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  • U.S. launches probe in Piketon

    Inquiry to determine if plant workers should be compensated for illnesses

    Tuesday, November 30, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    Federal officials will arrive at southern Ohio's uranium-enrichment plant today to begin investigating whether Cold War-era workers were exposed to deadly plutonium and other dangerous materials.

    The three-day visit by a team from the U.S. Department of Energy will mark the start of an inquiry to determine whether employees at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, should be compensated for cancers and other illnesses possibly linked to previous radiation exposures.

    The investigation is expected to be completed by April.

    "I know that current and former workers at Portsmouth and their families have questions about past exposures and practices at the Portsmouth site and how these may have affected their health,'' said David Michaels, the department's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health. "This investigation will help us answer those questions.''

    Energy Secretary Bill Richardson already has proposed giving workers at a sister plant in Paducah, Ky., as much as $100,000 each for illnesses caused by plutonium-laced uranium that contaminated the plant when the government tried to recycle the uranium in spent nuclear-reactor fuel.

    Michaels, who visited the Piketon plant Oct. 29-30 to hear the concerns of current and former workers, said a number think that their jobs caused their health problems.

    "People report both serious illnesses and some very significant exposures, and we need more information on both of those,'' Michaels said. "My impression . . . is people worked very hard in some pretty difficult conditions making material to keep America safe. Obviously, what we have to do is make sure that if we were the cause of any of their illnesses, we take care of them.''

    During the Cold War, the plant produced weapons-grade uranium, a key component in the nation's nuclear-defense program.

    More plutonium and related elements apparently went to Paducah than to Piketon, but a Dispatch investigation revealed that southern Ohio workers also were exposed to plutonium, which is thousands of times more radioactive than uranium. Exposure in quantities as small as a millionth of an ounce can cause cancers.

    Plant employees also were subjected to dangerous working conditions, including exposure to other dangerous radioactive and chemical elements.

    During its initial visit, the oversight team will track down documents, tour the facility and try to locate people who worked at the plant between 1954 and 1993, the year the plant operations were turned over to a federal corporation. Investigators will return in mid-January to conduct interviews; they hope to submit a final report to Richardson in April.

    The initial team will number five or six but grow to 20 by early next year, department officials said.

    In addition, the investigators will scrutinize current cleanup operations at the plant.

    The 45-year-old facility, now operated by the privatized corporation known as USEC, enriches uranium for use as commercial nuclear-power fuel. No-longer-used sites on the 3,700-acre grounds, however, are being decontaminated under the auspices of the federal government.

    As part of that examination, department officials said, investigators will take soil, water and sediment samples around the plant site the week of Jan. 10.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch