The Associated Press State & Local Wire

February 2, 2001, Friday

2:00 AM Eastern Time

DOE briefs workers on radiation exposure study

PADUCAH, Ky.

A briefing on a study concerning past radiation exposure at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is a best effort, considering notable gaps in records, an investigator said.

"We recognize that as a shortcoming," Rick Jones, the Department of Energy's lead investigator for the study, said during a brief Thursday night.

Nearly 200 people - employees or former employees and their families -attended the briefing.

The DOE report, released last month, said 2,500 to 4,000 plant workers had jobs from 1952 to 1991 placing them in potentially high risk of radiation exposure. But important exposure-level records were missing, and much of the data collected was from interviewing current and former employees.

Former employee Al Puckett said he once put his film badge, used to measure external radiation, in a highly radioactive area of the plant and the badge showed nothing. "One day, I took my badge apart and there was no film in there," he said.

Current plant health physicist Orville Cypret, who reviewed the report as a citizen and not as a U.S. Enrichment Corp. employee, said it had many errors, looked unprofessional and apparently did not undergo peer review before release. Despite that, Cypret said he agreed with "most of the conclusions."

The report confirms previous studies and statements by former workers about dangerous working conditions and procedures during the plant's early years. DOE officials say the intent was to identify former workers eligible for exposure-related benefits.

DOE is urging people to call to get on a mailing list for benefits information. But several people, including former plant worker Joe Smith, said they left messages and were never called.

Jones said the hot line has gotten more than 10,000 calls since it was set up a year ago, and 600 to 800 calls are returned weekly. Publicity from the meeting may increase calls, which could slow the response pace, he said.

DOE officials hope publicity will encourage former workers to seek free health screening, including testing for early signs of lung cancer. Last year, Congress approved paying workers and surviving families up to $150,000 compensation for plant-related illness or death. Ongoing medical costs also are covered. Compensation applications are expected to be accepted in the fall.

The report said high-risk areas included now-closed buildings where uranium hexafluoride (UF6) was made and fed into the plant, and where uranium metal was made; and currently used buildings where UF6 is enriched, and where enrichment equipment is overhauled, repaired and cleaned.

People with greatest potential for increased radiation exposure included those working on enrichment equipment and handling ash. The study said they were at most risk for exposure to highly radioactive plutonium, neptunium and similar substances. Findings did not estimate exposure doses for individual workers and said risk does not mean workers will get sick.

Some at the meeting challenged being placed in lower-risk classifications. John Driskill, president of the plant guards' union, said security personnel work in all areas of the plant, even those off-limits because of radiation. "I do not understand how you can place workers like the security force in the low-risk group," he said.

Jones, the DOE investigator, said security officers are potentially exposed less than other work groups with high to moderate exposure potential. "The important thing now is to get into the medical surveillance program and monitor your health," he said.

LOAD-DATE: February 2, 2001