DOE: No signs of any harm
By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor
Trace amounts of highly radioactive plutonium came into Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant during roughly a 23-year period as a contaminant in uranium from nuclear reactors, but there is no evidence that the material harmed workers or the public, the Department of Energy said Monday.
For at least the past 10 years, urinalyses and other testing of workers have not shown plutonium, a cancer-causing substance, according to officials of the department and USEC Inc., which took over plant production in 1993. DOE officials said trace quantities of plutonium are occasionally found in sampling around the plant and disclosed in annual environmental reports stored in local reading rooms.
But the Department of Energy did not do a good job of telling workers or the public, said David Michaels, DOE assistant secretary of environment, safety and health.
"I think there's been a real communications problem here, and we want to make that better," Michaels said in a press conference at the plant. He spoke to reporters after talking with workers who said they had never heard of plutonium's being in the facility.
Michaels said a DOE team did a preliminary investigation at the plant in June and found that plutonium was not an "imminent threat" to workers, the public or the environment. Also on June 1, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of three workers alleging plutonium contamination.
Michaels acknowledged that Monday's press conference was in response to a Sunday front-page story in The Washington Post that said thousands of plant workers were unknowingly exposed to plutonium brought into the plant from 1953 to 1976. He said the plutonium was a contaminant in residual uranium from nuclear reactors in other cities, shipped to Paducah for recycling as nuclear fuel.
Starting next week, a DOE team will dig more deeply into the issue to see if levels were high enough to harm people and if their health was affected, Michaels said, adding that the probe will cover current and past hazards.
"If people were made sick because of past exposures, we want to know about that, and we want to help them," he said. "... Any exposure to plutonium is too much."
Besides a full DOE investigation, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson pledges an independent probe by the National Academy of Sciences of plant exposures and related health problems. He also will ask the White House to approve benefits to DOE and contract workers exposed to radioactive materials, Michaels said.
Richardson will start a medical surveillance program for current Paducah plant workers to supplement an ongoing health study of past workers. He will involve workers in continued talks as plutonium information unfolds and require past contractors to provide health and environmental records, Michaels said.
Former contractor Lockheed Martin, which ran the plant from the early 1980s until this spring, has been sued by two current health physicists and a past worker at the Paducah plant regarding the plutonium issue. The suit, filed with the Department of Justice under the False Claims Act, is sealed until the department decides whether it wants to pursue allegations that Lockheed Martin defrauded the government by not being forthcoming about plutonium.
Jerry Langheim, a Lockheed Martin spokesman at the firm's Bethesda, Md., headquarters, said the company still has not been served with the lawsuit and cannot comment.
Union Carbide, which ran the plant for many years before Lockheed Martin, was not named as a defendant because a statute of limitations prevented it.
USEC ended its contract with Lockheed Martin earlier this year and is running the plant, owned by DOE. When it took over production oversight six years ago, USEC was aware of trace plutonium and expanded its program of monitoring workers and places for the material, said Elizabeth Stuckle, USEC communications director.
"We don't have, to our knowledge, plutonium in the space leased by USEC," Stuckle said.
Worker testing includes dosimeters worn by employees and urinalyses, she said, and technicians also check floors, equipment, tables, work surfaces, ground, tools and other places of potential contamination.
The leased space, including the plant's huge process buildings, is relatively small compared with the large DOE reservation covering land around the plant, she said.
Jimmie Hodges, Paducah DOE site manager, said that shortly after he came to plant in 1989, an extensive program was begun on "transuranic" materials - heavy, radioactive metals, including plutonium, that are nuclear reactor byproducts. In particular, employees in suspect areas were trained on transuranic procedures, he said.
Hodges said transuranic monitoring programs for employees were in place in 1989, and to his knowledge, no one showed exposure to the material until 1993 when USEC took over worker testing.
Hodges said there was no effort then to notify former employees, but he could not say why. Jim Chesnut, who started work at the plant when it opened in 1952, said he fed "rat tails" - slang for spent nuclear fuel rods - into the Paducah diffusion process for many years, yet didn't know they contained plutonium
"I knew what I did, but I didn't know what it was," Chesnut said, explaining that he did not hear the word "transuranics" until two years ago.
Chesnut, a former atomic workers' union local president, retired from the plant in 1993. He now is liaison for the DOE-sponsored health study of former workers that Richardson wants to expand to include plutonium exposure.
David Fuller, current president of the atomic workers' union, said that before the Post story he had "no inkling" that plutonium was in the plant. John Driskill, president of the plant guard workers' union, said he also had been in the dark about plutonium but felt encouraged after talking to Michaels.
"It sounds like the secretary of energy wants to do the right thing," Driskill said. "Most of the bureaucracy in a case like this, it seems, is going to be bypassed."
Traces of plutonium reportedly were found in a residential well near the plant in 1990 and later in deer shot in the nearby wildlife management area. As part of its extensive cleanup efforts and providing city water to dozens of residents, DOE continues to look at whether those and other findings suggest an undue health risk, Hodges said.
Although DOE periodically found flaws in Lockheed Martin's environmental and work health programs, Hodges said he "by and large" has confidence in them.
Quoting documents from government sources, the Post's story said a DOE-sanctioned study in 1988 found that "low mass concentrations" of plutonium could be a threat to workers if ingested. Soon afterward, plant contractors found plutonium in soil in ditches outside the plant and reported amounts many times higher than cleanup levels DOE has set for nuclear test sites, the story said.
Lockheed Martin's predecessor, Martin Marietta, issued a 1992 report that plutonium-related contamination posed "significant" environmental problems and worker health hazards, the Post reported.
The story said contractors estimate 12 ounces of
plutonium entered the plant during the 23 years. It is uncertain whether
plutonium came into the plant continuously during that time, Hodges said,
and the investigation will try to ascertain the exact amount.