The Paducah Sun

February 12, 2000

Memo cites buried nuclear matter

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

A five-page memorandum from a Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant health physicist questions the extent and hazards of nuclear weapons components stored at the plant, and says the materials could cause a nuclear accident.

Obtained Friday by the Sun, the Feb. 3 memo from Raymond G. Carroll, a senior manager of health and safety programs since 1992, said Carroll was "now deeply concerned about the safety of personnel" at the plant.

Carroll said in the memo that his concerns were based on a Jan. 13 conversation with Radiation Protection Manager Orville Cypret, who said he had met recently with Dale Jackson, former Paducah site manager for the Department of Energy.

Cypret learned that about 1,600 tons of nuclear weapons components had been buried at the plant, including "large quantities" of highly radioactive plutonium and highly enriched uranium, and "a significant amount" of the material was still above and below ground at the plant, the memo said.

According to the memo, Jackson told Cypret that because of national policy, nuclear weapons hardware is unmarked, and some of the material could be in space leased by plant operator USEC Inc. DOE "thinks" it knows the location of most of the material, and a team formed to look into the matter would not "voluntarily" share information with USEC, the memo says.

Jackson could not give Cypret specifics on the material, its hazards, worker groups that handled it or its ultimate disposition, the memo says.

The Carroll memo said the material "could pose nuclear criticality issues" and that health physics personnel could not work effectively without knowing all radiation sources at the plant. It said unmarked materials bearing plutonium and similar radioactive elements are a threat to workers who could encounter them.

Cypret met before Jan. 13 with a Department of Justice investigator who "apparently indicated to Mr. Cypret that he would not ask about a classified tritium project or past nuclear weapons handling at Paducah," the memo says, adding that Jackson had "apparently" disclosed that information to the investigator.

The Justice Department is investigating claims in a federal lawsuit that past contractors defrauded the government by secretly poisoning workers and the public while receiving huge performance fees.

Cypret was "surprised and concerned" that he and USEC management had not been told of the possible presence of tritium or other weapons-related isotopes, the memo continues. Carroll wrote that Cypret was especially puzzled in light of the discovery last April of tritium in the urine of a former health physics employee who had taken a physical to work elsewhere.

The Sun previously reported that USEC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were not informed of the urinalysis finding - which was below health-risk standards - until October. At that time, 10 Paducah plant health physics employees who had worked with the departed worker were tested, and no tritium was found.

John Jacobson, NRC inspector at the plant, said then that he did not believe the former employee was exposed at the plant and that he had no knowledge that tritium had been used there.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen and also has been used in nuclear weapons, such as hydrogen bombs. It also is used in minute amounts in watches, exit signs and other products to make them glow in the dark.

DOE officials have said there is no evidence that any materials ever brought into the plant contained tritium. Also, NRC and DOE have said that if tritium contamination took place, the tritium would have been there less than 12 years, because after that it loses its radioactivity.

Attempts to reach Cypret and Jackson were unsuccessful Friday. Contacted at his office by The Associated Press, Carroll would not comment further.

Carroll's memo was first reported Friday by The Washington Post. The Post said the document was prepared for the NRC, which regulates areas that USEC leases from DOE, which owns the plant.

Contacted by the Sun, NRC officials said the memo was received Friday - eight days after it was dated.

"We were informed yesterday (Thursday) that it was coming," NRC spokesman Jan Strassma said. "I have not seen the document. This appears to be in the format of allegations, and we don't discuss allegations until we've had a chance to investigate. But obviously we'll be looking into it as far as it affects our jurisdiction."

Jacobson said, "We're not aware of any immediate hazard to the public or the plant staff here. I certainly don't have any detailed knowledge about the history of what may or may not have occurred."

USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said DOE told USEC senior managers that no nuclear weapons components were in the roughly 250 acres of USEC space at the plant.

"Based on information available, we are aware of nothing that adversely impacts our employees," Stuckle said, adding that any new information about "legacy" environmental issues would be included in worker health and safety programs.

DOE spokesman Steve Wyatt issued a statement confirming the presence of a DOE-managed underground classified burial yard at the Paducah plant, which was previously reported by the Sun. The burial ground is covered in routine environmental sampling and radiation monitoring, Wyatt said.

The department has said nuclear weapons components were brought into the 48-year-old plant during the Cold War years and posed a threat to workers who dismantled them for valuable metals and other materials. Several longtime workers have told the Sun that weapons were not made at the plant and the components did not contain warheads or other fissionable material.

But the Carroll memo said the material could pose the risk of a nuclear criticality accident and, despite a widespread belief, is "not all located in the classified burial ground on site."

Questions about the nature, extent and hazards of the material and why a DOE investigative team apparently was not made aware of it were referred through Wyatt to DOE headquarters in Washington. Officials there had not responded to the questions by Friday evening.