The Paducah Sun

February 11, 2000

DOE secrecy put workers at risk

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

A "need-to-know" mentality fostered by the Cold War, coupled with a lack of understanding of chemical and radiation hazards, put an unknown number of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers at undue health risks especially in earlier years, the Department of Energy says.

That culture even led to "crude" 1950s experiments in which workers submitted themselves to radiation. Health physics personnel drank and inhaled uranium to see how fast it was excreted in their urine, according to a newly released department study.

''The record is unclear as to whether the personnel involved in the experiments were volunteers or informed participants,'' the report said.

Although a DOE investigative team found only two documented worker exposures to radiation above allowable limits at the time, records are sketchy, and many others may have been significantly exposed, said Dr. David Michaels, Energy Department assistant secretary for environment safety and health.

"We think worker protection practices there were not as protective as they should have been, even given the limits of the times," he said, "although it's important to remember what the limits of the times were."

Michaels held a telephone press conference from Washington to discuss the findings, released Thursday in a 76-page report covering practices at the plant from its startup in 1952 to 1990. The study was based on a review of thousands of documents, interviews with more than 200 current and former workers, plant tours, and other analyses.

The information will be used in conjunction with projects to track the historical flow of recycled uranium and related contaminants at all DOE facilities; determine the extent of work-related illnesses at uranium enrichment plants here and in Portsmouth, Ohio, as well as at a closed plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and find out how and to what extent those plant workers were exposed to radiation.

Michaels said the findings ultimately will help determine which workers and their families should be compensated for work-related illness under proposed legislation. Workers and families would receive $100,000 each for specific cancers but would not have to prove their exposure to radiation caused their illness.

Earlier, Michaels estimated that 200 current and former employees who worked in certain areas of the plant would be immediately eligible for benefits, and an undetermined number would be eligible during the next 20 years.

One provision of the proposed law is that those compensated will not be allowed to take part in any legal action against the federal government or a current or former contractor. Two federal lawsuits were filed last year alleging that past contractors secretly poisoned workers and the public. One suit seeks to be a class action for as many as 10,000 people.

Despite highlighting past wrongs, the report is not an indictment of the contractors, Michaels said.

"In terms of compensating those workers for past exposures, we don't get into the question of fault because fault isn't really necessary to provide compensation," he said.

The study marked the second phase of a DOE probe into current and past conditions at the plant, which enriches uranium for nuclear fuel. Although the first phase required numerous corrective actions, the department, which owns the plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear safety, have repeatedly said the plant and its environment are safe.

In the 1950s and '60s, workers and management at the Paducah plant held to a "need to know" policy ingrained by the Cold War, the report said. Enriching uranium was the plant's top priority, and many employees were former military people who thought their jobs merely were a continuation of government loyalty. Most interviewed said they were unafraid to ask safety questions and did not fear reprisal, but a few said they had concerns about both.

There was an apparent intent to protect workers from radiological hazards, yet implementation was inconsistent from 1952 to 1989, the study said.

During that time, health physics staffing (two to six employees) was insufficient for a work force ranging from 1,200 to 2,500. Supervisors failed to communicate exposure levels and transuranic (including highly radioactive plutonium and neptunium) hazards to workers and did not enforce controls consistently, the study said, adding that workers did not follow controls or adequately understand and appreciate hazards.

Generally, workers thought uranium was soluble and could be quickly excreted in the urine, the report said. That may not have been accurate for some uranium compounds, particularly aerosols generated in areas where uranium hexafluoride was fed into the processing system and where grinding, buffing and welding took place.

The report said the "comfort level" of exposure and excretion was reflected in 1956 tests that exposed some workers with respirators to known amounts of airborne uranium, and late 1950s experiments in which health physics personnel drank and breathed uranium compounds.

Plutonium and neptunium - contaminants brought into the plant in tiny amounts during the 1950s and early '60s in spent reactor fuel - are far more dangerous than uranium if inhaled or ingested. Workers risked significant exposure in handling the materials, and a March 1960 letter showed that the Atomic Energy Commission (DOE's predecessor), Union Carbide managers and health physics personnel knew workers were not following respiratory protection guidelines.

The letter said 300 workers at Paducah "should be checked out," but management hesitated to do so, fearing that the labor union would demand hazard pay. Asked whether the document suggests the AEC was at fault, Michaels said there is no record of follow-up.

"I think the memo speaks for itself ...," Michaels said. "We could not determine what the response was in 1960 to that memo."

By the mid- to late 1970s, surveys and radiation monitoring were "routinely documented" and health physics employees were aware of the hazards of neptunium, plutonium and a similar substance, technetium, the report said. Respirator use was "actively encouraged," misuse was documented, and other measures to reduce risks were recommended.

Throughout the study period, environmental and safety practices "were generally in accordance" with accepted practices at the time, said Dr. Pat Worthington, Paducah investigative team leader. She said Union Carbide provided quarterly health and safety updates to the AEC, and the team "didn't find any inconsistencies" in the reports compared with other documents and interviews.

Contamination controls were limited even into the early 1980s. Eating, drinking and smoking in areas of radioactivity were common, and workers were not required to wash exposed areas or remove contaminated clothing before entering cafeterias, break areas or the plant theater.

"As a result, plant workers probably took radioactive contamination outside site boundaries," the report said.

The study also looked at potential public risks, noting that before 1975, no evidence was found of measurements or monitoring of venting of process gases, including uranium and toxic fluorine. From 1952 to 1983, an estimated 66 tons of uranium gas were released into the atmosphere, 75 percent of which was before 1965. But because of lack of documentation, "the accuracy and conservatism of past public dose estimates are questionable," the report says.

Radioactive and chemical waste, often mixed with normal refuse, was dumped and buried in many locations inside and outside the plant fence. Large amounts of radioactive materials, including uranium metals and powders and contaminated waste, were packed in metal barrels and buried.

Contaminated concrete rubble and roofing materials were disposed of outside the plant, some in the surrounding wildlife management area. Contaminated sludge and floor sweepings were placed in landfills, and the sludge was applied as fertilizer on lawns.

Michaels said waste areas are being cleaned up by agreements DOE has with state and federal environmental protection agencies. He declined to say what risk the contamination poses to plant neighbors, but said the Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is expected to issue a report soon on that issue.

"Hopefully, once that examination is completed," Michaels said, "that question can be answer more easily."