Plutonium Contamination Threat Widens

Sept. 27, 1999
A congressional member is asking the Department of Energy to expand its compensation for workers exposed to plutonium-laced material beyond the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

A congressional member is asking the Department of Energy (DOE) to expand its compensation for workers exposed to plutonium-laced material beyond the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Before a congressional panel heard from Paducah workers who told of lacking safety precautions and exposure to radiation for decades at the Kentucky uranium plant, a panel member on Sept. 22 called for DOE to provide compensation for workers at Paducah's "sister" uranium enrichment plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.

"It is totally unacceptable that the current worker compensation proposal offered by this administration covers only Paducah workers, leaving Portsmouth workers out in the cold," Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, said during a House Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing. "Employees charged with carrying out the same work for this government, who may have been injured as a result of the work, are being treated differently simply because they live and work in different places."

Strickland and others called for any legislative proposal regarding compensation to include at least 13 facilities in 10 locations across the United States that handled radioactive material to varying degrees.

Managers of the government's uranium plant in Paducah knew for decades about radiation hazards inside the complex, but failed to warn workers because of fears of a public outcry, according to documents released by the subcommittee. During the six-hour hearing, though, contractor managers largely refuted those charges and said they made every effort to maintain worker safety and health.

Evidence of plutonium contamination and illegal waste dumping at the Paducah facility also has prompted a class action lawsuit by employees who believe they were put at risk.

"The majority of current and former workers are afraid that they may have been exposed to substances like plutonium without proper protection and that they will be stricken with a fatal disease," said Jim H. Key, an hourly electrician and the environmental, safety and health representative for Local 5-550 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union.

Energy Department officials also reportedly knew about the hazards for decades, but have did little to resolve the situation and only now are focusing on the issue.

"The (DOE) secretary has been quick to react to Paducah's problem, but only since it received front-page attention," said Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., adding that many of the problems uncovered by the department's recent investigation were revealed in 1990. "What confidence do we have that corrective actions from DOE's new investigation will be implemented?"

Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., suggested that DOE's "decades-long disgraceful record" of dealing with workers in nuclear weapons plants who labor every day with highly radioactive material does not bode well for how it will handle the current crisis.

"(DOE) also has a long and shameful history of telling its workers that handling radioactive materials is not even dangerous and punishing those who asked questions or conducted studies that determined otherwise," Klink said.

One of those punished was Ronald B. Fowler, a section manager for training and an applied health physicist for United States Enrichment Corp., the current site contractor. Fowler was hired to help the facility develop a health physics training program. When he became aware of the severity of health concerns, management did not take kindly to his whistleblowing efforts.

"I was told that plant security had begun to post my picture with a bullet hole through my forehead," he said. "Security guards began following me wherever I went, and my car was damaged."

DOE's Plan to Right a Wrong

On Sept. 16, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced a $21.8 million supplemental budget amendment to pay for expanded worker medical monitoring, radiation exposure assessments and accelerated cleanup at the gaseous diffusion plants at Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge, Tenn. However, compensation is proposed only for Paducah workers.

Richardson, who met Sept. 17 with Paducah residents, civic leaders, employees, labor representatives and former workers, said compensation would include lost wages and health benefits. The program would include 1,800 former employees and 900 current workers.

Contractor workers at Paducah and other DOE sites were potentially exposed to plutonium and other radioactive contaminants as a result of the Atomic Energy Commission's reuse of uranium previously used in the production of plutonium. Use of these recycled reactor tailings was discontinued in the 1970s, but workers may not have been adequately informed, until 1990, about the contamination or trained in how to protect themselves from exposure.

Garland E. "Bud" Jenkins, a 31-year employee at the Paducah plant, said he did not realize until recently that he worked with materials contaminated with plutonium, neptunium and other radioactive substances.

"We didn't use respirators, unless it got so bad that breathing or seeing was impossible," said Jenkins, who had the lower part of his esophagus replaced with a plastic tube because of corrosive damage. "We wore no radiological protective clothing. We ate meals in these contaminated clothes and would come home still contaminated."

Workers trusted contractors when told they were not getting any doses of radiation, Jenkins said. Contractor operators of the plant have been Union Carbide (1952 to 1983), Lockheed Martin Energy Systems (1984 to 1993) and U.S. Enrichment Corp. (1993 to present).

Jenkins said it makes him "darn mad" to know that the contractors earned large fees from the government for good safety performance.

"I probably wouldn't have worked there at all, knowing what I now know," he said. "Many of my good friends are dead or dying. I always wondered whether plant conditions caused their sicknesses and deaths."

DOE has entered the second phase of its investigation, which involves worker health problems at the Paducah plant prior to 1990. The first phase covered the 1990s.

See Occupational Hazards' November issue for more information on the DOE investigation. For a complete look at how Paducah workers have been impacted, look for a feature article in OH's December issue. If you're an environmental, health and safety professional who doesn't receive the magazine each month, click on the "Subscriptions" button on the Web site.

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