The Columbus Dispatch


Radiation readings were altered, workers testify

Wednesday, November 20, 2002
By Kevin Mayhood

A security guard at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant alleges the plant's operators altered records of workers' exposure to radiation to enrich themselves with bonuses from the federal government.

Jeff Walburn, who has worked at the plant in Piketon for 26 years, contends in a federal lawsuit that Lockheed Martin, Lockheed Martin Utility Services and U.S. Enrichment Corp. used false and unreliable exposure readings to receive incentive payments for operating a safe work environment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2000 in federal court in Columbus under the false-claim act, but a judge unsealed it for public view only last week.

The act allows a civilian to sue on behalf of the federal government when it overpays a supplier because of alleged fraud. The lawsuit was sealed so the companies would be unaware of any federal investigation.

The Piketon plant helped produce weapons-grade uranium and handled plutonium during the Cold War. Plant workers say their exposure records are unreliable and are hoping Walburn's lawsuit provides them with accurate information, said former employees Paul Smith and Vina K. Colley.

Congress two years ago approved payments to workers exposed to radiation at the plant. They must be diagnosed with one of 21 types of cancer.

The plant was closed last year but operations to decontaminate it are continuing. U.S. Enrichment is considering establishing an advanced-technology enrichment plant at the facility.

Representatives of the companies declined to comment, saying they had not seen the suit.

Walburn also declined to comment, but his attorney, Steve J. Edwards, said, "We have evidence in Jeff's case that his records were changed twice.''

Edwards said he has depositions from two employees who said they altered 400 to 600 records per year for a variety of workers and visitors. They never questioned why.

Safety regulations say workers must not be exposed to more than a certain cumulative amount of radiation in their lifetime, Edwards said.

"How can they know if they are near or at that amount if their records are not accurate?'' he said.

Walburn first sued the companies in 1996, seeking damages for lung ailments. The case was dismissed the next year.

In depositions for the false-claim suit, employees Linda Smith and Chris Kelly said they altered Walburn's readings from numbers showing "insignificant'' exposures to show he had no exposures on three days in the mid-1990s.

They said the changes were made at the direction of a supervisor who was concerned about a court case.

Smith and Kelly said their boss told them it would be easier to explain a zero reading than how Walburn was exposed to radiation, even though the amount was considered insignificant.

Walburn's records, however, were later changed back, the lawsuit says. Smith and Kelly said they didn't restore the numbers and don't know who did or why.

U.S. District Judge James L. Graham agreed to government requests to keep the lawsuit sealed, but only until this month.

The Department of Justice has said that, for now, it will not join in the lawsuit because it is still investigating Walburn's allegations.

If Walburn wins, he could receive a cut of damages awarded to the U.S. government. For each false claim proved, the company that cheated the government must pay triple the amount it took, plus a penalty of up to $10,000.


All content herein is 2002 The Columbus Dispatch and may not be republished without permission.