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  • Piketon uranium plant meets safety standards, agency says

    Thursday, October 28, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    WASHINGTON -- Current operations at southern Ohio's uranium enrichment plant are safe, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    Although the federal government is probing Cold War- era practices at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, workers and residents near the facility are adequately protected, the agency concluded.

    The regulatory commission held a public meeting yesterday in Kentucky to unveil the results of a safety inspection of a sister plant in Paducah. A similar meeting to discuss the inspection of the Piketon, Ohio, plant begins at 9 a.m. today at the Ohio State University Center in Piketon.

    A commission official said the results will be pretty much the same.

    "They're doing a good job from the standpoint of the controls they have in place to make sure people aren't exposed'' to harmful doses of radiation, said John Jacobson, the agency's inspector at Paducah. "Portsmouth won't be significantly different.''

    The Piketon and Paducah plants are run by a private company, the United States Enrichment Corp., but the federal government still owns them.

    "We appreciate the NRC doing such a thorough inspection of our program,'' said Elizabeth Stuckle, a company spokeswoman. "We are pleased that they reconfirmed to themselves that our program is adequate to protect plant employees and the community. We commit to always ensuring our programs will adequately protect our neighbors and plant workers.''

    The regulatory commission did question the company's method of calculating radiation exposure to so- called transuranics at the Paducah site.

    Transuranics are highly radioactive elements such as plutonium that contaminated Paducah during the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The government shipped plutonium-tainted uranium there and to the Piketon plant as part of a program to recycle spent nuclear-reactor fuel.

    However, even if the commission's preferred method were used, any doses of transuranics a Paducah worker could beexposed to now are below federal regulatory levels, the commission said.

    The Piketon and Paducah plants enrich uranium for commercial nuclear power plantsto use as fuel. The plants opened in the mid-1950s as key components of the nation's atomic-defense program and enriched weapons- grade uranium.

    The commission's inspection of current plant operations is separate from a U.S. Department of Energy investigation into past plant conditions and cleanup efforts on Energy Department-controlled areas of the sites.

    For almost 30 years, the Paducah and Piketon plants received plutonium-laced uranium as part of a government program to recycle spent nuclear-reactor fuel.

    In the process, workers unknowingly were exposed to highly radioactive elements much more deadly than uranium. The Energy Department is investigating whether Paducah and Piketon workers' health suffered as a result.

    The Energy Department already has determined that cleanup efforts on the areas of the Paducah plant it controls have not adequately safeguarded workers since 1990. It will take a similar look at cleanup efforts in Piketon starting next month.

    Any buildings or land at the 3,700-acre Piketon site not used by the private company are the Energy Department's responsibility to clean up.

    The multibillion-dollar decontamination effort will take years.

    When USEC stops using the plants, they, too, will revert to the federal government for cleanup.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch