January 7, 2000
DOE plant soil sampling to start today
By Joe Walker
Soil sampling behind the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will begin today amid a Justice Department investigation into a false-claims lawsuit filed last June by three plant employees alleging the plant covertly contaminated workers and the public.
Also today, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard A. Meserve is scheduled to visit the plant.
U.S. Attorney Steve Reed is expected to speak with reporters about 2:30 p.m. after digging begins in a filled-in portion of what is known as the North-South Diversion Ditch, which flows northward from the plant. For decades, the ditch was a catchall for contaminant runoff from plant operations.
The lawsuit, which seeks Justice Department intervention, alleges the old ditch is highly contaminated with radiation and toxins. Expected to take about two weeks, soil sampling is designed to determine the nature and extent of contamination.
Contractors for the Department of Energy, which owns the plant, will dig and sample at a cost expected to exceed $1 million. As many as five trenches, each up to 30 feet long and 15 feet deep, will be dug perpendicular to the ditch's flow path.
The excavation is near where a tarlike roofing material was found last summer in the area of a closed landfill off Ogden Landing Road. Although hazardous material was not supposed to be in the landfill, the roofing debris was radioactive and believed to have come from the plant.
Reed said 10 soil samples will be taken, and if water is present, as many as two water samples will be taken. Samples will be used to support the investigations and shared with regulatory agencies, he said.
Excavated material will be stored in containers or returned to the ground, depending on results of chemical and radiological screening.
Test results will help the Justice Department determine if it should join the suit against past contractors, who have denied wrongdoing. Reed's office has asked for another six months to complete the investigation.
If the plaintiffs win, they could share in huge damages from the contractors, who allegedly concealed the contamination to collect millions of dollars in performance bonuses.
Government investigators have admitted that about 12 ounces of plutonium and slightly more than 40 pounds of neptunium arrived at the plant in the spent fuel rods.
Tests show that plutonium and neptunium, which are thousands of times more radioactive than uranium, are dispersed in small amounts around the plant's grounds.
A separate class-action lawsuit by past and present workers and their survivors allege that many were unwittingly exposed to radiation, making them high cancer risks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.