The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, November 07, 2001

Paducahans, pollution group meet despite DOE reschedule
The public meeting, which DOE postponed until Dec. 9, went ahead as gaseous diffusion plant neighbors discussed depleted uranium conversion.

By Joe Walker

Some Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant neighbors want answers about the safety of converting about 14 billion pounds of hazardous depleted uranium hexafluoride into another form for recycling or disposal.

"When they get the uranium out of those cylinders, where are they going to ship it and what are they going to do with the cylinders?" said Ray English, who lives near the plant. "This is going to take a long time to do, and we live here in the neighborhood and have concerns."

He and others hosted a public meeting Tuesday night featuring the Military Toxics Project, a Lewiston, Maine-based, nonprofit network of community groups that speaks out about the adverse impacts of military pollution. The Paducah plant, which enriches uranium for nuclear fuel, made and dismantled nuclear weapons parts during the Cold War.

Members of the project had planned to attend a Department of Energy public meeting Tuesday night to help prepare an environmental impact statement for cylinder conversion, but the meeting was postponed until Dec. 6. English said an informal meeting at the Kentucky Wildlife Management Area building was arranged to give the group a forum anyway.

The Department of Energy intends to hire a firm or firms to convert the UF6, a waste by-product of enrichment, into a safer material that might be used commercially. A consortium involving USEC Inc., the Paducah plant operator, is among three finalists for the work. The winning bidder was expected to be named by the end of October, but the process has been delayed for unspecified reasons thought to be related to terrorism.

DOE's preferred option of converting the material into uranium dioxide is expected to cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billon, create several hundred construction jobs and employ at least 100 people long-term at both Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, where conversion facilities would be built. Construction must start by Jan. 31, 2004, according to federal law.

Vina Colley, a former worker at the closed Piketon enrichment plant, attended the Paducah meeting. She has various health problems she believes stemmed from enrichment work, and worries about the health effects of conversion on workers and the public.

A new program to provide lump-sum benefits to sick enrichment workers should be extended to conversion work, and a community health survey should be done, she said. "We're not against jobs, but we want the workers and the public to be protected."

The compensation extends to people with specified cancers related to radiation exposure, but wrongly excludes diseases from chemical exposure, Colley said.

The environmental study will assess worker and public health and environmental impacts of the conversion project. UF6 in its normal, solid form resembles rock salt and contains low-level radiation. When released to the atmosphere, it reacts with water vapor to form chemically toxic substances, notably hydrogen fluoride, the department said.

Besides environmental impact, the study will gauge the facilities’ construction and operational effect on local employment, income, population, housing and public services.

About two-thirds of the nearly 58,000 steel cylinders are at the Paducah plant and the rest are at Piketon and a third closed plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Lisa Helms, national organizer for the Military Toxics Project, said she hopes to coordinate public efforts in the three communities, and the chief concerns are handling, transportation and disposal.

"Some of these cylinders were created back in the ’50s and are extremely rusty," Helms said. "If they're going to try to move them, we have deep concerns about the number of breeches, what happens on the roads, and all these questions that pop up."

If the waste can't be commercially recycled, it will go to an approved disposal facility. The Nevada Test Site, a vast land area north of Las Vegas, is the preferred site with two low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities. A June 2000 DOE report said there are "significant uncertainties regarding the time and cost" of making the material compliant with Nevada Test Site regulations.

Plant neighbors and activists also point out that some of the waste uranium has traces of highly radioactive plutonium from facilities elsewhere that made nuclear fuel. Certain amounts of plutonium are deadly if inhaled.

In January 2000, DOE responded to Toxics Project questions in writing, saying the amounts of plutonium are so miniscule that the "major health concern" is from the depleted uranium. A DOE report issued five months later also downplayed the plutonium risk, but said it could be a significant public issue because of "heightened concern" about plutonium and the large volume of material to be converted.