The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, March 9, 2004

DOE workers tests adds beryllium
The Department of Energy plans to include 3,000 screenings for the element, and they must be done by the end of 2005.14

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

The Department of Energy has agreed to look for beryllium exposure routinely as it winds down the general medical testing of current and former Paducah uranium enrichment workers by the end of 2005.

Roughly 7,000 people have worked at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant since it opened 52 years ago. Of those, about 2,000 have died and 2,000 have been screened for work-related diseases. That leaves 3,000 who need screening, said Sylvia Kieding, Denver-based medical surveillance program director for Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International.

"We've got a year and a half and 3,000 people that we'd like to reach," she said Monday at an advisory committee meeting in Paducah. Kieding said letters will be sent to as many of the 3,000 as can be identified. Testing will be expanded this spring to thousands of former plant construction workers.

The union and Queens College of New York run the program for the Energy Department, which funds the tests. Starting in 2006, DOE will limit testing to people newly retired or who have new symptoms. Local union leaders want to continue the current program, partly because there is still much uncertainty about worker exposure to beryllium, a strong, lightweight but highly toxic metal. They say at least 380 people at Paducah and its closed companion plant at Piketon, Ohio, need beryllium testing.

A separate program run by the Department of Labor pays $150,000 each to workers with chronic beryllium disease, which can cause serious or even fatal lung problems. Out of 212 cases filed, the Labor Department has paid $5.85 million to 39 diseased workers. Five more cases have been approved for payment, and 50 have been denied, said the program's Brady White.

"Whether it's legislatively or through the national program, we must seek additional funding to continue beryllium testing," said Jim Key, environmental, safety and health representative for PACE Local 5-550 in Paducah.

Until now, DOE beryllium screening has been limited to people with work history of possible exposure. The Energy Department has agreed to make the test universal because some of those exposed didn't work in areas of known beryllium use, said Mark Griffon, health physicist for the DOE testing program.

Beryllium screening is done through a blood test that can have false positive (abnormal results that really are normal) or false negative (normal results that are really abnormal). Key said research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that false negatives far outweigh false positives.

Beryllium wasn’t known to be at the Paducah plant until 1999, when Griffon found an old DOE memo mentioning its use during the Cold War. The next year, DOE admitted that beryllium was used in secretly making and dismantling nuclear weapons parts.

Questions about the disease increased in January, when unexpectedly high levels of beryllium dust were found in the machine shop at Piketon. The dust was near equipment used to machine the ends of aluminum compressor blades that push uranium gas through miles of piping. Before that discovery, the Energy Department had said beryllium was never used at Piketon.

Compressor blades at Paducah haven’t been tested, but DOE officials agree that a more thorough beryllium check is needed. Key said the union wants to test the gas stream because the same company supplied blades at Piketon and Paducah. DOE 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, he said.

Former Paducah worker Harold Hargan of Mounds, Ill., said that more than 30 years ago, he and others dissolved the blades and fed the metallic solution into the stream to lessen acidity during uranium recovery work. The practice was to save the cost of buying commercial aluminum nitrate, he said.

Hargan, a key witness in an ongoing whistleblowers' lawsuit against former plant contractors, said medical tests show he was exposed to beryllium. "According to my records, it was absolutely in the plant (enrichment) process."

Nearly 700 samples were taken last May and June in 11 areas of the Paducah plant with known or suspected beryllium history. Notable areas were the machine shop, cleaning building and a closed smelter. Aside from testing the gas stream, the union wants some of those areas retested, Key said, adding, "Any and all aluminum products are suspect."

Contacts:

Department of Labor Paducah claims office, 534-0599.

Department of Energy health screenings, 442-3668.