October 13, 1999
No tritium detected in workers
By Bill Bartleman
Initial test results of health physics technicians at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant showed no signs of the presence of tritium in their bodies.
"It is what we expected," said Elizabeth Stuckle, spokeswoman for USEC Inc., the plant operator. "We do not use tritium in any aspect of the uranium enrichment process."
Seven workers were tested last week after a plant employee notified USEC that tritium was discovered in April in the urine of a man who had left the Paducah plant to work at another nuclear facility.
Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen and can exist as a liquid or gas. It is used commercially in self-illuminating devices such as watches, exit signs and night scopes on rifles. It also was used in the production of hydrogen bombs.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said low levels of exposure are common and can come from tritium's leaking from a watch or other self-illuminating device.
High levels of exposure can cause cancer and other health problems.
Stuckle said the plant identified seven health physics technicians who worked in the same areas of the plant as the former employee. Urine samples were taken, and the results of the first four - received Tuesday - were negative, Stuckle said.
Results of the other three are expected no later than the end of the week. "We anticipate those results will be the same," Stuckle said.
She said the tests were conducted even though officials felt confident that the contamination did not come from inside the plant. "We always take a conservative road in these kinds of reports," she said. "It was a prudent business decision to go ahead and have the individuals tested."
Plant officials would not identify the former employee who had tritium in his system. They said that although it was in his urine, the level was below what is considered a health risk.
The man worked at the plant from June 1998 until April. His wife continues to work at the Paducah plant in the health physics department, Stuckle said.
Stuckle said USEC officials have been trying to contact the former employee in an effort to help trace the source of contamination. However, she said that "he has not responded to those efforts."
The employee who reported the test results that revealed the tritium to USEC also is a health physics technician but has not been identified because of confidentiality rules, Stuckle said.
In recent months, the plant has attracted nationwide attention regarding the possible existence of highly radioactive contaminants stored on the site and buried in landfills.
Allegations in two federal lawsuits include the existence of trace amounts of neptunium and plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel that was reprocessed at the plant from 1952 to 1976.
The U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the plant and leases production facilities to USEC, has confirmed those elements' presence but said the plant is safe for workers and neighbors.
DOE is also planning a $1 billion cleanup of contaminated waste.