Plant allegations need proof
In January, U.S. Attorney Steve Reed looked on as employees of Bechtel Jacobs Co. began digging a trench near an old landfill at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Speaking to a group of reporters and other observers, Reed remarked, "What you see here is digging for the truth. We will take the truth ... and evidence and go wherever it requires us to go."
Reed's words are worth remembering. A year ago the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into allegations contained in a whistle-blower's lawsuit filed by current and former plant employees against former operators of the uranium enrichment facility.
Last week Justice Department officials concluded one part of the wide-ranging investigation, announcing they found no evidence that contaminated drums were improperly buried in a landfill designated for nonhazardous waste.
The suit alleges that former plant operators, including Lockheed Martin Corp., lied about radioactive and chemical contamination to earn large performance bonuses from the U.S. Department of Energy. The contractors have denied those accusations.
Federal law enforcement officials are trying to get to the bottom of some of the more sensational charges about past activities at the plant. If the Justice Department finds there is merit to the lawsuit's claims, the agency will join the suit against the former contractors.
Reed identified the investigators' critical task in Paducah: finding the truth. In the past year, many allegations — some of them very credible — have been made concerning the plant's operations in the past and DOE's apparent failure to provide adequate oversight.
The evidence strongly indicates that, in some cases, workers in Paducah weren't informed that they were handling highly radioactive materials as well as moderately radioactive enriched uranium.
We now know that workers disassembled nuclear weapons without warheads at the plant and buried the weapons parts on the plant grounds.
We also know that the federal government — as federal officials now concede — kept a veil of Cold War secrecy over plant operations that were potentially hazardous to the health of plant workers and people who live near the facility.
But even with these revelations, there is a great deal that still is unknown about contamination at the plant. The search for the truth is ongoing, and unbiased observers will withhold judgment until all the evidence is in concerning the allegations in the various lawsuits and other reports of wrongdoing.
It's always risky to jump to conclusions based on claims made in a lawsuit. The Justice Department's "dig for the truth" at the closed landfill proves that.
One former worker told federal officials that contaminated drums were buried in the nonhazardous landfill. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville told the Sun last week, "We have finished with that dig, and I can confirm that we found a railroad tie and some fence posts."
It needs emphasizing that the federal probe of the lawsuit's claims is far from over. Investigators are poring over plant records, interviewing current and former workers and checking other sites where illegal dumping allegedly occurred.
The charges leveled against the former plant operators are serious, and deserve a thorough investigation. But the goal is to find the truth — not to prove a point. In the case of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, it's clear that uncovering the truth will be a long and complicated process.