 1996, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found plutonium and related metals in a 3- to 4-acre plot on the east side of the 3,700-acre plant grounds, said Maria Galanti, the Ohio EPA's project coordinator for the Portsmouth site. The plutonium had not leaked into the ground water and is being cleaned up, she said.

Still, "It was enough to raise our eyebrows.''

In addition, traces of plutonium sediment were found in Little Beaver Creek just off the plant grounds about 1993, she said. Subsequent tests showed no plutonium, Galanti said.

Plutonium is 200,000 times more radioactive than uranium; exposure to one-millionth of an ounce can cause cancer.

Cleaning up the material is the state agency's responsibility, but how it got there and how it was used in the plant are the provinces of the Department of Energy, Galanti said. So far, about $200 million has been spent at the Piketon plant on cleaning up contamination from nuclear and chemical sources.

Though information is just now becoming public, Energy officials appeared well aware that the plutonium came from material sent to Piketon from Paducah, Galanti said.

About 100,000 tons of uranium from spent nuclear reactor fuel was sent to Paducah to be recycled into enriched uranium for bombs or fuel, said Steve Wyatt, an Energy spokesman. Contained in that material were about 328 grams of plutonium, he said.

Enrichment essentially is a purification process. Commercial-grade uranium used for nuclear power plant fuel is not enriched to as high a level of purity as that needed for nuclear weapons.

Uranium ore cannot be converted into energy in its natural state; it first must be converted into a chemical form of uranium -- hexafluoride UF6 -- that is heated to a gas for enrichment.

Piketon and Paducah now enrich commercial-grade uranium only for nuclear power plant fuel. The plants were operated by the Department of Energy until 1993, when a federal corporation called USEC was put in charge. USEC passed into private hands last year.

The plutonium-laced uranium was converted at Paducah into the gaseous form that can be enriched. After conversion, less than a gram of plutonium remained out of 100,000 tons of uranium sent through the enrichment process, Wyatt said.

Much of the material -- it could not be determined yesterday exactly how much -- was sent to Piketon for further enrichment.

Over the years, Piketon also received about 570 tons of plutonium-laced uranium that had been converted to gaseous form in Paducah but not yet enriched, Wyatt said.

In addition, about 5,600 tons of converted plutonium-laced uranium was sent to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to be processed at a now-closed enrichment plant there.

Wyatt said Paducah will get most of the initial attention because of the quantity of plutonium shipped there, but he stressed that the federal investigation also will examine Piketon and Oak Ridge.

Raymond Guilmette, senior scientist at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in New Mexico, a private, nonprofit laboratory, said it is hard to imagine a string of cancers caused by exposure to the amounts of plutonium described by the government.

Although plutonium is far deadlier than uranium, 328 grams dispersed throughout 100,000 tons of uranium would be a minuscule amount -- less than one part per billion, he said. (One part per billion equals about 50 drops in an Olympic-sized pool full of water.) The amount in the reported Piketon shipments would be a fraction of that.

But an official of the union representing plant workers in Paducah and Piketon said he wants to see the original documentation and data behind the government's figures before he can accept that risks to Piketon or Paducah workers were minimal.

"There's no evidence they're telling us the truth about anything,'' said Richard Miller, analyst for the Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International Union.

Miller said the worst exposures occurred in Paducah, where the plutonium dust hung in the air while the solid uranium was converted to gaseous form. Leftover plutonium was disposed of on Paducah's grounds.

Still, it hasn't been determined how much plutonium Piketon workers came in contact with, he said.

Regarding the Department of Energy's calculations on workers' plutonium exposure, Miller said, "I think this is DOE's damage-control effort. I don't know that it should be accepted uncritically.''

Caption: (1) Tyler Wirken / Dispatch
A section of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio
U.S. Department of Energy photo
Federal officials yesterday said the Piketon plant received plutonium-laced uranium for about 25 years, into the 1970s. Workers were unaware that they were handling the highly radioactive material.
(3) U.S. Department of Energy photo
Federal officials yesterday said the Piketon plant received plutonium-laced uranium for about 25 years, into the 1970s. Workers were unaware that they were handling the highly radioactive material.

This article is 1999 The Columbus Dispatch