The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

Nickel ingots not the only concern in classified burial area

EDITOR: Recently there was a story covering the nickel ingots in The Paducah Sun that might have misled readers. While I don't hold The Paducah Sun accountable for the information contained therein (it was probably based on information forwarded by individuals at the site), as a former site investigator, I do want to outline the facts as I understand them.

To substantiate the following information, I have forwarded copies of relevant internal documents to the Sun.

The article stated that the ingots contained only trace amounts of transuranics and technetium. In fact, internal studies found that all of the ingots contain technetium, some with levels in the 50,000 parts per billion range. Reporting that the ingots had only trace amounts of contamination implies that these materials and the processes that generated them were largely benign and present no tangible risk. Nothing could be further from the truth as indicated by "the rest of the story."

The contaminated nickel and aluminum ingots largely represent the final form of scrap diffusion plant material from the big diffusion rebuild efforts at the three diffusion sites. The bulk of these metals came from the replacement of compressor and converter units. Prior to the rebuild, several studies noted that a grayish material that accumulated in these units contained, among other things, high levels of transuranics and technetium. This material (called "cosmic dust" by some at the PGDP), represented one of the greatest exposure risks to workers who disassembled and cleaned the units and handled the resultant materials.

After the initial tear down and shredding of scrap materials (so it would fit in drums), more studies were conducted on how the material, that now resembled fingernail-sized potato chips, could be melted and, hopefully, sold. It was found from numerous tests that although the raw nickel chips contained plutonium and significant amounts of neptunium, technetium, uranium and thorium; only technetium was found at high levels in the ingots. So, anyone with sense would ask, where did the other contaminants go?

Pre-smelting tests showed that the more toxic and radioactive materials were concentrated in slag that formed at the top of the melt with lesser quantities adhering to the liner of the melting unit. The slag and most furnace liners were buried in unlined pits in the classified landfill. Oh, I should have mentioned, much of the scrap (from Portsmouth and Oak Ridge) would have been contaminated with enriched uranium. Placing the somewhat porous slag where it would be exposed to ground water would have resulted in leaching of contamination at a minimum (I will leave it for those of you with a background in radiation to imagine other potential concerns).

So, is this one more thing to worry about when it comes to dealing with the classified landfill? Certainly, but my real concern is that former workers had/have not been given the whole story on the conditions where they worked and they deserve to be informed. The lack of awareness (concern?) was pretty obvious to me when I found slag spheres being used for decoration on a desk in the smelter office.

Don't start to believe that this is the only concern in this burial area. In the past, many of the materials in classified items were themselves classified. Now it has been confirmed that many weapons contained regulated hazardous metals. When a list of components and the metals used is reviewed, the hesitancy for DOE and Lockheed to come clean on the beryllium issue is laughable.

I will always remember that the classified burial area was the one location that a former burial manager told me to never dig in, but could not tell me exactly why because it exceeded my security clearance level. Other locations did not warrant such cautions and one can only surmise the serious nature of the problem by other occurrences. For example, when we drilled in a different landfill and went right through a drum of PCBs, solvents, and uranium metal shavings, not an eyebrow was raised.