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  • Plutonium admission angers workers

    Piketon plant

    Thursday, September 16, 1999

    By Bob Dreitzler and Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Staff Reporters

  • They said the government should have warned them about dangerous conditions.

    Thirteen years after he left his job as an electrician at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Pike County, Rick Mingus learned he probably had been exposed to plutonium.

    "I don't like it very well,'' Mingus said yesterday of the federal government's admission this week that workers at the Piketon uranium-enrichment plant unwittingly handled the highly radioactive plutonium.

    "We should have been advised of the conditions we were working in,'' he said.

    The Dispatch reported yesterday that workers were exposed to plutonium-laced uranium more dangerous than the U.S. government had acknowledged. In a previously undisclosed operation at the plant about 70 miles south of Columbus, spent nuclear-reactor fuel was converted to enriched uranium for reuse. The operation was halted in 1977 for fear that workers were being exposed to deadly radiation, according to U.S. Department of Energy documents obtained by the newspaper.

    Plutonium is thousands of times more radioactive than the uranium normally handled at the plant. Even a millionth of an ounce of plutonium can cause cancer.

    Contamination and worker safety at Piketon and a sister facility in Paducah, Ky., were to have been discussed at a congressional hearing today, but Congress adjourned for the week to avoid Hurricane Floyd.

    Mingus, 42, learned recently that he has colon cancer.

    He said he doesn't know that working at the plant caused his illness, but this week's news strengthened his suspicions. While his cancer was recently diagnosed, symptoms emerged at least eight years ago, he said.

    He said two of his electrician friends lost their larynxes to throat cancer.

    "As an electrician, you got in there and crawled over everything, everywhere,'' Mingus said.

    They would pull motors from all parts of the plant and take them to a motor shop for reconditioning, he said.

    As part of his training during his first year on the job, Mingus said, he worked in every department and every building on the 3,700-acre complex, including one building sealed in 1986 because of contamination.

    He said he never heard plutonium mentioned while at the plant.

    Paducah, then Piketon
    Last month, it was revealed that workers at Paducah for decades handled 100,000 tons of plutonium-laced uranium, mostly recycled from spent reactor fuel from the government's nuclear reactor in Hanford, Wash. Piketon and Paducah spent the Cold War enriching uranium for bombs and nuclear fuel.

    Previously, Energy Department officials said all the initial conversion and most of the initial enrichment was done at Paducah. As a result, the material sent to Piketon for further enrichment had much lower plutonium levels, they said.

    But agency officials confirmed to The Dispatch on Tuesday that Piketon had its own conversion plant and got some of the highly radioactive material directly. They said they do not know how much material flowed through it from the 1950s to the '70s.

    "You know those people knew that was there,'' Mingus said. "They had to know it was there. They're just like the (military) service; they just tell you the least that they think you have to know.''

    Little solace for workers

    Vina Colley still isn't convinced that workers and the Piketon community are hearing everything they need to know.

    "I think we are still getting a little bit of a runaround,'' she said.

    Colley, 53, is a former electrician at the plant who left in the early 1980s because of health problems. She has become an activist who monitors the plant for health issues. She is president of Portsmouth and Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety.

    Colley said her research had led her to wonder whether she had been exposed to plutonium, but she never knew for certain until this week.

    "I am still in shock,'' she said. "I am worried about how much of this I might have carried home to my family.''

    She's also worried more now about her own health problems.

    Colley suffers from chronic bronchitis, chronic fatigue, hair loss, rashes, and thyroid and connective- tissue problems. She's had three tumors removed and a hysterectomy.

    She said she wonders how well workers at the plant are being protected today.

    In the past, she said, contaminated areas in the plant were painted to seal in the contamination. "Once the paint wears off, the contamination is still there,'' she said.

    EPA wants answers

    The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency also wants to know more about how much spent reactor fuel went through the conversion plant in the "X-705'' building.

    Maria Galanti, the state EPA's project coordinator for cleanup of the 3,700-acre grounds, said the agency is trying to determine the type of testing needed around the building to identify the extent of the contamination.

    The part of the building used to convert the raw reactor material was closed in 1978 because of concerns about leaks of radioactivity, according to a 1985 Energy Department report. However, Galanti said other parts of the building are still used by employees of USEC, which now operates the plant.

    It's clear from past testing that significant levels of plutonium are present in a nearby patch of ground that received waste from the X-705 building. But more checking is needed because of the Energy Department's past statements that little testing for plutonium was needed, Galanti said.

    She noted that Energy Department officials estimated last month that only one ounce of plutonium went to Piketon over the years, compared to 12 ounces to Paducah. Given that the department now admits there was a conversion plant at Piketon, and that it doesn't know how much reactor fuel was processed there, Galanti wonders how could it have arrived at such a specific figure.

    "They have never given me anything to verify those numbers,'' she said. "That's what I'm asking for. How do you know?''


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch