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  • Piketon workers may get money

    Friday, September 17, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

  • An investigation first must link their cancers to the plutonium sent to the plant through the 1970s.

    WASHINGTON -- Southern Ohio uranium-enrichment workers exposed to plutonium during the Cold War may be compensated if a federal investigation links cancers to their work, a top U.S. Department of Energy official said yesterday.

    By November, officials hope to determine just how much deadly material was delivered to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon from the 1950s through the '70s and whether workers are suffering health problems today as a result.

    The comments by a senior Energy Department official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, came on the same day that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced a proposed "pilot project'' to compensate workers at a sister plant in Paducah, Ky., for lost wages and health benefits. The initiative could cost as much as $20 million if approved by Congress, the official said.

    Richardson also announced a separate $21.8 million initiative to speed cleanup efforts and medical monitoring at Paducah, Piketon and a former uranium-enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

    But Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, expressed outrage that Piketon wasn't included in the pilot project for Paducah workers, saying Piketon employees have been exposed to similar contaminants. He said a top Energy Department official told him that the department wanted to include the other two sites, but the idea was quashed by Department of Defense and Department of Justice officials worried that anything other than a very limited program for Paducah would open a can of worms at nuclear facilities nationwide.

    "I was told by a high-ranking Department of Energy official that these other workers are being left out in the cold because the Department of Defense fears setting a precedent that will force it to pay for the countless Americans who may have been exposed to radiation during weapons testing and research,'' Strickland said. "The fact is, the only way the Department of Defense and the White House will accept the secretary's initiative is if it is dubbed a 'pilot' program and it is restricted to workers in Paducah.''

    Defense and Justice officials could not be reached for comment.

    However, the senior Energy official said his department might extend the benefits program to Piketon workers after it completes an investigation. The probe will include a visit to southern Ohio in October or November to meet with workers, consult medical officials and gather other information.

    He acknowledged that there was "an option around at one time'' to include Piketon and Oak Ridge in the initial program, but the department opted for a limited program because more is known about Paducah's situation now.

    "Piketon will be one of the first places we focus on,'' the official said. "The Paducah pilot project will help us toward that process. The investigation of what went into Piketon is ongoing now. We hope to have answers within the next month or two.''

    A congressional hearing scheduled for yesterday on the Paducah and Piketon radiation problems was postponed because of Hurricane Floyd.

    Strickland said he would try to expand the administration's pilot program beyond Paducah before it leaves Congress. It shouldn't be necessary to complete the Piketon investigation to set aside the same benefits for Piketon workers found to be suffering from plutonium-related illnesses, he said.

    Last month, the Washington Post revealed that workers at Paducah over a period of decades handled some 100,000 tons of plutonium- laced uranium, mostly spent reactor fuel from the government's nuclear reactor in Hanford, Wash. The recycling process, a flawed attempt by the government to reuse nuclear fuel, resulted in workers apparently being exposed to plutonium and other radioactive materials far more deadly than uranium.

    Energy Department officials first said that all the initial conversion and most of the initial enrichment of that material was done at Paducah. As a result, they maintained, the material sent to the 3,700-acre facility at Piketon had a much lower -- though still unknown -- plutonium level.

    However, The Dispatch disclosed Tuesday -- and Energy Department officials later confirmed -- that the more dangerous spent reactor fuel also was sent directly to Piketon. What isn't clear is how much material went to Piketon and whether it can be tied to cancers that a number of former workers suffer.

    The plutonium that Piketon workers were exposed to is thousands of times more radioactive than the uranium they were supposed to be handling; even a millionth of an ounce can cause cancer.

    "This is a particular type of radioactive exposure that is quite pernicious,'' said the Energy official.

    He said he doesn't expect to find a need for a benefits program in all the nation's energy and defense nuclear facilities. The use of plutonium- laced uranium -- and the exposure workers suffered at Paducah and possibly Piketon -- is "unique,'' the official said.

    A number of former Piketon workers have wondered for years whether their cancers were caused by helping fuel the nation's atomic defense.

    Dan Minter, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, which represents Piketon workers, also was upset that Piketon was not included in the pilot project. However, he predicted that would change when more facts emerge.

    "This cannot be something they will stick with,'' Minter said. "I will assume the same remedy will be afforded here.''

    Enrichment essentially is a purification process. Piketon and Paducah now enrich only commercial-grade uranium and are operated by a former government corporation called USEC. Plant officials have said modern safety standards protect workers.

    In Paducah, a preliminary Energy Department investigation found no imminent danger to workers or the public from radioactive waste. But the report issued earlier this week also called for strengthening of safety practices at the cleanup site.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch