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  • Plutonium total 'small'

    Thursday, September 30, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    WASHINGTON -- Relatively little plutonium flowed through southern Ohio's uranium enrichment plant, federal officials say, but that's little comfort to Bush McHenry, who worked there and is battling cancer again.

    McHenry, 79, of Blue Creek, Ohio, in Adams County, toiled amid clouds of dust at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant in Piketon, handling used nuclear-reactor fuel during the Cold War.

    Today he is fighting his third bout with cancer since retiring in 1982 -- and learning what he might have been exposed to.

    "I ain't worth a darn,'' said McHenry, who has had stomach cancer and lymphoma. "This last treatment kind of did me in.''

    The government yesterday issued a initial review of the conditions under which Piketon workers, including McHenry, labored for nearly three decades.

    The Energy Department concluded that the Piketon "oxide conversion'' plant received about 1 percent as much of the dangerous material as was sent to similar facilities in Paducah, Ky., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

    Piketon received up to 1,321 tons of spent reactor fuel, which was enriched for reuse. Paducah received about 100,000 tons; Oak Ridge, 17,800 tons, according to the federal review.

    The spent reactor fuel was laced with dangerous materials such as plutonium, which is 100,000 times more radioactive than uranium. Even one-millionth of an ounce of plutonium can cause cancer.

    The Energy Department couldn't say how much radioactive plutonium or neptunium went to Piketon, but the agency estimated that 328 grams (nearly 12 ounces) of plutonium went to Paducah and 60 grams to Oak Ridge. The review said about 18,000 grams of neptunium went to Paducah and 3,500 grams to Oak Ridge.

    "Based on the amount of recycled uranium received, the amount (sent to Piketon) would likely have been small,'' the review said.

    More ominous is that Piketon did receive a significant amount -- about 190 pounds -- of a related product called technetium-99, which also is much more radioactive than uranium and associated with various cancers. Paducah got about 1,475 pounds; Oak Ridge, nearly 230 pounds.

    U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, and Sens. Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich, both R-Ohio, are fighting to have Piketon included in a proposed Energy Department "pilot project'' to compensate Paducah workers for resultant cancers.

    "It is our understanding that there are higher-than-average incidences of bone and lymph cancer among current and former workers at Piketon,'' DeWine and Voinovich wrote to President Clinton on Tuesday.

    "While a link has yet to be established between plutonium exposure and these cancer cases, we encourage the administration to be aggressive in ascertaining the causes and, if linked to work at the (plant), act quickly to ensure that affected employees are compensated.''

    David Michaels, an Energy Department assistant secretary, acknowledged that despite yesterday's report, the agency cannot say for sure what was in all the Piketon shipments.

    And while the Energy Department says the amount of plutonium sent there is relatively small, officials aren't saying there is no cause for concern among Piketon workers who turned out weapons-grade uranium during the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

    "I don't think anyone is trying to minimize the importance of it just because it's a lesser quantity,'' said Steve Wyatt, an Energy Department spokesman. "We're talking about materials you have to take very seriously.''

    McHenry, contacted by telephone at his home, said none of the workers knew what they were exposed to.

    He worked in an area where technetium was removed from uranium before it was enriched. He was protected only by a World War II-era gas mask.

    "There was a lot of dust.''

    William C. Bird of Jackson, Ohio, who also worked in both the conversion plant and the technetium-removal area during three decades at the Piketon facility, said he knows many former workers stricken by various cancers through the years. Bird, 75, has had health problems and wonders whether he, too, will get cancer.

    He said from his home that Paducah workers went on strike in 1978. He and other Piketon workers were ordered to clean equipment from there that he later learned was contaminated with plutonium. During the conversion operation, he recalls seeing cylinders of material tagged with labels indicating they came from the Hanford, Wash., reactor and elsewhere.

    "There was oodles of it,'' Bird said.

    And if he was exposed to just a "small'' amount?

    "It don't take much.''

    Strickland said he won't be satisfied until the Energy Department can definitively say what went to Piketon and what potential health problems could have resulted. Lacking definitive evidence, the government should bend over backward to help workers and their families, he said.

    "Even if they can't establish a direct link, the simple fact that these workers were placed in a work environment under these conditions means every benefit of the doubt should go to them,'' Strickland said.

    Meanwhile, the department's study will continue, including a look at what materials might have gone to an Ashtabula company, Reactive Metal Inc., and to the Fernald plant near Cincinnati.

    Michaels plans to visit southern Ohio in late October, and both the department and the Paper, Oil, Atomic and Chemical Employees union -- which represents Piketon workers -- are conducting health surveys of current and former workers.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch