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  • Piketon's heavy toll

    Friday, October 29, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    Nuclear plant kept risks of contamination from rank and file

    Managers at southern Ohio's uranium-enrichment plant refused Ken Estep's request for an early-retirement buyout in 1985, when the 42-year-old Piketon man was battling a rare form of liver cancer.

    When Estep died that Nov. 14 -- his body a gaunt, blackened shell -- managers declined to pay his family a pension, said his widow, Barbara Barker. She said the pension was denied because Estep was about six weeks shy of his 10th anniversary as a truck driver for the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

    Aside from $6,000 in life insurance -- money that barely covered funeral expenses -- "I got nothing,'' Barker said.

    Goodyear Atomic, the now-defunct contractor that ran the Piketon plant for the U.S. Department of Energy until 1986, did send a representative to her house after Estep's death -- to go through his billfold and claim items the company regarded as proprietary, such as an employee identification card.

    Barker, in shock at the time, asked few questions.

    But now, with the federal government preparing to launch a detailed examination of past working conditions at the plant, she and others have many questions.

    To gauge conditions there in years gone by, The Dispatch spent a month interviewing dozens of current and former plant workers and their relatives and reviewing hundreds of documents -- some prepared decades ago but never revealed to rank-and-file plant employees or the public -- in Washington, Piketon and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

    The investigation found that the workers

    who served for years as Cold War warriors weren't always well-served by their government -- or well-informed about the dangers at the facility.

    Among them:

  • One of the plant's first enrichment-process operators, who succumbed to leukemia in 1965 at age 32, five weeks after his diagnosis. His widow says workers never were told of the potential health dangers.

  • A former welder who recalls being told to repair pipes oozing green and yellow liquid. His gloves set off radiation alarms afterward. Medical tests now show many cells in his body are predisposed to cancer.

  • Another former plant worker who -- without protective gear -- helped clean up a major spill of uranium hexafluoride in 1978. Earlier this year, at age 71, he lost a kidney to cancer and had cancerous tumors removed from his bladder.

  • An ex-janitor who witnessed hundreds of leaks of uranium hexafluoride from pipes throughout the plant, some of which were plugged with pencils.

    All the while, documents show, crucial workplace-safety information was withheld by plant managers.

    Workers not told

    Conditions have improved in recent years, but current and former Piketon employees want the federal investigation to determine whether the cancers and other health problems many of them have experienced relate to the plant.

    A definitive link may be difficult or impossible to prove, experts say.

    Only in recent months has the federal government openly acknowledged that the material to which Piketon workers were exposed was much more radioactive -- and deadly -- than previously revealed.

    However, reports written in the early 1970s detailed potential health hazards -- including material contaminated with plutonium, newly unearthed documents obtained by The Dispatch indicate. It remains unclear what safety measures were taken to protect workers.

    Piketon received enough tainted material in 1976 to warrant a warning from a Goodyear Atomic health physicist about the level of highly radioactive "transuranics,'' such as plutonium and neptunium, being brought into the plant in used reactor fuel. The material also contained fission byproducts such as technetium-99, which also is considerably more radioactive than uranium.

    "It is imperative that GAT (Goodyear Atomic) develop procedures for protecting the health of employees who are exposed to these highly toxic and radioactive substances,'' the July 29, 1976, memo said.

    The memo indicates that the material was being handled at Piketon's oxide-conversion plant -- where the spent reactor fuel was turned back into uranium hexafluoride that could be enriched again for use as nuclear fuel -- even before appropriate safety measures were in place.

    The plant had been handling spent fuel from the government's Savannah River reactor in South Carolina, the memo said, adding: "It is necessary that we develop procedures to protect the health of employees who are handling this material or equipment which is contaminated with this radioactive material. Before we can evaluate employee exposures, we must positively identify the radioactive isotopes to which they are exposed.''

    The oxide-conversion facility, opened in 1955, was shut down in 1978 after officials determined that they couldn't contain radioactive releases. Spentfuel arrived sporadically between 1955 and the facility's closing; little is known about shipments before the mid-1970s.

    A 1962 Goodyear Atomic memo obtained by The Dispatch told managers not to reveal information about "housekeeping problems'' -- a euphemism for contaminated areas -- to nonsupervisory workers.

    "The general philosophy should be passed down to the foremen for their use as a guide in handling housekeeping problems involving contamination considerations,'' said the Aug. 27 memo, written by a plant superintendent.

    "We don't expect or desire that the philosophy will be openly discussed with bargaining-unit employees.''

    As recently as 1989, a Department of Energy safety-oversight team found that "contamination control is a major concern'' at Piketon.

    "A breakdown in standard work place controls'' led to "widespread evidence of eating, drinking and smoking in contaminated areas; a lack of routine contamination surveys being conducted; and little follow-up and accountability to contamination surveys and tagging,'' the team reported in 1990.

    Dan Minter, president of the Piketon workers' union, said the new information is the clearest indication to date that worker safety was given short shrift in the Cold War years.

    "They didn't take any measures to protect employees,'' he said. "Their internal correspondence says, 'We've got a problem with these transuranics (highly radioactive materials) but it's at a low level so, what the heck, go ahead and expose them.' ''

    The documents show a long-term disregard for worker safety, said Minter of the Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International Union.

    "The government couldn't be held accountable. . . . It didn't care if a person in Portsmouth got a little exposure if that kept weapons being produced,'' he said.

    Routine contact

    While fears about plutonium have taken center stage in recent weeks, former workers and the widows of other employees say work at the plant in earlier years involved routine exposure to a variety of radioactive and highly toxic chemicals.

    Even before the revelations about plutonium, activists had long said that the plant was dangerous. The claims largely fell on deaf ears.

    Charles Gary Meade, one of the plant's first enrichment-process operators, was 32 when he died in 1965 of leukemia, five weeks after it was diagnosed.

    His widow, Dorothy Hardin, still keeps his boots in the attic -- the same pair he regularly wore home but kept from his children because he feared they were radioactive.

    Hardin said she thinks that workers never knew the full dangers of their jobs.

    "It was a great cover-up,'' she said. "They told them the stuff was safe enough to eat.''

    Robert Woosley of Jackson remembers being told as much when he worked as a welder at the plant from 1974 to '77. He also remembers being instructed to fix equipment dripping with green, yellow and "psychedelic'' colored material -- and how his gloved hands would set off radiation monitors afterward.

    "I would say, 'Before I weld on this, why don't you wash it off?' '' Woosely recalled. "The boss told me, 'Don't worry about it; you can eat this stuff.' ''

    Woosley, 58, said medical tests about four years ago showed large numbers of cells throughout his body predisposed to developing cancer. He left his job at the plant after becoming convinced that the safety claims made by supervisors were "ridiculous.''

    Woosley said many workers were bullied and coaxed by plant supervisors into turning a blind eye to possible dangers.

    "They didn't encourage going and getting (medical) tests and stuff like that,'' he said. "They were the old- school bosses. You could swim the ocean; if you didn't, you were a sissy.''

    Estep was one of a number of workers who cleaned up in March 1978 after a 14-ton canister of uranium hexafluoride was dropped and ruptured. Working in only his plant coveralls and regular boots, Estep helped pile snow on the mixture of natural uranium and fluoride as it gushed out in its liquid form.

    The next day, the plant locker containing his clothes was gone. About 10 days later, he broke out in a prickly body rash, his widow said, but managers dismissed his concerns.

    Charles Stapleton, another former worker, also helped clean up the '78 spill. This year, at age 71, he lost a kidney to cancer and had cancerous tumors taken out of his bladder.

    "The boss said, 'You have go down there; we've got a spill down there,' '' recalled Stapleton, who drove a truck for the plant from 1977 to '90. "I said, 'I ain't supposed to clean up spills, I'm a truck diver.' He said, 'This is an emergency. Do what I tell you.' ''

    Stapleton said a trained chemical cleanup crew donned protective gear and gas masks to work on the spill. Other workers toiled without protection.

    "My throat hurt liked I had breathed battery acid the next day,'' he said. "We had a meeting (with plant managers) in the conference room about it. They all laughed and made fun about it. I told them how felt and they said ain't no way could feel that way . . . said I was crazy.''

    Retired janitor Stanley McNelly, 79, was in the bathroom when he heard sirens after the spill. Running outside, he was enveloped by a toxic cloud, he said. For months afterward, McNelly, who survived a bout of colon cancer in 1982, coughed up a clear, rubbery substance.

    "There was nothing but fog, and I couldn't see,'' McNelly said. "They took me to the hospital and said there was nothing wrong with me. But for a year I coughed and coughed. It was like a butter bean, clear as crystal, and I could not spit it out of my mouth. I had to take it out with my thumb and finger.''

    The 1978 spill is the largest in the Piketon plant's history. Nearly 22,000 pounds of uranium hexafluoride ran in all directions from the ruptured canister, sending a plume of toxic fog into the air.

    The plant managers' report about the incident -- which stated that no one was injured -- described such releases of uranium hexafluoride as routine.

    'Bad stuff'
    Uranium hexafluoride is heated into a gaseous form as part of the enrichment process to convert natural uranium to the higher levels of radioactivity necessary for efficient use as nuclear fuel or as the basic building block of a nuclear weapon.

    The radiation emitted by raw uranium is of minimal concern, experts say. But the fluoride can cause severe harm after it hits the air and turns into uranyl oxyfluoride and hydrofluoric acid, both highly toxic chemical agents.

    Uranium hexafluoride is "bad stuff'' that, depending on the level of exposure, can cause severe respiratory damage or death when inhaled, said Ronald Kathren, former director of a federally funded study of people exposed to radioactive materials. Kathren also is a professor emeritus at Washington State University.

    The material spilled in 1978 had not yet been enriched.

    Former and current workers say highly enriched -- and thus much more radioactive -- uranium hexafluoride routinely burst from pipes during the enrichment process.

    In a pinch, pencils were used to plug such leaks, said Roy Carrier, 57, who worked there from 1976 to '98, first as a plant firefighter and later as a janitor.

    Carrier said he witnessed hundreds of releases.

    Sam Ray, 67, worked at the plant from 1954 to '95, retiring after contracting a rare bone cancer that cost him his larynx. During his career at the plant, Ray said, he saw thousands of releases -- many of them undocumented until recent years.

    Workers also were exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals.

    A 1994 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health documented arsenic contamination, although the agency said employees were not in danger. The arsenic apparently came into the plant in the 1980s via shipments of uranium hexafluoride that -- unbeknown to workers -- contained contaminated fluorine.

    Workers also may have been exposed to oil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, toxic chemicals considered to be carcinogens that are no longer used in industrial operations. A 1983 notice put out by Goodyear Atomic and the union representing plant workers said PCB-contaminated oil seeped into processing buildings from exhaust ducts. A number of workers suffered moderate to heavy exposures.

    A co-worker said he remembers when Ken Estep spent a day plowing a field of contaminated oil. The next day, the relatively new plow looked 15 years old, eaten-through and rusty, said Bob Whitt, 68 of Jackson, a plant employee from 1954 to '91.

    Whitt has stomach problems and an inflamed esophagus -- problems he said might be related to years of exposures to chemicals and radioactivity. He said that when he was in his 30s, he had to have cataracts removed from both eyes -- an unusual problem for a young person.

    Improved safety

    Workers interviewed by The Dispatch uniformly said that in the 1990s, especially after the now-privatized United States Enrichment Corp. took control of the plant in 1993, conditions improved and safety became paramount.

    And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, regarded as much more strict and safety-conscious than the Energy Department, now regulates the plant.

    An ongoing study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health so far hasn't found an abnormal incidence of deaths by cancer among Piketon workers. Although initial findings released in 1987 showed excess stomach cancer and blood-related cancers such as leukemia, a 1996 update said that rate had dropped back into the normal range.

    However, several factors -- including the relative youth of the people being studied, the fact that the study looked only at deaths and not the overall incidence of cancer, and a lack of data from plant records about worker exposures -- limits the study's accuracy, says a disclaimer attached to the 1996 update.

    There is much that remains unknown about long-term, chronic exposures to uranium hexafluoride, said Dr. Michael McCalley, professor of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and an expert in radiation and health effects. But workers were subjected to risks that are considered unacceptable today, he said.

    "We had very different social and professional attitudes toward radiation in times past. It wasn't a big deal,'' McCalley said. "The rules have changed. You couldn't operate a facility like any of those today.''

    Bob Schaeffer of the Washington- based Alliance for Nuclear Accountability said expedience and the willingness to sacrifice health for national security played a role, along with ignorance.

    "I don't know whether people lied consciously or just did not know what they were dealing with,'' Schaeffer said. "But there are people sick or otherwise damaged because of what was done in the government's name and the task of the nation ought to be to help them.''


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch