February 16, 2000
DOE: Plant built, buried weapons
By Joe Walker
A Department of Energy fact sheet sent to employees of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant suggests that nuclear weapons parts and related contamination at the plant are more widespread than previously disclosed.
The fact sheet - distributed Friday to employees of the DOE, its contractors and plant operator USEC Inc. - gives these revelations:
--Some nuclear weapons parts were built in the plant's machine shop and shipped to customers. The fact sheet doesn't give dates, but DOE has already said that in the early years of the plant, workers disassembled nuclear weapons without warheads to salvage valuable metals. Several sources with whom the Sun spoke said this is the first disclosure that plant workers actually built weapons parts.
--While the general practice was to break down and smelt weapons materials, whole weapons, "minus the nuclear package," were buried at the plant. The document says "tritium reservoirs could have been smelted and/or buried." Tritium is a radioactive substance used in reservoirs or containers to help detonate nuclear weapons, such as hydrogen bombs.
--In July, a DOE investigator confidentially visited the plant to look for documentation of past work to recover gold and silver from weapons parts. During the visit, a classified document dealing with the burial of complete nuclear weapons without nuclear arms was discovered in a vault in the plant laboratory building.
--In October, DOE investigators found "numerous film negatives that appeared to be related to weapons manufacturing." Discussions were held with officials of the Department of Justice, which is investigating an employee false-claims suit, and Bechtel Jacobs, DOE's lead environmental contractor, about "1991 data showing tritium in five of eight outfalls tested."
Outfalls, which are routinely sampled by the plant and the state, are points where treated wastewater is discharged into ditches and creeks. Sampling data continue to be publicly disclosed in annual environmental reports and also were extensively mentioned in environmental investigation reports in the early 1990s. On Tuesday, officials of neither DOE nor Bechtel Jacobs could readily cite where tritium is mentioned in any public report of sampling results for the Paducah plant.
--The machine shop may also have done beryllium coating work for other agencies. In the early years, the work primarily was for defense facilities. Beryllium is a highly toxic metal used in nuclear weapons.
In July, DOE announced a program to compensate workers who contracted beryllium disease but said there was no evidence beryllium was used at Paducah. Two months later, health physicist Mark Griffon, who is helping with a worker health study, told the Sun that he had seen an old DOE memo mentioning beryllium use at the plant. Having seen the memo in a dead archive vault in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Griffon said he wasn't sure how or to what extent beryllium was used. A few former plant workers recalled dismantling nuclear missile parts for smelting many years ago but knew nothing about beryllium, he said.
DOE spokesman Walter Perry confirmed that the fact sheet mistakenly was distributed as a draft, written by DOE Oak Ridge officials but unapproved by agency headquarters in Washington. But he said the draft was accurate and finally approved Tuesday by headquarters.
The Sun sent a detailed list of questions to DOE Tuesday asking for clarification and elaboration on the fact sheet. Answers were pending a review today by DOE as to what more could be disclosed from a security standpoint, Perry said.
"These practices took place many years ago, and it was more or less before the time of those working at the site at this point," Perry said. "We're looking at answers to some of those questions and have assembled a team to conduct a review."
The Sun's check of readily available environmental investigative reports and several annual environmental reports since 1991 revealed nothing about tritium in sampling results. Neither Perry nor Bechtel Jacobs spokesman Greg Cook could say with certainty whether tritium was mentioned in the reports.
"All I have solid information on at this point is that our current sampling program does cover tritium and we're not seeing any," said Cook, whose company has been DOE's lead environmental contractor at Paducah for about two years.
Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the plant atomic workers' union, said the fact sheet raises still more serious questions about what DOE knows regarding past plant practices.
"Burying intact weapons is generally not a good idea," he said. "If they've put tritium bottles in the ground, then they've created a radiological risk and worker risk that is far greater than we had understood previously."
Miller said he wonders what levels of tritium were found and whether sediments also contained it.
Because past workers told of machining nuclear weapons parts, the union "had a strong inkling" last year that beryllium had been used at the plant, he said. "We had requested documents from Oak Ridge that we thought were classified and we were never able to get them declassified."
The fact sheet says that in December, "potentially classified" negatives were packaged and moved by courier to Oak Ridge, the location of the DOE operations office that oversees Paducah. Also in December, DOE started a special investigation of defense-related work at the plant.
Workers received the fact sheet Friday amid publicity about a federal
false-claims statement filed by Ray Carroll, a senior health physics manager
at the plant. Carroll said he was very concerned about the worker safety
aspect of tons of nuclear weapons waste being at the plant.