High levels of toxic dust were found at Portsmouth, where DOE previously said no beryllium was ever used, raising concern for former workers at Paducah.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
DOE said previously that workers were exposed to beryllium only during the Cold War while temporarily milling the metal in the dismantling of nuclear weapons parts. But internal records obtained by the Louisville Courier-Journal show that unexpectedly high levels of beryllium dust were found last month on 40-year-old aluminum compressor blades at Paducah's closed companion plant near Portsmouth, Ohio. Before that discovery, the Energy Department had said beryllium was never used at Portsmouth.
Compressors are used to push uranium hexafluoride gas through miles of piping to make it suitable for use in nuclear fuel. Although blades at Paducah haven't been tested for beryllium, they are similar to those in Ohio.
"We're definitely going to incorporate what we're finding in Portsmouth into the Paducah sampling plan," said Bill Murphie, DOE cleanup manager for the two plants. "We weren't expecting the source to be compressor blades or something other than weapons material."
Previous tests have not shown unsafe levels of beryllium dust in production areas, particularly in the air. Four current or former Paducah workers have chronic beryllium disease and several have sensitivity, which means they could eventually get the disease, said plant retiree James Harbison Sr., who volunteers with a separate screening program through the atomic workers union.
Under the Department of Labor program, a positive blood test indicating reaction to the toxin qualifies a worker for free medical screening for the rest of his life. If he contracts beryllium disease, he qualifies for a $150,000 lump-sum payment.
As of Jan. 14, about $135 million in claims had been paid to Paducah plant workers or their survivors. The Labor Department was unable to clarify Thursday how many claims were paid for beryllium disease versus radiation-induced cancers.
Wayne O’Keefe of Vienna, Ill., said he has had one positive and one negative test, and last summer underwent a free lung biopsy showing he did not have the disease. However, he has some symptoms, such as stiff joints, dizziness and hot flashes. Incurable but treatable by steroids, the malady can cause loss of lung function, serious respiratory trouble or death.
O’Keefe, 80, retired in 1985 after 28 years at the plant in two stints, the first starting in 1951 when construction began. During the last few years, he worked in a building housing the machine shop. He worked for many years around compressors and helped changed seals in the equipment.
"I don't remember ever hearing it (beryllium) discussed," O'Keefe said. "But the union says the people with sensitivity worked all over the plant. One was just an office worker. If beryllium was in production, that would explain it because most everybody would have been in those areas on occasion."
Beryllium was used in the lab, machine shop and smelter during weapons work, Harbison said. "We've got people who didn't work in any of those areas that have tested positive."
Philip Foley coordinated the screening program before taking over as president of the Paducah union local last month. He said the Energy Department has never responded to two Freedom of Information requests — one filed four years ago and another more than a year ago — about beryllium at the plant.
"We've never been confident that we had all the information that was available, but we couldn't prove it," he said. "This may shed more light on it."
The Department of Labor claims office in Paducah is in Barkley Centre off Blandville Road. The phone number is 534-0599.