September 15, 1999
Neptunium at plant as early as '57
By Bill Bartleman
A problem with neptunium contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant was detected as early as 1960, when officials of the former Atomic Energy Commission met in Paducah to discuss health risks from the highly radioactive, cancercausing element.
The U.S. Department of Energy's special investigative team that was in Paducah for two weeks uncovered a fourpage document about a March 11, 1960, meeting at which AEC officials discussed health risks and concern about the way workers were handling recycled uranium contaminated with neptunium.
The document indicates that officials with Union Carbide Corp., which managed the plant at the time, were reluctant to conduct tests on 300 workers who may have been exposed. It said managers "hesitate to proceed to intensive studies because of the (employee) union's use of this as an excuse for hazard pay."
The document indicates that protective equipment was not adequate for workers. It suggested testing workers who died, saying there was "a need to get postmortem samples on any of these potentially contaminated men for correlation of tissue content with urine output."
The document written by Dr. H.D. Bruner, a medical researcher for the federal government, said the postmortem testing was unlikely because "I am afraid the policy at this plant is to be wary of the unions and any unfavorable public relations."
The Sun obtained a copy of the document that is expected to be released at a congressional committee hearing Thursday in Washington.
Late Tuesday, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary for Environment, Safety and Health, confirmed the authenticity of the document.
"We are taking this document and all materials uncovered by our investigative team very seriously as we continue to determine the current situation and about any dangers in the past," he said, adding that it is one of many being used to recreate the history of the plant and contaminants that were brought in without the knowledge of most workers. Until the late 1980s, most of the operations at the plant were classified as secret because of work surrounding the building of nuclear weapons for the military.
"As our investigation continues, we are trying to recreate a history that is not necessarily welldocumented," Michaels said. "While it may take some time, we will get to the bottom of what has taken place."
The document could be significant for three workers and an environmental group that filed a federal lawsuit alleging that contamination at the plant during its 47year history has been much worse than indicated in previous reports and studies.
The suit alleges, among other things, that recycled nuclear fuel was brought into Paducah from the Hanford nuclear reactor in Washington that was contaminated with plutonium. It said that workers were not adequately protected from the plutonium and that some may have become ill.
The document that was discovered within the past month by DOE investigators indicates that the recycled fuel from Hanford was contaminated with neptunium, which is a much greater health risk than plutonium.
The document indicates that plant officials knew of the presence of neptunium contamination as early as 1957. The level of neptunium was slight but still a threat to health of workers, the report said. The amounts ranged from 0.05 to 1 gram of neptunium for each ton of uranium.
The report said the health risk was to workers involved in dismantling cascade units that were taken out of operation for repair. The units had deposits of neptunium, the report said.
"The workers are supposed to wear special nosemouth face masks, but they are not controlled too closely," Bruner said in the 1960 report. "I watched one man push up his mask and smoke a cigarette using potentially contaminated hands and gloves."
He said some of the protective coverings for the cascade units were "of limited effectiveness." It also said some of the neptunium contamination was vented outside through building exhaust systems.
The report urged officials at the Paducah plant to make immediate improvements in personal protective devices and in methods used to repair the cascade units.
"It appears that Paducah has a neptunium problem, but we don't have data to tell how serious it is," the report said in conclusion, adding that the human contamination "will inevitably come more to the forefront."