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  • Retiree fears for health after years of exposure

    Radiation at Piketon

    Sunday, October 17, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    In the 1980s, Robert Elkins, a retiree of the Piketon nuclear plant, refused two government offers to buy his body for study after he dies.-->

    WASHINGTON -- When he worked at southern Ohio's uranium-enrichment plant, Robert Elkins sometimes joked with his co- workers about their exposure to high doses of radiation.

    That was before the federal government in 1982 sought to buy Elkins' body for scientific study after his death.

    Since then, the New Boston, Ohio, resident has seen a number of co-workers die of cancer.

    And, this year, he learned that during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, some workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon apparently were exposed to spent nuclear- reactor fuel containing potentially deadly plutonium-laced uranium.

    While working at the plant, Elkins knew from radiation-monitoring tests that he had a lot of uranium in his body.

    But he was shocked when federal officials offered to pay his wife $500 if the couple would agree to leave his corpse to science, Elkins, 70, told The Dispatch last week.

    He said he was called into a meeting with plant officials and doctors and a physician from a medical laboratory at the nuclear site in Hanford, Wash. The Hanford doctor handed him an authorization form.

    "He said they wanted my body for science,'' Elkins recalled.

    He and his wife, Leola, refused to sign it and, asked again about a year later, declined a second time.

    The form, a copy of which Elkins provided The Dispatch, says: "Such organs or structures as might be needed for detailed study may be removed and retained.''

    The government wanted to place him on its uranium registry -- the national tracking vehicle for people exposed to the radioactive element who have agreed to turn over their bodies for scientific study. Elkins was targeted because his body showed a consistently high level of uranium.

    A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy said Friday that one Piketon worker had agreed to be on the registry, but the spokesman would not provide a name or say whether the worker is still alive.

    Neptunium exposure

    Elkins, one of 12 original operators in the conversion plant, worked in that area from 1955 to 1965, when his uranium levels became so high that supervisors permanently transferred him to other parts of the facility, where uranium is enriched for use as nuclear fuel.

    He'd worried about his uranium readings over the years, but now he wonders whether he should have been more concerned about other, more dangerous materials that also showed up on the tests.

    Copies of test results Elkins has kept since 1982 show positive readings for quantities of neptunium and several other nuclear byproducts that should not have been present in the uranium-enrichment process.

    Like plutonium, neptunium can cause cancers in minute amounts. Both are thousands of times more radioactive than uranium. The plant did not test for plutonium.

    Elkins' October 1982 test results showed that he had 0.18 nanocurie of neptunium in his system.

    The existence of detectable levels 17 years after he was transferred from the conversion area might suggest "very substantial'' exposure to the material in the 1950s and '60s, said Argun Makhijani, president of the Washington-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

    Makhijani, a nuclear-fusion expert, was a consultant to a now-dormant lawsuit alleging that the Piketon plant contaminated the area around it.

    Goodyear Atomic, which ran the Piketon plant until 1986, said in a 1979 memo that it expected to find no neptunium in workers but that positive test results suggested the material might be present. The memo said that levels comparable to Elkins' in the 1980s could be statistically insignificant or could mean the presence of neptunium.

    The memo, written by a Goodyear Atomic health physicist, recommended further study. The company is no longer in business, and it could not be determined last week whether that study took place.

    'Smoking gun'

    David Michaels, assistant secretary of energy for safety, health and environment, said Friday that a department-planned investigation of the Piketon plant will look at individuals' exposure records to determine whether an overall pattern exists.

    "The reports of individuals with cancer at the Piketon plant are of great concern to the Department of Energy, and Secretary (Bill) Richardson and the entire department are committed to finding out if exposures at the facility could have caused these diseases,'' Michaels said. "Those reports . . . are going to be extremely important to us in examining what exposures occurred at the Piketon plant over the last 45 years.''

    Michaels plans to visit the Piketon plant this fall to hear from workers, former workers and their families.

    News broke in August that workers at Piketon's sister plant in Paducah, Ky., unknowingly handled more than 100,000 tons of plutonium-laced uranium as part of a government program to recycle reactor fuel during the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

    The Dispatch disclosed last month that the Piketon plant, also without the workers' knowledge, received similar material.

    Michaels and other department officials have said that the amounts of plutonium- and neptunium-laced reactor fuel that went to Piketon were relatively small compared with those at Paducah, and that the material arriving at Piketon was less contaminated. The amounts that went to Piketon were so small, the officials said, that they might not be able to be measured.

    Yet Elkins' body contained enough neptunium to register on tests.

    Matthew McKenzie thinks that is enough evidence to show that Elkins was working with tainted materials he shouldn't have been exposed to.

    "It's a smoking gun that he was dealing with spent fuel rather than uranium just taken out of the ground,'' said McKenzie, a senior scientist at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council. The council has been involved in a lawsuit against former contractors at the Paducah plant.

    Health concerns

    Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, and other Ohio lawmakers have argued that former Piketon workers are also Cold War veterans who should be included in a proposed Clinton administration initiative to compensate Paducah workers who might have suffered cancer and other problems from their exposure.

    Strickland acknowledges the difficulty of proving workers' level of exposure to tainted material and drawing a direct link to cancer or other illnesses.

    Still, the benefit of the doubt should favor the workers, he said.

    Elkins and fellow workers didn't realize what they were dealing with at the time.

    "They just said it was uranium,'' Elkins said. "They'd tell you only what they wanted you to know.''

    The workers converted the spent fuel back into the type of gaseous uranium that again could be enriched so it could be used as nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons. The Piketon plant -- run now by a privatized federal corporation -- enriches uranium only for use as commercial- grade nuclear fuel.

    Elkins still worries about potential health problems. He and his wife blame a nervous breakdown he suffered in 1976 on work-related anxiety, and they wonder whether a 1979 heart attack and chronic bronchitis also stem from his job.

    Cancer deaths

    Elkins thinks he is one of only two or three of the original dozen conversion-plant operators still alive. At least five of the workers, he said, died of cancer.

    The first, whose name Elkins couldn't recall, died of leukemia in the 1970s in his early 40s.

    Another, William Murphy, died of colon cancer in 1989 at age 64.

    "He felt he would die of cancer,'' Murphy's widow, Joanne, said last week. "He would have raised Cain if he knew about the plutonium.''

    The widow of a man who worked in the conversion plant in the 1970s said her husband was convinced that his job was to blame for the rare brain cancer he battled.

    Susan Thompson said her husband, Owen, worked in the conversion plant in 1977 and '78. A brain tumor was diagnosed in 1986, and he died last year, at 46.

    Radiation-monitoring tests showed that Thompson's body contained no neptunium in 1976, according to his records. But starting in 1977, the year he began working in the conversion plant, neptunium showed up -- as it did in testing done by plant doctors through 1985, when he first became ill and stopped working.

    Plant contamination

    In 1991, Thompson claimed at an Energy Department hearing on nuclear-site cleanup programs that he had worked with plutonium and related materials.

    A story about the hearing in the Portsmouth Daily Times quoted an Energy Department official as saying that plutonium wasn't part of the uranium-enrichment process. He couldn't say for certain, though, that no plutonium would be found on the site.

    A 1972 environmental monitoring report by Goodyear Atomic said uranium and a related product, thorium, "are the only radioactive elements present in significant quantities'' at Piketon.

    Five years later, though, Piketon's conversion plant was shut down because of concern that contamination couldn't be contained -- an acknowledgment that wasn't made public at the time.

    The facility today "is sealed because of potential or suspected contamination from transuranics (a group of radioactive elements that includes plutonium and neptunium),'' a 1993 Energy Department report says.

    Elkins recalled that plant managers and doctors told him that the radiation level would decline and that his exposure would present no future health problems.

    As late as Elkins' retirement in 1985, however, his body still contained small quantities of neptunium, as well as two nuclear-fission byproducts, cesium and technetium. His uranium levels remained high.

    Looking back, he said he had little choice but to continue working at the plant.

    "That was my livelihood.''


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch