The Pducah Sun

Beryllium adds to DOE concerns

Friday, September 03, 1999

By Joe Walker
Copyright 1999, The Paducah Sun

An old Department of Energy memorandum mentions that beryllium, a highly toxic metal used in nuclear weapons, was used at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, said a health physicist who is helping with a health study of former plant workers.

"It could have been in a laboratory on a very small scale, so I don't want to raise any concerns until we know more about this," said Mark Griffon of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "It didn't say anything about potentially exposed workers, either, so I'm not sure in what quantity or where this beryllium might have been at the Paducah facility."

Griffon said he does not recall whether the memo mentioned when the beryllium was in the plant, although it was probably not in recent years. In "risk mapping" discussions Aug. 17, a few former plant workers recalled dismantling nuclear missile parts for smelting many years ago but knew nothing about beryllium, he said.

"Some folks have suggested that the cones of the missiles were made of or coated with beryllium," Griffon said. "I didn't make much headway into that issue. If, in fact, it was used, they (workers interviewed) didn't know anything about it."

The retired workers said they had not heard about beryllium until news reports in July, when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that the department would provide at least $11 million in benefits for contract workers exposed to certain toxic substances, notably beryllium. The department mentioned former workers in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and other cities as being exposed, but not Paducah. Union officials and federal lawmakers from Kentucky pledged to fight to expand the benefits to the Paducah plant.

Griffon, involved in the study of thousands of former enrichment plant workers, said he saw the beryllium memo about three months ago in the dead archive vault at a closed uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge. The memo was from DOE officials in Oak Ridge to those in Washington, he said.

"It's going through declassification, and I'm waiting for follow-up," Griffon said.

He said the memo mentioned that beryllium was at the Oak Ridge plant, and to a lesser extent at Paducah, but not at an enrichment plant at Portsmouth, Ohio.

Beryllium, a lightweight metal machined for use in nuclear weapons and reactors, is extremely toxic when particles are inhaled or ingested. The result is chronic, often disabling and sometimes fatal lung ailments.

The Department of Energy, which is investigating reports that workers were unwittingly exposed to radiation and toxins, says traces of plutonium entered the Paducah plant as a contaminant in nuclear fuel rods from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. The department has not mentioned beryllium in association with the probe.

Griffon said a few past workers recalled recovering gold from missile parts and smelting the leftover metal for ingots.

"They didn't have any knowledge of any plutonium exposure associated with their work," he said. "That doesn't mean it wasn't there. It may have been a small quantity."

Dr. Steven Markowitz, an epidemiologist with Queens College, City University of New York, is leading the health study. The investigation has not revealed beryllium, although only about 100 Paducah workers have been screened, he said.

"We don't have any knowledge that beryllium was used at Paducah, but if it should surface, we would obviously add it to the medical screening," Markowitz said. "It has a way of showing up unexpectedly."

Sylvia Kieding, study coordinator, said medical testing for beryllium disease started at Oak Ridge when the study identified it as a hazard.

Paducah plant workers recovered thousands of ounces of gold from components of disassembled nuclear weapons that were shipped to Paducah from Texas in the early 1950s until 1986, DOE officials said recently. They denied allegations - made in a federal lawsuit by three plant workers - that warheads were shipped into the plant at night and disassembled to recover the gold.

DOE also has denied allegations in the suit that the gold was radioactive. Gold recycling reportedly ended in 1986.