March 26, 2000
Cold War site 'unsafe'
Workers tell scary stories of conditions at DOE plant
By Joe Walker
Thirty years ago, Harold Hargan sat in the home of a midlevel Atomic Energy Commission official and related a hair-raising story about unsafe working conditions at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where he had been employed as a chemical operator since 1953.
Hargan told of workers and supervisors' diluting samples of chemicals and radionuclides for dumping purposes; leaving deteriorating drums of highly radioactive substances leaching into a ditch; handling a hazardous degreaser carelessly throughout the plant; smuggling guns into the plant to be cleaned and their triggers sometimes plated with gold; and drinking on the job.
Hargan said he went to see the AEC official partly because he was tired of being branded a liar and a troublemaker by some co-workers and managers. Many of the events took place in a building called C-400 where uranium enrichment equipment was cleaned and, for a few years, precious metals were extracted from nuclear weapons parts.
"Ignorance and apathy were rampant," said Hargan, 68, who worked in the building much of his 39-year career ending in 1992. "Some people just didn't give a damn. When you mix alcohol with that, you've got a hell of a problem."
In 1986, Hargan went to an attorney and gave a sworn statement about the allegations he made to the AEC official 16 years earlier. Last year, Hargan and Cairo, Ill., lawyer Jim Flummer retrieved the statement as an avalanche of publicity mounted about past unsafe practices at the plant.
Flummer said he was shocked at the allegations and spent considerable time investigating them. "Based on my interviews with Mr. Hargan and interviews with many other former employees, I'm of the opinion that Mr. Hargan is extremely credible," Flummer said.
Hargan, a Pulaski County, Ill., commissioner, now is a named plaintiff in a $10 billion federal lawsuit alleging that past plant contractors poisoned workers and the public by putting profit ahead of safety.
The contractors, Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin corporations, deny the claims made in U.S. District Court in Paducah last year. Carbide ran the plant from its construction in 1952 until 1984. Lockheed Martin, formerly Martin Marietta, operated the facility from 1984 until last year.
Among its many allegations, the suit contends that starting in 1960, Carbide secretly extracted valuable uranium from workers' excrement in the plant sewage treatment plant. The uranium, which held traces of other highly radioactive materials such as plutonium and neptunium, came from on-job ingestion, and Carbide hid the need for biological and other follow-up studies, the suit alleges.
In a recent investigative report, the Department of Energy, which owns the plant, said the sewage sludge was contaminated with uranium from bathroom and sink wastes from enrichment and support buildings. "Subsequently, this material was unknowingly spread at various locations at the site, creating contamination control problems," the report said.
DOE said improvements in 1977 greatly lessened the problem. It made no mention of recycling uranium from human waste.
But Hargan, a former sewage plant operator, said recovery work began after a sample suggested that about 200 pounds of uranium was in the sludge. He and a few other workers ran the dried sewage called "glit" through a uranium recovery unit in C-400 periodically for about eight years. The sludge came from the Paducah facility's treatment plant and in scores of 55-gallon drums from a sister enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., he said.
"Uranium was valuable stuff back then," Hargan said. "They recovered it and put it back into nuclear bombs."
Two other retired C-400 workers, who asked not to be identified, said they worked in the recovery process. One described putting the "gunk" into a dissolver used in recovery, although he was unsure if it was sewage. Another said he was aware of the contents and that uranium was being recycled.
Several past workers said they never saw people drinking in C-400, but it was common knowledge that alcohol was abused, particularly on the night shift on which Hargan worked for many years. Some gave the names of workers and supervisors who were notorious for drinking on the job, which was forbidden by federal law.
In the 1950s and 1960s, especially, alcohol was abused by hourly workers and managers, Hargan said, adding that he saw his foreman drinking whiskey with an operator in C-400.
Don Copeland, a retired, 33-year employee who managed one of the huge enrichment buildings during the latter part of his career, said alcohol was abused at annual supervisors' parties, usually held at the Paducah Country Club.
"It went on so long until supervisors would get so drunk they wanted to fight. One finally pulled a knife on another one at one of the parties," Copeland said. "They finally had to stop it because it got too rowdy. It was all paid for by the federal government."
Hargan said he once noticed a blue haze coming from a 55-gallon drum that was supposed to contain uranium oxide. He said he removed the lid and found that the haze was coming from dry ice to keep beer cold. The alcohol was hidden in a dusty, dirty building where equipment was used to pulverize material that contained toxins and radiation, Hargan said.
Retiree Shirley Shumpert, who worked in C-400 with Hargan about eight years, said she heard of alcohol abuse but never saw it. Shumpert said her main concern was working in areas, like the pulverizer, without protective equipment and breathing dangerous fumes. That practice continued until about 1990 when the plant began hiring many more health physics personnel, she said.
"We did all that stuff without respirators or protective clothing. We just wore coveralls," Shumpert said. "We'd wash our hands and go right into the lunchroom and eat lunch."
The official Hargan visited around 1970 was Carl Humphrey of Burkittsville, Md., a middle manager for the AEC in Washington. The commission regulated the plant then, and Hargan trusted Humphrey because the two had graduated from high school together in Pulaski County.
Besides drinking on the job, some workers were smuggling dismantled guns into the plant and using a substance called "black magic" in C-400 to clean and coat the firearms, Hargan said. Another practice was using gold, extracted from nuclear weapons circuitry in C-400, to plate the triggers of guns, he said.
Even worse, Hargan alleged, were shady environmental practices:
--Some foremen taught operators how to use water and nitric acid to dilute liquid samples from uranium and other radionuclide recovery processes in C-400. The tactic boosted production and allowed the material, which appeared to meet plant disposal standards, to be dumped into a nearby holding pond that sometimes overflowed into a ditch leading to the Ohio River.
--Hargan had worked in small rooms at C-400 where neptunium and technetium - radioactive contaminants in uranium brought to the plant from nuclear fuel processing facilities - were recovered in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Residual contamination was placed in metal drums stored outside near the ditch. A decade later, Hargan was assigned to recover material from the crumbling drums, much of whose contents had leaked into the ditch.
--A foreman relieved Hargan on the technetium recovery project one night so Hargan could help unload trucks. When Hargan returned about two hours later, the recovery unit was unattended, a plastic valve had broken, and about 600 gallons of liquid containing technetium had spilled into a drain that flowed to the ditch.
--Huge, cylindrical converters used to enrich uranium were brought to C-400 to clean. Using cranes, workers lowered the converters into a heated vat containing the toxic degreaser trichloroethylene, or TCE. Routinely, 25 to 30 gallons of radioactively contaminated TCE would leak out of a converter and into the drain. "Everybody knew it was flowing out of those converters, and everybody knew they were rigging them wrong," Hargan said.
Humphrey recalls Hargan's stay at his home and the deep concern he had. "It was such a kind of perverted picture, it really concerned me," Humphrey said. "But as a lifelong friend of his, I knew he had a convincing story."
In those Cold War days, the commission was highly compartmentalized, Humphrey said, and he had "no need to know" about the Paducah plant. Instead, he sent investigators secretly to the plant, who "validated some of Harold's allegations. I was never knowledgeable about what happened, but when they visited out there, I know there were some management realignments."
Hargan and other former C-400 workers remember that a few supervisors and managers suddenly were no longer at the plant, having transferred or retired to avoid a scandal.
"It was all hush-hush. They more or less forced two or three people out," said one retiree, who now is a part of the would-be class-action suit with Hargan. "Nobody talked about it very much, but it was understood that's why they left."
The retiree said he knew of other workers who diluted samples and he was aware that the waste was dumped into the holding pond. He and other former C-400 workers said the use of gas masks was lax in neptunium and technetium recovery, as well as in other dangerous work.
On one occasion in C-400, the man dropped and broke a one-ounce bottle containing a neptunium sample that he was taking to the lab.
"Like everything else, I got a bucket of water and cleaned it up," he said, noting that he was not wearing protective equipment. "I remember thinking that was a lot of money lost. Now it scares me to think of the risk I took. If I knew then what I know now, I would think it was about as dangerous as processing anthrax."
After the unannounced AEC visit, much of the trouble ceased, Hargan said. "Had Carl Humphrey not bitten the bullet when he did, the problems at the plant would've been much worse."
Still, the sloppy use of TCE continued for about 10 years as workers unfamiliar with cleaning equipment were transferred to C-400 from buildings that were shut down, Hargan said.
Charlie Brown, a retired electrical foreman, said the solvent was widely used in three-gallon drums, without protective equipment, to wash high-voltage circuit breakers in switch yards at the plant.
"I used to wash my coveralls in it to cut the grease," he said. "I hung them up and and wore them the next day."
In June 1986, workers discovered that a sump in the basement of C-400 was tied to the storm drain, instead of piping chemicals to the holding pond (now a landfill) as originally thought. According to DOE, the pond became a burial ground in 1957. They also found a break, which may have been there since the early 1950s, facing downward in the storm drain line. That meant that chemical drainage from the building went directly into the soil, perhaps for decades.
Two years later, traces of TCE and technetium were found in the wells of several homes north of the plant. That touched off a massive investigation and led to the DOE's replacing wells of nearly 100 homes with city water. Plant use of the degreaser was banned.
Cleanup efforts now include systems to pump and treat areas of greatest groundwater contamination beneath the plant. But pump-and-treat systems have limited effectiveness, and the plant is studying methods of treating the water in the ground as it flows.
Although the technetium contamination is believed to be coming mainly from buried radioactive materials, "it is possible" that the 600-gallon spill Hargan described during technetium recovery around 1960 could have been a key factor, said DOE spokesman Steve Wyatt. "We're talking about something a long time ago, and it's hard to tell what levels would have been there," he said.
What is clear is DOE's investigative findings related to C-400 work.
The building was a leading source of source of radiation and toxins in water, and workers there "had significant exposures" to TCE and radiation, DOE says, admitting that records were sketchy and that many overexposures probably went unreported. The only two documented cases of beta radiation overexposure occurred in the C-400 cylinder wash facility in the first quarter of 1968. Estimated exposures were two to four times the plant's quarterly limit.
The workers stood in a metal tray used to collect highly radioactive cylinder rinse water, which was the main source of neptunium and technetium recovery in earlier years. DOE said the plant's highest concentrations of neptunium - 2,000 times more radioactive than uranium - were in recovery work, and the main risk was breathing radioactive air particles.
Hargan was restricted from certain work areas for four months in the mid-1950s because of "repeated positive urine samples" for uranium, his records show. At various times, his body showed traces of neptunium and technetium that were below plant action levels. Although the records show Hargan was never exposed above the annual limit for workers, Bill McMurry of Louisville, Hargan's attorney, said he doesn't believe the records, partly because of what the DOE investigative report says.
McMurry, who filed the would-be class-action suit involving Hargan, said that based on a 2,000-hour work year, information from the report shows workers who disassembled neptunium-contaminated converters were exposed to more than three times the annual limit for radiation.
"I think Harold fits in that same group," McMurry said. "He worked around a lot of neptunium in C-400."
Hargan's medical records show that when he retired in 1992, he told the plant doctor he was concerned about "linkage" between work exposure and the bladder cancer he had been diagnosed with six months earlier. Since then, he has had a cancerous kidney removed and undergone chemotherapy, but he says he doesn't know if his illness was caused by his work.