The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Friday, February 02, 2001
Paducah, Kentucky

DOE workers distrust report
Some records were missing for the study of radiation exposure, and some people said they had problems calling the hot line.

By Joe Walker

Uranium enrichment workers challenge the accuracy and fairness of a study identifying groups threatened most by past radiation exposure at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Released last month, the Department of Energy report 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.

Nearly 200 current and former workers and their families attended a DOE briefing Thursday night at the Paducah Information Age Park resource center. The gathering reflected plenty of skepticism.

Former employee Al Puckett was cynical, saying 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.

Rick Jones, DOE's lead investigator for the study, said the findings were a best effort, considering notable gaps in records. "We recognize that as a shortcoming," he said.

Current plant health physicist Orville Cypret, who reviewed the report as a citizen and not as a USEC Inc. 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 a recorded message toll-free at 877-447-9756 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. Don Seaborg, DOE Paducah site manager, encouraged people to call his office at 441-6800 if they have trouble with the hot line.

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 responded that 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.

Former workers may enroll in a medical screening program by calling 1-888-241-1199.