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  • Safety issues within plant being fixed, officials say

  • A former employee and the wife of a worker who died think contamination issues are not being addressed.

    Friday, October 29, 1999

    By Bob Dreitzler
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    PIKETON, Ohio -- Minor problems that a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team found at a nuclear-enrichment plant were in the process of being corrected, said Morris Brown, general manager of the plant, at a meeting with NRC officials yesterday.

    "This inspection provides additional assurance that we have a sound radiation-protection program,'' he said.

    The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Pike County, 70 miles south of Columbus, was given a generally good evaluation by inspectors who visited the plant last month.

    But a former plant worker and the wife of another worker who died of brain cancer last year raised questions at the end of yesterday's meeting about the contamination, which they think remains in parts of the plant.

    They came away from the discussion unsatisfied with the inspection team's response that the U.S. Department of Energy, not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is dealing with issues involving the plant's past practices and past contamination.

    Vina Colley, a former plant worker and activist who studies health and safety issues at the plant, questioned how the team could conclude that the Piketon plant is a "low-dose'' facility that has little risk of radiation hazard when it is now known that parts of the plant were contaminated with plutonium.

    "I don't think they know how serious the problem really is,'' she said. "I think they came out a little too fast.''

    Colley said the agency should not have concluded its study before David Michaels, assistant secretary of energy, holds a public meeting Saturday in Piketon to hear concerns of workers and area residents. The meeting will be held 9 a.m.-noon at the Comfort Inn on Rt. 23.

    "There's too many people over these facilities,'' said Susan Thompson of Rarden, Ohio. "You've got this agency and that agency, and you've got one saying it's not our responsibility. . . . Whose responsibility is it?''

    Thompson's husband, Owen, worked at the plant before he died of brain cancer last year at 46. He worked in areas where materials contaminated with plutonium were handled, Mrs. Thompson said.

    During a post-inspection meeting with company officials from United States Enrichment Corp., the inspection team said they had found a few deficiencies in safety training but that some were corrected the same day they were found and that all were being worked on.

    Some training materials understated the potential dangers of exposure to radiation, and some workers had a problem with not retaining what they had been taught, inspection-team leader Pat Hiland said.

    Inspectors found that some workers also were improperly using a radiation-detecting wand that is supposed to alert workers to radioactive contamination on their clothing.

    They also said more cleanup needs to be done outside a uranium fuel-processing building that was heavily damaged by fire last year. Contaminated oil and water escaped from the building during the fire, Hiland said. Barricades have been set up around the site, but more needs to be done to clean it up, he said.

    The special inspection was done as a result of recent publicity about past contamination problems at the Piketon plant and a sister plant in Paducah, Ky. The Paducah plant underwent a similar inspection that revealed no major problems.

    The inspectors looked at radiation-protection practices and procedures that are being used at the plants now, not at past practices that might have caused contamination.

    Both plants handled depleted uranium fuel that was being reprocessed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The fuel contained small amounts of plutonium and other radioactive, cancer-causing materials. Workers unknowingly handled the contaminated material without proper protective gear.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch