The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Nuclear workers fault report

Several say the health report used to determine whether plant workers are compensated is flawed because it relies on data from DOE.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8656

Friday, February 11, 2005

Nuclear workers and their advocates have attacked the credibility of a key document used to determine whether the workers are compensated for radiation-induced diseases at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The critics repeatedly drew applause from about 200 people — many of them current and retired plant employees — during a meeting Thursday at the Robert Cherry Civic Center. They were present to comment on a profile of radiation exposure at the sprawling 750-acre plant, which opened in 1952.

Several who spoke said the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report is flawed because it relies heavily on exposure data, or lack of it, from the U.S. Department of Energy and its former contractors that ran the plant until six years ago.

Lockheed Martin and predecessor firms that operated the uranium enrichment factory are defendants in a 1999 federal whistle-blower lawsuit accusing them of covering up worker exposures to obtain large performance fees from DOE. The defendants have denied wrongdoing, and the case has not gone to trial.

In writing a section for the new NIOSH report on workers' internal radiation exposure, health physicist Carol Berger was "literally cutting and pasting" unreferenced data from a 35-year-old report, said Richard Miller, policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. Miller, former policy analyst for the plant nuclear workers' union, said the old document was done in 1972 for Lockheed Martin's predecessor, Martin Marietta Energy Systems.

"Why are you using someone who's tainted by her own previous work?" Miller asked NIOSH officials.

NIOSH health physicist Peter Darnell said the conflict of interest was discovered after much of the site-profile work had been done. He said the profile was done liberally to help workers with their claims by assuming maximum exposures well above those documented.

Darnell said the document will reflect input from workers, which was the intent of the meeting.

"We're trying our best," he said. "That's why we're here."

Miller and Ron Fowler, a plant health physicist who helped file the whistle-blower suit, said DOE called the 1972 exposure report "incorrect, inaccurate and incomplete." They suggested NIOSH was underestimating workers' maximum potential exposure.

"How many people doubt the validity of the monitoring that was done at that plant?" Miller asked the crowd. Many hands went up.

He and Fowler produced several declassified plant memos from health physicists. One, in 1974, talked about an unknown number of worker radiation-monitoring badges being dumped into a landfill. Another, in 1972, expressed concerns about maximum potential radiation levels far above those mentioned in Berger's work.

The area of high-exposure concern was a building called the C-410 "feed plant," where workers once combined uranium tetrafluoride, or green salt, with fluorine to create uranium hexafluoride. That product then was fed through the piping system during enrichment.

Closed since 1976, the feed plant is identified in DOE reports as perhaps the plant´s most dangerous work area because some of the uranium was recycled from nuclear reactors and contained traces of highly radioactive plutonium and neptunium.

Greg Lahndorff, 54, contracted skin cancer and serious thyroid problems after working in the feed plant, said his wife, Barbara Lahndorff. She called exposure profiling "a joke" and asked why the process was even necessary to compensate workers.

"How can you define this as anything other than a human rights violation?" she said of workers being exposed without their knowledge.

There are about 3,000 backlogged compensation claims from Paducah workers under a program formerly run by the Energy Department. Many workers have been waiting several years for individual exposure profiles to be done.

NIOSH officials have not specified the backlog of Paducah profiles but said last month there were about 11,000 cases to be profiled nationwide, partly because NIOSH was understaffed in earlier years and has had trouble getting old DOE records.

Although the agency has a process of reviewing claims based on changes in plant profiles, NIOSH officials at the Paducah meeting could not say how soon workers' comments would be addressed as part of profile here. They said the agency has had 30 similar meetings in the last nine months amid doing site profiles nationwide, but the Paducah gathering was the largest.