The Paducah Sun

November 22, 1999

DOE plant workers: We never saw safety memo

Associated Press


A 1992 memo to employees of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant about a program to protect them from radioactive transuranic metals seemed to represent a new openness with workers about the potential dangers of the workplace.

However, several people who worked at the plant at that time said they never saw the memorandum, which came from the U.S. Department of Energy and its Paducah contractor, Martin Marietta Energy Systems Inc.

Uranium contaminated with transuranics - in used fuel rods from a weapons reactor at the Energy Department's installation in Hanford, Wash. - was reprocessed at Paducah from 1952 until the early 1970s.

These elements include plutonium and neptunium. Transuranic residues accumulated inside the equipment and eventually leaked out into the plant.

The Energy Department and Martin Marietta said in a Feb. 29, 1992, memorandum that they were ''starting a formal program to control transuranic elements in the plant.''

The new controls, described in memos that The Courier-Journal of Louisville obtained from the Energy Department, limited the wearing of personal clothing at work and required that it be stored separately. Warnings were posted, and urine tests were changed to include screening for transuranics.

Workers began being monitored for alpha radiation, which is emitted by transuranics, when leaving buildings. The company also restricted visitor access to buildings where transuranics were present.

The February 1992 bulletin would appear to challenge the claim by workers who sued Martin Marietta and other former plant contractors this year that they had never been told about the plutonium in the plant.

A three-page attachment explained transuranics and their health effects, and identified the specific elements of concern: plutonium, neptunium, thorium and americium.

''An ounce of a transuranic element can be as much as one million times more radioactive than an ounce of uranium,'' the bulletin said. ''...Uranium acts as a poison and, in large doses, can damage the kidneys. Transuranics lodge in the bone and can irradiate the bone surface and bone marrow.''

But one worker interviewed by The Courier-Journal said he did not see the attachment that specifically mentions plutonium and discusses health risks. Three others said they did not see any of the bulletins.

The workers said many such handouts were never given to them, or were routinely placed in stacks at building exits, much like a rack of supermarket giveaways.

Bill Moore, who has worked at the plant for 31 years, primarily as a maintenance mechanic, said he had never seen the transuranic bulletins that a reporter showed him Friday.

''I had never heard the word 'plutonium' at the plant until it was in the press'' last summer, said Moore, who now holds an administrative job.

Moore said that in work areas with the greatest quantities of transuranics, respirators were available, but managers did not insist that workers wear them, nor did they say why they were needed.

David Fuller is president of the Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union Local 3550. He faulted the former plant operators, Union Carbide, Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin, for not telling workers more.

''The company has the responsibility to see that workers were informed,'' Fuller said in an interview. ''Their job was not to stack these things somewhere. Workers were told what the company intended for them to know.''

Joseph Egan, a lawyer for workers and their families in a $10 billion class-action lawsuit and for whistleblowers who filed another suit, said none of his clients knew about plutonium and neptunium contamination at the plant.

''I've never met a worker who saw one'' of the transuranic bulletins, he said. ''They do not recall anything about transuranics.''

Asked about workers' statements that they had not seen all or part of the 1992 bulletin, Lockheed Martin issued a statement that said in part, ''To the best of our knowledge, the corporation did not mislead workers or DOE as to the state of worker safety, environment protection or any other matter at the Paducah facility.''

No single event precipitated the shift in transuranic policy in the early 1990s, said Steve Wyatt, an Energy Department spokesman at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Wyatt said it was partly the result of a 1989 review by Energy Department inspectors, called the Tiger Team. That review, among other things, called attention to poor control of transuranic elements.