This report identifies the type of work which, in the past, posed the greatest risk to Paducah workers, said DOE Secretary Bill Richardson.
By Bill Bartleman email@example.com
As many as 4,000 workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant were assigned jobs from 1952 to 1991 that placed them at a moderate to high risk for radiation exposure, according to a U.S. Department of Energy study released Wednesday.
The study also said that important health physics records containing exposure levels couldn't be located. It said health physics monthly reports from the early 1950s and many in the 1960s and 1970s were not available for review. Much of the data collected for those time periods was based on interviews with current and former employees.
The report confirms previous studies and statements by former workers about dangerous working conditions and operating procedures during the early years of the plant's operation.
Major changes in operating practices began in the late 1980s when studies confirmed significant water and soil pollution in and around the plant.
The study was ordered by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson as part of the government's effort to identify people whose health may have been harmed by work-related exposure.
"This report identifies the type of work which, in the past, posed the greatest risk to Paducah workers," Richardson said in a prepared statement. "It will serve as a basis for further study to ensure that workers made sick at Paducah get the compensation they deserve."
However, Dr. David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environmental safety and health, said there are no plans to contact former workers who were assigned jobs in the high-risk areas. He said he hoped publicity from the reports would encourage those former workers to take advantage of a free health screening program that includes testing for early signs of lung cancer.
In 1999, DOE acknowledged for the first time that workers may have become ill, injured or died because of job-related radiation and chemical exposure. Congress last year authorized paying former workers, workers and surviving families up to $150,000 as compensation for their illnesses or death. Ongoing medical costs also are covered.
Guidelines are being drafted and compensation applications are expected to be accepted in the fall. Richardson has scheduled a news conference today to announce more details and suggest changes in the legislation approved last year.
The report released Wednesday said at least 2,500 and as many as 4,000 employees worked in areas where there was a potentially high risk for radiation exposure.
Michaels said little new information was learned from the study, which began more than a year ago. He said the original intent was to gather data that could be used in helping to identify former workers who would be eligible for benefits because of their exposure.
But detailed information is no longer needed, because guidelines approved by Congress make it easy for former workers who are sick to qualify for compensation benefits, he said.
The report does represent the first time that specific jobs have been identified as having moderate or high risks for exposure.
Areas with the highest risks were in the feed plant (buildings C-410 and C-420), the decontamination building (C-400), the metals building (C-340), the maintenance building (C-720) and the cascade buildings (C-331, C-333, C-335 and C-337).
Jobs that posed a high potential for increased radiation exposure were identified as ash handling, cylinder heel cleaning, derby processing, pulverizer operations, unplugging fluorination towers in the C-410 building, unplugging and maintaining equipment in the C-420 building, maintaining cascade equipment, baghouse cleaning, cleaning and maintaining hydrogenation towers, and converter maintenance.
Events with a high risk include a fire in the C-310 building in 1956, a fire in the C-337 building in 1962, an explosion and fire in the C-340 building in 1962, a fire in the C-315 building in 1978, cascade improvement programs from 1958-62 and 1974-82, neptunium production and undated materials releases.
Jobs with moderate potential for increased radiation exposure were cascade operators, instrument mechanics, green salt sweeping, disassembly of compressors and block valves, drumming of green salt, laboratory work, electricians, carpenters, machine operators, product withdrawal, tail withdrawal, firefighters, crane operators, welders, uranium recovery and fabrication.
Jobs with low potential for increased radiation exposure were drum crushing, guard patrolling, roof maintenance, smelting, grounds keeping, cooling tower operators and landfill workers.
While the study identified jobs and locations with high exposure risk, it did not attempt to estimate exposure doses for individual workers. It also said that the risk does not mean the workers or ill or will become ill. All types of radiation exposure were considered in the study, but particular attention was given to possible exposures to neptunium and plutonium, the report said.
The report also said that current practices and procedures keep worker exposure below acceptable levels.
A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Feb. 1 in the Resource Center at the Paducah Information Age Park at which time officials will answer questions. Representatives will be present from the Paper Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, the DOE and the University of Utah, which helped prepare the study.
Questions about the study and compensation plan also may be directed to DOE's Office of Worker Advocacy by calling 1-877-447-9756. Former workers may enroll in a medical screening program by calling 1-888-241-1199.