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  • Energy secretary pledges plutonium probe at Piketon plant

    Saturday, September 18, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson yesterday promised to find out how much deadly plutonium southern Ohio uranium-enrichment workers were exposed to during the Cold War.

    Ohio's two U.S. senators and a southern Ohio congressman promised to create a political firestorm if Richardson doesn't make good on his pledge or if he isn't allowed to by other elements in the federal government.

    The Energy Department's efforts so far have focused on an alleged link between plutonium and cancer at a sister plant in Paducah, Ky. Richardson visited Paducah on Thursday night to apologize for any harm the government might have caused and to promise $20 million in compensation -- if Congress approves -- to Paducah workers shown to have cancers linked to radiation.

    Federal officials also will conduct a probe of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, to find out whether workers there suffered medical problems and deserve help as well, Richardson said.

    "I am not going to forget Piketon,'' Richardson said in a statement. "We will be addressing that site soon.''

    He gave similar assurances to U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, who represents the southern Ohio region.

    "He just said, 'Listen Ted, this has happened so quickly. Don't you be concerned. We are going to make sure your workers are cared for,' '' said Strickland, recounting what Richardson told him in person.

    But Strickland still is angry that Piketon wasn't included in the pilot project pledging benefits to ill workers at Paducah, saying Ohio workers were exposed to similar contaminants.

    The federal government at first said that spent reactor fuel containing the plutonium went only to Paducah to be converted to enriched, less-radioactive uranium that could be used again as fuel. It said the Piketon facility received only diluted material sent from Paducah.

    But Energy officials confirmed this week that Piketon also had a reactor-fuel conversion plant during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The department now will try to figure out how much reactor fuel with plutonium wound up at Piketon and whether the fuel caused cancers reported for years by former Piketon workers.

    Sens. Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich wrote a letter yesterday telling Richardson that the revelations about Piketon are "greatly disturbing.'' The two Republicans said they are "concerned by the department's failure to assess the situation and respond in a timely manner.''

    DeWine vowed to wreak political havoc if Richardson's promises aren't kept.

    "Equity and parity and justice is what we are after,'' he said. "The federal government created whatever problem is there, and the federal government needs to deal with that for Ohio workers as well as for Kentucky workers.''

    But Strickland worries "other elements within the administration are powerful enough to overwhelm'' whatever Richardson recommends.

    DeWine said if Strickland is correct and help for Piketon workers is stalled by other parts of the administration, "We're going to raise enough hell so that doesn't occur.''

    Voinovich was not available for comment yesterday.

    Strickland said the initial Energy Department recommendation was to include the other sites in the pilot project with Paducah. That idea was quashed by Department of Defense and Department of Justice officials, who said something other than a limited program for Paducah would open the government to similar demands from workers at nuclear facilities nationwide, he said.

    But one source familiar with the controversy said that although Defense and Justice officials balked at including Piketon and a former uranium-enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., the proposal was killed by senior White House advisers.

    A senior Energy Department official acknowledged that including Piketon and Oak Ridge was an "option.'' He insisted it was solely the Energy Department's decision to start with Paducah because more is known about the plutonium that flowed to the Kentucky plant.

    The official said that in July, a $13 million compensation plan was set for federal nuclear-plant workers exposed to beryllium, a chemical involved in producing atomic weapons. President Clinton wants the department to survey all its current and former sites nationwide to determine whether other workers have health problems, he said.

    Richardson told Paducah workers Thursday night that the federal government owes them an apology.

    "On behalf of the United States government, I am here to say I am sorry,'' Richardson said, according to his prepared remarks. "From the evidence that has been uncovered recently, it is obvious that we were not forthcoming about possible exposure to plutonium, and that was wrong. At the same time, we don't have any evidence that plutonium exposure caused illnesses to workers or members of the community. But we're going to get to the bottom of this.''


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch