Paducah, Ky., plant hid radioactive dust

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 26, 2000

The Associated Press


Monday, June 26, 2000

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PADUCAH, Ky. – Managers of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant were concerned that workers were being harmed by radioactive dust as far back as 40 years ago, so much so that they secretly arranged for tests on laboratory animals.

Fearing adverse publicity and trouble with the union, some managers resisted government recommendations that they screen the workers for neptunium, a dangerous contaminant in the dust.

Documents obtained by The Courier-Journal through the Freedom of Information Act show that over the years, officials of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant continued to discuss the hazards of various radioactive materials in the plant but never told workers of their concerns.

In the early 1980s, managers secretly compiled a list of 13 current and former workers who had gotten leukemia and allied diseases.

It wasn’t until a lawsuit was filed last year by three workers that others say they learned they might have swallowed and inhaled dust tainted with highly radioactive materials which can cause cancer.

”Workers feel betrayed, and they’re angry that these people put their health at risk,” said David Fuller, president of local 5-550 of the Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union. ”Workers resent the fact (that the government) decided to risk their health without telling them.”

The highly radioactive elements came into the plant as contaminants in the spent nuclear fuel the plant re-energized from 1953 to 1977. During production, the contaminants were spread as fine dust throughout the miles of tubing in the processing equipment.

Workers risked exposure during a neptunium-recovery project from 1958 to 1962. A June 1, 2000, draft report, in which the U.S. Department of Energy tracked the path of radioactive materials through the plant, said neptunium exceeded allowable limits in air samples taken during the recovery operation in 1959.

”There is no indication that respiratory protection was used during these activities,” said the report, which The Courier-Journal obtained. ”Urine samples collected and sent to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for analysis tested positive for neptunium.”

Workers also faced a high risk in the feed plant, where they prepared uranium for processing, and in maintenance shops when they were replacing pieces of equipment.

”The units must be cut open with torches,” said a 1960 memo from an Atomic Energy Commission medical-research official. ”The pieces certainly can’t be handled gently or contained very readily because they are too massive.”

Managers for Union Carbide – the company that then ran the federal government’s diffusion plants near Paducah; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tenn. – knew and were concerned about workers’ being exposed to neptunium, according to records released to The Courier-Journal under the Freedom of Information Act.

L.B. Emlet, production manager for the uranium plants, wrote the Atomic Energy Commission in 1959 requesting animal studies on how workers metabolized neptunium.

”We find some data to indicate a discrepancy in the presently accepted excretion rate by the human organism,” Emlet wrote. ”We recommend that you initiate studies on this problem at some appropriate site.”

The following year, Richard C. Baker, a radiation-protection official at the Paducah plant, wrote a memo about a ”neptunium biology research project” to the plant’s medical director, Dr. A. Neal Ward. Baker said early animal-test results at the government’s Hanford Laboratories in Washington state showed ”evidence of chemical rather than radiological toxicity” after animals breathed high concentrations of ”Paducah dust.”

In 1961, Ward wrote in a memo that he had presented a summary of the ”problem of the neptunium contaminated process equipment at the Paducah plant” to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Maryland. Ward suggested that ”further animal studies be conducted at Hanford.”

Just a year earlier, Ward had been among the Paducah managers resisting neptunium testing of workers, according to the 1960 memo from Dr. Bruner of the AEC. Bruner wrote that Ward and others ”were not receptive to the idea of sending 8 to 10 of the men” with the most radiation in their urine to Oak Ridge for testing with a wholebody radiation counter.

”There are possibly 300 people at Paducah who should be checked out,” Bruner wrote, ”but they hesitate to precede (sic) to intensive studies because of the union’s use of this as an excuse for hazard pay.”

He added that he had urged Ward to obtain tissue samples from any potentially contaminated workers who die, so they could be tested for radiation, ”but I am afraid the policy at this plant is to be wary of the unions and any unfavorable public relations.”

The resistance to testing apparently faded by the mid-1960s. In a 1966 memo, Baker reported that whole-body counts of some workers had confirmed ”low exposure levels” to neptunium – though workers have said they were not told the results of such testing.

The memo said studies of rats exposed to dust containing small amounts of neptunium showed that they retained little of the element and rapidly cleared it from their lungs, suggesting it wasn’t a health threat.

But Baker went on to note that higher levels of exposure to neptunium were possible in other ”phases of handling recycling of high burn-up nuclear fuel.”

In fact, the Energy Department reported earlier this year that its investigators had found documents indicating some Paducah workers received high-level exposure to neptunium.