The operators of uranium processing plants in Paducah and Piketon, Ohio in 1993, erased hundreds of safety and environmental problems from computer records without proper government approval, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The Department of Energy (DOE) had required plant operators to track their progress toward correcting problems, but more than one-fourth of such records at both plants were deleted without DOE clearance in 1993, according to documents obtained by The Courier-Journal.
So Serious was the breach of regulations by Martin Marietta Corp. and United States Enrichment Corp. (USEC) at the Paducah and Portsmouth gaseous diffusion plants that DOE considered shutting down the plants for safety reasons.
DOE, after a three-year investigation, reconstructed the erased items from computer archives and paper records and concluded the deletions were inappropriate.
DOE also found that nearly half the problems either had not been fixed or should have been referred to other agencies before being erased.
Among the items erased were government and operator findings of a lax attitude toward safety by first-line supervisors, inconsistent investigations of accidents, health and safety violations both management and rank-an-file workers.
USEC, which now leases and operates both plants, was ordered to fix some of the remaining uncorrected problems, but it was not fined, nor were the plants shut down at any time, the newspaper reported.
The Justice Department, however, is investigating the erasures as part of its broader probe into allegations of fraud by contractors at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
USEC spokeswoman told the Courier-Journal that while the safety items were "deleted from the tracking system," they were "never deleted from existence."
In memos to DOE, USEC also has said that it had the right to erase certain items without permission and that the findings it deleted did not have a significant impact on the plants'' safety.
Although DOE in recent months announced its intention to be more open about past practices at the plants that may have endangered workers or the public, the story of the deleted computer records was not disclosed in the agency''s recent reports on special investigations at Paducah.
Defending DOE''s decision, spokesman Walter Perry told the Courier-Journal that his department did not discuss the erasures in the reports because "any safety-significant item" was addressed when the two plants were certified in 1996 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The recent investigations "were performed on DOE, not USEC, operations," he said.
by Virginia Sutcliffe