Plutonium contamination at Piketon
Monday, August 23, 1999
By Bob Dreitzler
PIKETON, Ohio -- An activist hopes emerging information about plutonium contamination at the Piketon uranium enrichment plant will lead to a broader investigation of problems that she said have plagued the plant and its workers for years.
"People are beginning to understand that I am not crazy because the things I have been talking about are starting to surface,'' Vina Colley said. "Some of the workers think I am trying to shut the plant down, but I am trying to get them help.''
Colley, 53, worked as an electrician at the gaseous diffusion plant about 70 miles south of Columbus in the early 1980s.
At the time, she said, she was exposed to a variety of dangerous materials, including oil laced with hazardous polychlorinated biphenyls and contaminated with uranium.
For more than a decade, she has been gathering information about nuclear materials and facilities and monitoring reports of leaks and spills at the local plant.
Colley is president of a local group, Portsmouth and Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety and Security. She also belongs to the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and the Military Toxic Project, which studies depleted uranium issues and Gulf War illnesses.
She cites chronic bronchitis, chronic fatigue, hair loss, skin rashes, thyroid and connective tissue problems among her numerous health ailments. She's had a hysterectomy and surgeries to remove three tumors.
Colley draws Social Security disability payments and has unresolved medical claims involving the plant's former operators and the state workers' compensation agency.
She said concern for plant workers and the surrounding community, as much as her health problems, have motivated her to become a watchdog.
Colley questioned whether the U.S. Department of Energy's acknowledgment this month that plutonium may have been shipped to Piketon from a sister plant in Paducah, Ky., is the entire story.
Colley has sent a letter to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, asking him to come to Piketon for an open meeting with residents and workers.
Colley and Mary Byrd Davis, who runs Uranium Enrichment Project for the nonprofit Earth Island Institute in California, said the reports of plutonium at Piketon were well-documented and virtually ignored.
They cited a 1978 engineering report on oxide conversion -- the recycling of spent uranium fuel rods to produce more fuel -- that mentions the presence of plutonium and neptunium in the processing system of Piketon's X-705 building.
Colley raised the possibility that there was plutonium or other highlyradioactive material in that building and others at the Piketon plant during a 1993 public meeting.
The Energy Department and Martin Marietta Energy Systems, the operator of the plant at the time, held the meeting to discuss corrective actions and environmental restoration projects at the plant.
On a videotape of the meeting, Jeff Hedges, representing Martin- Marietta and the United States Energy Corp., acknowledged that "very low levels of transuranic contamination'' had been found in the decontamination facility of the X-705 building.
Transuranics are elements such as plutonium that have atomic weights higher than uranium.
Hedges said safety measures were implemented, including plugging drains in the building and changing safety clothing requirements. He said the material was outside the X-705 building.
However, Colley read from a report that indicated transuranic contamination had been found in two large process buildings.
T. David Taylor, Martin Marietta's manager for environmental restoration and waste management site operations, saidHedges had referred only to locations outside the process pipeline system when he said the highly radioactive materials had not been found in other buildings.
"I am telling you, you have a real serious problem,'' Colley said. "You need to tell your workers and you need to (do something) about these buildings.''
Among the thousands of documents Colley has collected about the Piketon plant is a 1957 letter from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union to the state health department, citing an unusual number of deaths and illnesses among workers.
"We beg of you . . . to have a complete investigation,'' union President C. A. Romaine wrote. "This request comes as a last resort to get something done down here!''
A copy of a July 29, 1977, letter to the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration discusses safe conversion of uranium oxide contaminated with transuranics. Colley's copy is unsigned but bears a stamp saying the original was signed by G.D. Althouse for Goodyear Atomic, operator of the plant at the time.
The letter said the company wanted to proceed cautiously with uranium oxide processing: "We will increase the scope and frequency of our monitoring (1) to assess the buildup of transuranics in workers' bodies and (2) to determine whether levels of transuranics discharged to the environment are acceptable.''
A 1977 report mentioning the possibility of plutonium at the Piketon plant also is cited in a 1996 letter sent by Cincinnati attorney Louise M. Roselle to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
"In 1977 the plant wrote that trace quantities of transuranics were probably being released to Little Beaver Creek without any monitoring of these materials,'' Roselle said. Her law firm, Waite, Shneider, Bayless and Chesley, has handled lawsuits involving the plant and its workers.
Plant worker Owen Thompson told a Dispatch reporter in 1991 that he had worked for nearly two years in an operation in which spent fuel rods containing plutonium were ground up, mixed with uranium oxide and burned to recover usable uranium. He also described working in contaminated areas with inadequate protective gear and being blistered by hydrogen fluoride.
At the time of the interview, Thompson had undergone surgeries for removal of two brain tumors.
He has since died.