The Paducah Sun

February 17, 2000

DOE: Tritium detected at plant but at safe levels

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

Traces of tritium, a radioactive substance used to help detonate nuclear weapons, were found a decade ago in five treated wastewater discharge points at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, but the amount was below drinking-water standards, the U.S. Department of Energy says.

DOE spokesman Walter Perry said the amounts discovered in May 1990 ranged from 23 to 3,800 picocuries per liter - a measurement of radioactivity in liquid - in five outfalls where treated effluent is discharged into ditches and creeks.

Perry said the drinking-water standard for tritium is 20,000 picocuries per liter. A picocurie is one-trillionth of a curie, which measures radioactivity in disintegrations per second.

"So the highest detectable level was less than 20 percent of the drinking water limits established by federal environmental regulations," he said.

The standards are set based on scientific studies including laboratory tests on animals. They require municipal water to be treated to remove contaminants if detected above certain levels. The outfalls are not part of the plant's drinking water system.

Perry said sampling for tritium began in response to a finding at Paducah's sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, by a DOE special unit known as the "Tiger Team." The team also investigated the Paducah plant in 1990.

Outfalls at Paducah are routinely sampled and regulated under permits granted by the state Environmental Protection Cabinet. Perry said ongoing sampling since 1990 has included tritium, but "there was no documentation found" showing that the May 1990 results were reported to the state.

Perry said the sampling was done by DOE contractor Martin Marietta Energy Systems, which then operated the plant, and analyzed by a laboratory at another uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Since 1990, tritium sampling has been ongoing because some of the original findings were above the lab's minimum detection limit of 800 picocuries per liter, he said.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, which replaced Martin Marietta (now called Lockheed Martin) about two years ago, said Bechtel Jacobs has never detected tritium in outfall sampling at the plant.

Because tritium emits beta radiation that cannot penetrate the skin, it is hazardous only when ingested and safe when stored in special containers, according to DOE published material.

Information provided by Perry came in response to the Sun's questions about a fact sheet distributed to Paducah plant employees Friday. The fact sheet suggests that nuclear weapons parts and related contamination at the plant are more widespread than previously disclosed.

Although the fact sheet mentioned that tritium was found in five of eight plant outfalls sampled in 1990, it did not say where or at what levels. Perry said one of the outfalls is in the northwestern part of the plant near a classified burial yard. The burial ground contains nuclear weapons components that DOE says did not contain warheads and were milled to recover valuable metals.

Among other things, the fact sheet said some nuclear weapons parts were built in the plant's machine shop and shipped to customers; some whole weapons, "minus the nuclear package," were buried at the plant, and "tritium reservoirs could have been smelted and/or buried."

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 worker safety with tons of nuclear weapons waste at the plant.