Workers handled plutonium years ago |
Wednesday, September 15, 1999
By Jonathan Riskind
WASHINGTON -- Southern Ohio uranium enrichment workers for years handled a type of plutonium-laced uranium more dangerous than the U.S. government has acknowledged, federal officials said late yesterday after Dispatch inquiries.
In a previously undisclosed operation at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, spent nuclear-reactor fuel was converted to enriched uranium for reuse. That operation, known as oxide conversion, was halted about 1977 because of concerns that workers were being exposed to deadly radiation, according to U.S. Department of Energy documents obtained by The Dispatch.
The agency recommended an "exposure assessment'' in 1985 for the workers involved, but it apparently never was carried out. Plutonium and other "transuranics'' in the used reactor fuel are thousands of times more radioactive than uranium; exposure to even a millionth of an ounce can cause cancer.
"The oxide conversion facility was not able to maintain adequate containment of the radioactive materials,'' according to the September 1985 report of the Joint Task Force on Uranium Recycle Materials Processing.
The process was shut down to make necessary changes, but "These modifications were never funded, and the facility has not been operated since,'' according to the report.
Last month it was revealed that workers at Piketon's sister plant in Paducah, Ky., for decades handled 100,000 tons of plutonium-laced uranium, mostly spent reactor fuel from the government's nuclear reactor in Hanford, Wash.
Energy officials earlier had insisted that Paducah workers handled all the initial conversion and most of the initial enrichment of that material before it was sent to Piketon. That would have meant that Piketon workers dealt with material with a much lower -- though still unknown -- plutonium level, they said.
It is now clear, though, that Piketon did receive some undiluted material directly from nuclear power plants, an Energy spokesman acknowledged yesterday after being shown his agency's own documents.
"A preliminary review of records indicates the Portsmouth plant was involved in limited production tests involving small quantities of reactor return'' fuel from federal nuclear reactors, said Jeff Sherwood, the department spokesman.
"The total quantities, though believed to be small, are uncertain at this time.''
Department officials said they are still gathering evidence about what materials were sent directly to the Piketon plant during the secretive Cold War era of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The agency is conducting a nationwide study of the past 50 years to determine how much recycled reactor fuel was sent where, and how much plutonium was in it.
"In terms of what took place at Portsmouth, we're not discounting anything,'' said Steve Wyatt, another Energy spokesman.
A House Commerce subcommittee will look into the Paducah situation at a hearing Thursday. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, a member of the panel, said he will make sure that Energy officials are asked plenty of questions about Piketon as well.
Strickland said he recently met with Piketon plant guards worried that they had participated in training exercises held in abandoned buildings still contaminated with plutonium.
When Strickland raised that concern with Energy officials, they said the possibility was "not far- fetched.''
Strickland said the key questions now are how much material Piketon received and from how many places. He said he hopes the Energy Department study, due in June, will answer those questions.
"It is not only possible but likely that materials came from multiple sites to Portsmouth,'' he said.
Strickland said he does not think the department is engaging in a cov er-up. Officials are struggling to pull together thorough and accurate information from an era in which secrecy was paramount, he said.
"I think they are finding information they themselves were not aware of,'' he said. "I think they are themselves only coming to understand here that they do not have at this point in time full, accurate information. I do believe they are determined to get it.''
Richard Miller, an analyst for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union -- which represents Piketon and Paducah workers -- said that if federal officials say they don't know what happened at those plants in those days it is because "they don't read their own reports.''
The 1985 report says that beginning in 1953, the federal Idaho Chemical Processing Plant "recovered uranium from spent nuclear fuels, largely from government-owned reactors.'' Piketon's conversion plant turned that material into a gaseous form of uranium that could again be enriched for use in bombs or as nuclear-plant fuel.
A 1993 Energy Department report says, "Interviews and visual assessment confirm'' that part of an old agency building at Piketon "is sealed and no longer used because of contamination'' with plutonium and related materials.
"This area was an oxide-conversion area and is highly radiologically contaminated,'' that report states.
Mary Byrd Davis, who heads the Kentucky-based Uranium Enrichment Project, a nuclear watchdog group that uncovered some of the documents provided to The Dispatch, said there is a big difference between handling spent reactor fuel and handling the far more diluted product that already has been converted and initially enriched.
"What it means is that place was contaminated much more than if the material had just come from Paducah,'' she said.
Enrichment essentially is a purification process. Commercial-grade uranium, such as that used to fuel nuclear power plants, is enriched up to 5 percent -- compared with the 97 percent needed for nuclear weapons.
Herman Potter, safety representative for the union, said the Department of Energy has known for years what happened at Piketon and failed to either monitor the employees who worked in those operations or take care of any health problems they later suffered.
"They've said a lot of things that weren't quite true,'' he said. "Nothing like that surprises me. That's about as blunt as I can be.''
Potter said he's not sure how many workers toiled amid plutonium-laced uranium. He said he doubts it is possible today to measure long-ago exposure levels or prove that any specific illnesses resulted from those exposures.
Current safety measures protect workers, Potter said. But he contends Piketon workers from the Cold War era -- those who came into contact with plutonium and those who worked just with regular uranium -- should be given government medical benefits similar to those given veterans, which cover all health problems.
Uranium ore, which cannot be converted to energy in its natural state, is first converted into a chemical form -- hexafluoride UF6 -- that is heated to gas for the diffusion process and enrichment.
Piketon and Paducah now enrich only commercial-grade uranium and are operated by a former government corporation called USEC that entered private hands last year.
The plutonium-laced uranium was converted at facilities not used by USEC in current operations, although the gaseous uranium product was fed through the current enrichment plants.
A multimillion-dollar federal cleanup effort is under way around sites no longer used on the 3,700- acre Piketon grounds.
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials confirmed last month that plutonium and related materials have been found in some places at levels high enough to "raise eyebrows.''
Meanwhile, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said yesterday that a preliminary investigation into contamination at Paducah found that current safety practices are generally sound and that any past contamination poses no risk to current employees or the public. A similar on-site investigation at Piketon has not been conducted but is expected to take place in the fall.
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch