Sick workers question exposure views
Health officials have been invited to meet with workers in Paducah and let them point out problem areas in the profile.
By Joe Walker
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Union leaders worry that compensation for sick nuclear workers could be denied or compromised by gaps in a new government profile of historic job exposure at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Done by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the profile relies heavily on exposure data from the Department of Energy that was spotty until recent years, according to the plant atomic workers' union. DOE owns the plant.
"I don't want to be too critical of NIOSH without giving them the opportunity to explain their rationale," said Leon Owens, a worker health screening representative for the union.
Owens said he will invite NIOSH officials to a meeting in Paducah in late January or early February to go over the profile and allow workers to point out problem areas. Meanwhile, the union will scrutinize the report with the help of Mark Griffon, health physicist for the screening program, Owens said.
In October, Congress expanded legislation for the Department of Labor to compensate sick nuclear workers by relying more heavily on plant profiles. The law provides for input from workers to fill exposure gaps, he said.
The seven-part Paducah report deals with work areas and various types and concentrations of radioactive materials that NIOSH uses to reconstruct worker exposures. The "dose" reconstructions help determine if sick workers are entitled to government compensation.
Although the plant enriches mildly radioactive uranium hexafluoride (UF6) for use in nuclear fuel, workers were exposed to much deadlier radiation during parts of the Cold War. Traces of plutonium and neptunium contaminated certain buildings in the plant as workers recovered uranium from spent reactor fuel, the profile says.
Owens said he questions the term "moderate" used in the profile to describe workers' external radiation exposure potential in a now-closed building where the reactor fuel was fed into the plant. The profile says the risk of internal exposure was high. Dust containing plutonium and neptunium is particularly deadly if breathed or ingested.
For decades, DOE never acknowledged the presence of neptunium or plutonium. Until 1999 when Griffon found an old DOE memo to the contrary the agency also refused to admit using a highly toxic metal called beryllium in the secret machining of nuclear weapons parts. Griffon led a 2001 study whose report shed light on beryllium and many other previously undisclosed risks, Owens said.
The profile does not satisfactorily address beryllium, even though chronic beryllium disease can be debilitating to the lungs or even fatal, Owens said. Out of 2,236 screenings, more than 100 current and former Paducah plant workers have the disease or exhibit beryllium exposure, he said.
Workers with beryllium disease or various types of radiation-induced cancers are entitled to $150,000 lump-sum payments. The expanded law provides for up to $250,000 for workers exposed to various other toxins. Some of the sickest workers could get as much as $400,000 under both programs.
Kate Kimpan, an expert hired by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky to help draft the improved legislation, now is acting director of the DOE Office of Worker Advocacy. She is overseeing the transfer of records from the Energy Department, which formerly ran the toxic-exposure compensation program, to the Labor Department.
"We feel very good about that," Owens said.
In four years, the Labor Department has paid about $170 million at Paducah for radiation-induced cancers and chronic beryllium disease. But there are about 3,000 Paducah claims backlogged under the former DOE program with nothing paid.
Owens said the Labor Department is expected to hold a town hall meeting in Paducah early next year to clarify the new program. The Labor Department has until late May to establish regulations.
Claims may be filed at the Paducah Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center, 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.