Strickland vows Piketon workers will share compensation |
Thursday, September 23, 1999
By Jonathan Riskind
WASHINGTON -- Breathing clouds of plutonium-laced dust.
Covered with asbestos particles.
Exposed to smoke plumes of airborne uranium and a plethora of other toxic materials.
And tracking it all home at the end of the day.
During the Cold War, that was life at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, uranium worker Jim Key told a congressional committee yesterday.
Today, Key wonders if he will inevitably be stricken with cancer. Numerous other workers wonder if the cancers they already have are a result of years of working in such hazardous conditions.
The House Commerce Committee's oversight subcommittee spent the day probing current and former conditions at the Kentucky uranium-enrichment plant, prompted by recent reports that -- unbeknown to workers -- deadly plutonium-laced uranium flowed through there during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Members of Congress reacted strongly to allegations that former plant contractors subjected workers to dangerous conditions, and that the U.S. Department of Energy exercised feeble oversight.
Although the Paducah plant was the focus yesterday, Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, was calling for a hearing into similar problems at its sister facility, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio. Strickland vowed yesterday to amend a U.S. Department of Energy proposal to compensate former Paducah workers suffering from cancer to include Piketon as well.
Strickland has contended that some Defense Department officials and others in the Clinton administration are opposed to even covering Paducah workers, fearing it will set a precedent and open a Pandora's box for any number of nuclear facilities.
He pointed to a memo he obtained yesterday to back that assertion: "The proposal establishes a precedent for compensation of occupational radiation injury claims'' without requiring a definite link between cancers and on-the-job radiation exposure, stated Thomas M. Beckett, deputy director for naval reactors within the Defense Department.
Strickland said it was probably impossible at this point, given incomplete, missing and possibly inaccurate information, to make a definite link. The presumption should be that workers are entitled to such compensation, he said.
Strickland was told during the hearing that a full-fledged Energy Department probe of what occurred at Piketon during the Cold War won't begin until November and officials won't visit the southern Ohio plant until early January.
Also, a health survey will be done of some 6,000 former workers at Paducah, Piketon and another former plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Strickland said yesterday that the negligence demonstrated at the plants in the past warrants a criminal investigation.
Some Kentucky workers have sued the former contractors at Paducah, saying they didn't exercise proper precautions and misled the government about what was going on at the plant.
The Department of Energy is investigating its past oversight. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has apologized to former workers and pledged to compensate people suffering radiation-caused cancers.
Workers at the Piketon plant likely were exposed to similar, if not identical, materials, said Dan Minter, president of the union representing the workers.
In addition to a toxic brew of chemicals and radioactive materials that for years went into weapons-grade uranium, Piketon, like Paducah, also received shipments of plutonium-laced uranium.
The highly radioactive material was contained in spent nuclear-reactor fuel the federal government sent to Paducah and Piketon for recycling into another batch of fuel.
The conversion plant that recycled the reactor fuel at Piketon was closed in 1977 when officials grew concerned about dangerous radioactive emissions, but workers for years may have been exposed to plutonium- laced dust. It was unclear how much plutonium may have gone through the plant's uranium-enrichment process after conversion.
Even a millionth of an ounce of plutonium can cause cancer.
Since 1993, the uranium-enrichment plants have been run by a privatized federal corporation, USEC, and produce only low- grade enriched uranium for nuclear fuel.
James H. Miller, USEC executive vice president, testified yesterday that his company has taken significant steps to upgrade safety, identify contaminated areas and reduce potential worker exposures to radiation.
John J. Hummer, director of corporate environment, safety and health for Lockheed Martin, the contractor that ran Paducah and Piketon beginning in the mid-1980s, said his company always fully informed the government about the state of worker safety, radiation contamination left from past years and carried out all safety obligations.
No one from Union Carbide, the contractor for the Paducah plant until 1984, testified.
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch