Paducah Workers Not at Risk, DOE Concludes

Report also indicates that neither DOE nor the contractor, Bechtel Jacobs, has conducted effective oversight of environment, safety and health performance at the Kentucky complex.

Workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant are not in immediate risk of radiation exposure, according to a Department of Energy (DOE) final report released Oct. 20. The report confirms preliminary findings released in September.

The report also concludes that neither DOE nor the contractor, Bechtel Jacobs, has conducted effective oversight of environment, safety and health (ESH) performance or ensured that all DOE and regulatory requirements are met at the Kentucky complex.

In addition, two of Paducah's early major cleanup efforts to remediate "Drum Mountain" and to characterize the waste unit beneath it are in significant jeopardy, the report concluded.

The first phase of the investigation ordered in August by Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson in response to allegations of improper ESH practices and worker exposure to cancer-causing plutonium and other transuranics covered activities at the plant since 1990. This initial phase was designed to provide Richardson with a timely assessment of the status of environmental protection, worker and public health and safety, and to guide the department's plans for any necessary corrective action.

"The final report largely confirms the preliminary findings we reported to Congress last month and confirms that current operations do not present an immediate risk to workers or the public," said Dr. David Michaels, the agency's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health. "The investigators documented a number of weaknesses that perpetuate the risks and hazards of legacy operations and that the department needs to fix. These are not insurmountable problems."

The report contains new, detailed results of environmental samples collected from groundwater, surface water and soil or sediments. The types and levels of contamination detected in samples analyzed independently were generally consistent with the site's past environmental monitoring results.

Issuance of the report followed a six-week investigation, including two weeks of on-site activities. The 20-member team of ESH professionals and technical experts conducted more than 100 interviews with managers and workers. The team observed work activities, inspected plant facilities, sampled and analyzed groundwater, surface water, sediment and soil, conducted radiological surveys and reviewed hundreds of documents.

In the environmental area, the team noted that the Paducah plant operates in compliance with the Federal Facility Agreement between EPA and Kentucky and has made extensive efforts to characterize major sources of groundwater contamination and protect the public from that contamination. At the same time, the team noted that there has been limited progress in isolating or remediating the numerous sources of off-site contamination.

The report points out that funding for cleanup has been much less than requested. Thus, little progress has been made toward final cleanup, such as remediating "Drum Mountain" (contaminated scrap metal) and characterizing the waste unit beneath it.

The team also noted that the radiological protection program has been improved since 1990, with the addition of staff and establishment of numerous controls such as dosimetry, bioassay and contamination controls. Despite these improvements, however, the program requires a higher level of discipline, formality and rigor to provide workers with maximum protection. The team found that improvements are needed in establishing, maintaining and following procedures, particularly for work performed by subcontractors.

In addition, the team said criticality safety hazards in DOE material storage areas have not been characterized, analyzed and resolved, even though they were identified more than two years ago. This poses a potential hazard to workers in surrounding areas.

As a result of the report's conclusion that DOE and Bechtel Jacobs need more effective oversight of ESH performance, the department and the contractor are working to implement the recommendations in the investigative team's report. The actions include:

  • Criticality safety hazards DOE last week began characterization and removal activities for the first DOE Material Storage Area (DMSA) associated with seismic upgrades at the Paducah plant. This activity is being conducted using established safety procedures.
  • Oversight The department has assigned facility representatives at Paducah on an interim basis. Two full-time facility representatives stationed at Paducah will provide regular surveillance of operations and safety practices. Also, the department is establishing a program for ESH oversight at Paducah.

DOE program managers responsible for oversight of the Paducah plant are required to develop and submit a corrective action plan, addressing each of the report's findings, within 30 days. Progress on implementing the corrective actions will be monitored by the oversight staff within the Office of Environment, Safety and Health.

The investigation team has returned to Paducah to conduct the second phase of the investigation, which is focused on the full range of ESH issues at the plant from its inception in the early 1950s. More than 150 current and former workers are being interviewed to learn more about where recycled uranium may have been used most, whether workers were told and how they were told, and the types of protection given to workers.

The Phase II investigation is expected to be completed by the end of the year and will guide the department's medical monitoring efforts. Similar Phase I and II investigations will be conducted at the Portsmouth (Ohio) Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the former Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The Phase 1 final report is available on the Internet at http://tis.eh.doe.gov/portal or by calling DOE"s Paducah site office at (270) 441-6830.

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