The Paducah Sun

October 28, 1999

NRC gives USEC good safety report

By Bill Bartleman
The Paducah Sun

The United States Enrichment Corp. said it has already begun to make changes at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant that are in response to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation that found some deficiencies.

"Overall, our conclusion is that radiological control programs protect the workers and the health and safety of the community," James E. Dyer, NRC's Region 3 administrator, said Wednesday at a public meeting.

He and other NRC officials also said that a review of plant records indicates that of 3,000 employees and former employees monitored in 1998, no one had an exposure level that was close to NRC health and safety limits. "All workers showed less than 10 percent of regulatory limit," said Pat Hiland, who led the NRC investigative team.

Dyer said some deficiencies were noted, but none was of such a high level of concern that it needed on-the-spot attention.

Howard Pulley, the USEC plant manager, said he was pleased by the report and would use issues raised by USEC to make improvements.

"We are pleased the agency concluded that we have a good program to protect our employees," Pulley said. "We are very committed to operating every aspect of the plant safely."

He said that although radioactive exposure for workers was only a fraction of NRC limits, the company will work to reduce exposure levels even more. "We are always looking for ways to make the levels as low as is achievable," he said.

In August and September, the NRC conducted a special investigation of the production side of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant after a lawsuit made allegations of widespread contamination at the facility.

Most allegations referred to past practices at the plant and areas of the 3,700-acre facility that the U.S. Department of Energy controls. NRC, which does not regulate DOE, conducted the investigation to ensure that USEC workers were working in a safe environment.

NRC did not comment on allegations regarding contamination in the DOE portions of the compound. DOE has been criticized for a slow cleanup of contaminated groundwater, soil, landfills and scrap yards. Contamination in those areas is not a health hazard to USEC workers in the production facilities, NRC officials said.

Preliminary findings of the investigation were discussed at a public meeting Wednesday. The final report outlining deficiencies won't be ready for at least a month.

Dyer said that once the final report is submitted to USEC, company officials will have 30 days to respond with a plan to address the outstanding issues.

Dyer said he was most concerned about deficiencies related to transuranic material and worker training.

Transuranics are elements with atomic numbers higher than uranium's (92). At the Paducah plant, the transuranics of primary concern are plutonium and neptunium, which are left over from enriching recycled nuclear fuel from 1953 until the early 1970s.

The NRC wants USEC to justify and reassess its conclusion that there is no danger that workers will receive increased doses of radioactivity from transuranic contamination in production facilities.

"Our assessment done by the investigative team is that it could cause an increase in the recorded value of radioactive dose," Dyer said. "But it would not be an increase that would exceed regulator limits."

Pulley said USEC already has begun a review of transuranic contamination. He also said that since USEC took control of the plant in 1993, much has been done to clean up radioactive areas. "Radiation levels are significantly reduced from what they were in 1993," Pulley said.

Dyer said the overall training program is good but improvement is needed to make sure all employees are aware of all safety procedures. He said one problem involves employees who are involved in different jobs but are working side by side and don't follow the same safety procedures.

"You may have a person doing grinding, who knows he must wear a respirator and other gear, working right next to a maintenance worker, who isn't wearing the respirator," Dyer said. "They all need to be trained to meet the same procedures."

Jim Miller, USEC's executive vice president, said the company will use the NRC findings to make the plant safer.

"Our intent is always to look forward," Miller said. "This facility is extremely important to our corporation, as I am sure this facility is important to the community. We demand of ourselves to be a good community member and protect our assets, which are the employees."