The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

DOE checking presence, impact of cylinder gas

Three enrichment plants have total of about 2,500 cylinders that once contained phosgene.

By Joe Walker

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Department of Energy is investigating to see if there are traces of the toxic gas phosgene remaining in old uranium hexafluoride cylinders at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

A Sept. 30 memo from the DOE Inspector General´s Office said that based on preliminary findings, phosgene may have been left in some of the 1,825 cylinders at the plant that DOE acquired from the Army´s Chemical Warfare Service in the 1940s and ´50s.

The memo, obtained by The Paducah Sun, was sent to the Paducah plant, as well as closed uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Portsmouth, Ohio. The three plants have a total of about 2,500 cylinders that once contained phosgene.

Among the issues cited in the memo are whether enough phosgene remains to endanger workers or the public; whether the gas will corrode the tanks and cause a leak; and the possibility of a harmful reaction during a proposed conversion process.

Energy Department spokeswoman Laura Schachter said there are safeguards in place to protect the plant´s 1,200 workers and those living near the plant, which is about 10 miles west of Paducah.

Because of the age of the cylinders, and because of their purging, cleaning, modification and refilling through the decades, “the likelihood of the presence of residual phosgene in the cylinders is extremely remote,’ Schachter said.

“Obviously we take any kind of alert from the Inspector General´s Office very seriously, but we´re also working to understand the information.’

Schachter said records are being checked to see how many of the cylinders have been washed, and how many have been filled and refilled with uranium hexafluoride. She also said some cylinder shipments have been temporarily stopped as a precaution during the probe.

DOE contractor Uranium Disposition Services is building factories at Paducah and Portsmouth to stabilize and recycle the depleted uranium in hopes of selling the fluorine it contains. The memo — written by Alfred K. Walter, DOE assistant inspector general for inspections and special inquiries — quotes an unnamed Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety expert as saying the unexpected introduction of phosgene into the recycling process could be “catastrophic.’

Walter wrote that the findings “may warrant immediate attention.’ But he also said DOE had not advised UDS of the problem, even though the department had known for five years that the canisters once contained phosgene.

New, preliminary findings from the Inspector General´s Office indicated that some of the cylinders may have contained phosgene that was not purged before they were filled with uranium hexafluoride, the memo said.

The memo refers to a 2000 report that some of the cylinders were very rusty and others may have been breached. The report said phosgene is highly corrosive.

Phosgene, still used extensively to make plastics and pesticides, was used briefly as a weapon by the Germans during World War I. It can cause skin lesions and burns, and breathing it causes a person´s lungs to fill with mucous and fluid.

Bill Cossler, president of the plant nuclear workers´ union, said as little as .02 parts per million of phosgene can cause immediate danger to life and health.

“The fact that it´s so terribly poisonous is a concern,’ he said, adding that some of the cylinders have valve problems, a couple are bulging and some may have been damaged in transit 10 years ago.

Cossler said he understands that the Inspector General´s office may now deem the memo to have been premature and not fully reflecting all the facts. But the union will remain very cautious until the investigation determines if any of the cylinders contain phosgene, he said.

UDS, which handles cylinder maintenance at the plant, will have to open all the cylinders, test for phosgene and render them safe, Cossler said. He said breached cylinders could emit phosgene, hydrofluoric acid, or both.

Al Puckett, a former worker who lives about a mile from the Paducah plant and who has been a vocal critic of its pollution and contamination, said he is concerned by the disclosure about phosgene.

“I sure would not want those tanks busting,’ Puckett said. “I guess they would blow the sirens, but would you have time to get away? Phosgene? I have never even heard of phosgene at that plant.’

The suspect cylinders are only a fraction of the 37,000 canisters stored at the plant. The memo says there could be as many as 406 cylinders containing phosgene at Portsmouth and 309 at Oak Ridge.

Only one of the suspect cylinders at Paducah belongs to plant operator USEC. The rest are owned by DOE, which leases the factory to USEC. Company spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said the single cylinder is in good condition, and the problem will not alter plant production.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.