March 27, 2000
Rush work, releasing uranium gases recollected
By Joe Walker
Don Copeland had not heard about plutonium in the early 1950s when boxcars filled with 55-gallon drums rolled into the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a massive, new facility enriching uranium as fast as possible for the federal government.
Copeland, who went to work in 1951 at age 25 for $1.50 an hour, was in charge of one of the 26-acre, fortresslike buildings where huge compressors pushed uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas through miles of piping to gradually separate the useful and non-useful isotopes of uranium. He watched as crews unloaded the unmarked drums and stored them two-high outside the building's control room that held his office.
Forklift drivers frequently gouged the drums, spilling what looked like black cinders. Copeland and others were told to sweep up the messes with brooms, dustpans and waste cans, and put it in the regular garbage.
After several promotions into the supervisory ranks, Copeland broke through the plant's Cold War secrecy to pick up shreds of information about plutonium. He learned it was a byproduct of a nuclear reactor, which didn't exist at Paducah. Although he could find no paperwork, Copeland guessed the plutonium came from a plant in Hanford, Wash., and was in the drums near his office.
The highly radioactive material was a contaminant in spent reactor fuel in a building called C-410, where workers added fluorine to uranium to produce UF6. Working conditions in C-410 and similar areas were hot, loud and filled with dust containing radiation. The most radioactive areas were towers where fluorine was added and bins where byproduct ash containing plutonium was collected.
Respirators were specified for that type work, but compliance was inconsistent. In June 1955, a health physics memo noted that contamination levels in C-410 were higher than ever, and a green film was seen on the floor even after sweeping. Similar conditions and findings were noted as late as the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Department of Energy.
Although DOE now estimates that only about three-fourths of a pound of plutonium was present in the ash and other materials through the years, a little plutonium went a long way. Ingesting about a half-gram of the element would be fatal, DOE says, and lesser amounts could produce severe lung and digestive tract illness and increase the risk of cancer.
One retiree, who spent his early days in C-410 and C-420 - the "feed" plants - said he and many workers used gas masks when changing ash bins, which contained a fluffy, white, heavy powder. But other employees passing through the area and those eating in a nearby lunchroom had no breathing protection, said the retiree, who asked to remain anonymous.
"We had every kind of safety equipment imaginable, but they really didn't force us to wear it. It was really up to the individual," the man said. "To me that is one place where management was lax."
As a manager, Copeland didn't work in the feed plants, shops and other places where workers were exposed to airborne radiation and toxins, but he has great empathy for those who did. He's retired after nearly 34 years at the plant, lives in Mayfield, and is now a plaintiff in a would-be class-action lawsuit alleging that profit-driven contractors poisoned workers by withholding safety information from them. The contractors are defending the claims.
Copeland says workers at the Paducah plant, then run by Union Carbide Corp., were encouraged to outperform a sister plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
"The greatest thing at Paducah was comparing our time with theirs (Oak Ridge)," Copeland said. "We beat them on everything. If you're in a race trying to beat somebody in time, you have a pretty good idea about what's going to happen with your safety."
Peak production meant repairing massive motors, compressors and converters as fast as possible, he said, and crews kept detailed time logs. Maintenance in the shops and C-410 cleaning building put workers at serious risk, Copeland said.
"One of the dirtiest operations I ever saw was in the converter shop in C-720," he said. "They would cut the old barrier tubes (pipes used to separate isotopes) out with chain saws. There was a cloud of smoke in there so thick, you absolutely could not see."
The trouble continued for many years. A recent DOE investigative report said surveys in the shop in 1980 showed plant guides for airborne alpha radiation were exceeded for uranium by a factor of 1,680, neptunium (a contaminant similar to plutonium) by a factor of 2,121, and plutonium by a factor of 2,483.
Although alpha radiation cannot penetrate the skin, it is harmful if breathed or ingested. Even assuming that respirators were worn and at least 90 percent effective, contamination "levels even one-tenth as great (as those shown in 1980) would be deemed significant," DOE said of the conditions in C-720, generally known as the machine shop.
While workers on one end of the building were cutting tubes, those on the other end were installing new ones. Copeland recalls that the two sections were separated only by a sheet of black plastic, "as if that was really safe."
Several former workers told DOE that in the '50s and '60s people were not required to have protection or mandatory health testing even though they worked near high-risk compressor maintenance areas in the machine shop.
The DOE investigation noted that the few health physics personnel the plant had in earlier years were concerned about worker safety. But the Atomic Energy Commission, a DOE predecessor that regulated the plant until 1975, said in part that supervisors held radiation safety authority and were answerable to management, while health physics workers' role was "cautionary and advisory."
A 1987 DOE safety appraisal said line managers, then working for Martin Marietta, were not trained to handle radiation protection measures. "They recognize they are responsible but appear to regard radiation protection as not being a significant safety concern," the report said.
Conditions in the huge production buildings were generally cleaner and safer than many other work areas, but the big buildings had their problems. Copeland vividly remembers one of the worst explosions ever because it happened Dec. 13, 1962, his 37th birthday.
During maintenance work, the wrong mix of chemicals and temperature apparently caused a massive converter, weighing about 35 tons, to explode and catch on fire. The impact blew out an eight-inch water main and set off virtually every sprinkler in the 26-acre building, emptying the fire water tank in minutes.
Harold Hargan, a retired worker who saw the aftermath, said the damage reduced the converter to a molten mess and looked worse than that of 10 tons of bombs exploding while he was in the military.
Hargan said he and other employees were told to take the debris to the plant's cleaning and decontamination building, known as C-400, melt it and flush it down a drain that flowed into a ditch leading to the Ohio River. The wreckage undoubtedly had contamination from uranium, plutonium and similar radionuclides, he said.
"It had classified material in it," Hargan said, "and that's how they decided to get rid of it."
A year later, the AEC approved Carbide's request to release drums of solution containing radioactive neptunium, thorium and uranium to the Ohio River via the same ditch. The solution came from the C-400 building where Hargan and others ran equipment to extract valuable neptunium and uranium.
According to DOE, the request said the discharge would be controlled to keep the concentration in the river below permissible limits. "This decision may have been a misapplication of AEC regulations ...," DOE said in an investigative report earlier this year. "This type of approach has contributed to elevated isotopic concentrations (of radioactive materials) found in ditches and outfalls (discharge points) both on and near the site today."
Another regrettable practice to boost production was the unmonitored "jetting" of radioactive, toxic gases through roof vents by using dry air or nitrogen, Copeland said. At night, the releases were called "midnight negatives," and men were sent to roofs with lanterns to monitor the white smoke to show the process was working.
Copeland, once foreman of a building called C-310 where enriched uranium was withdrawn, said venting occurred there, as well as in the production buildings.
"The highest assay (concentration of enriched uranium) was there," he said. "The jets exhausted to the atmosphere, and it was many years before we bothered to sample what we were exhausting."
Although the discharge had traces of plutonium and neptunium contamination, workers generally did not hear those names until the mid-1960s, about 15 years after the plant opened, Copeland said.
DOE says some current and former workers knew about or participated in midnight negatives. Procedures reviewed by investigators did not mention jetting, and interviewees could not remember it being done after the mid-1980s.
Investigators could not determine the number and frequency of the releases, but depending on certain conditions, as much as "several thousand pounds of UF6" were available for release from one of a production building's many "cells" where uranium was enriched, the investigative report said.
No stack emissions were monitored at the plant until the mid-1970s, the report says, but an estimated 66 tons of uranium were released into the atmosphere from 1952 to 1990 - 75 percent before 1965.
The discharges and unsafe working conditions were the direct result of putting production first, said Copeland, who admits he was "pretty bitter" about Carbide when he left in 1984. That year, Carbide stopped being the contractor, and Copeland wanted to transfer to another Carbide facility rather than keep working at the plant for new contractor Martin Marietta. Copeland and several other former employees later sued to contest transfer denials and lost.
However, Copeland refuses to blame Carbide for all the plant trouble. The AEC, and later DOE, "knew about it but didn't want to let anybody know they knew," he said.
"I'm 74, and I don't think my health was damaged out there," Copeland said. "Of course, I wasn't exposed like other workers. But I do think other workers were damaged, and what I don't like is that the company avoided telling anybody about the hazards."