Paducah Workers Seek the Truth

Dec. 1, 1999
The federal government has admitted it kept workers at uranium plants in the dark about their exposure to radiation. Now investigators try to determine how much exposure occurred and what the human and environmental toll has been.

Longtime workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant say they had no knowledge of the Department of Energy's four-decade, Cold War legacy of concealing the level of radiation they were being exposed to while processing uranium.

"I've always believed what I was doing at the Paducah plant site was important to the national defense. I'm proud to have played a small part in the Cold War and in protecting this great country from harm," said Garland E. "Bud" Jenkins, a 31-year employee. "I probably wouldn't have worked there at all, knowing what I now know. Many of my good friends are dead or dying. I always wondered whether plant conditions caused their sicknesses and deaths."

Jenkins and other former and current workers in Kentucky, as well as at other government plants where uranium is enriched for use in nuclear power plants, finally are learning that the recycled product contained cancer-causing, radioactive trace quantities of plutonium, neptunium and technetium-99. They were potentially exposed as a result of the Atomic Energy Commission's reuse of uranium previously used in the production of plutonium.

One 20-year worker who died in 1980, Joe Harding, compiled a list of 50 employees he worked with who had died of cancer. "Everything was so safe, so riskless," Harding said in an interview shortly before his death. "Today we know the truth about those promises. I can feel it in my body."

Use of recycled reactor tailings was discontinued in the 1970s, but it was not until after 1990 that thousands of workers may have been adequately informed about the contamination or trained in how to protect themselves from exposure. And despite widespread news coverage, it's still not known exactly how many workers may have been exposed.

At least 10,000 current and former employees and their family members may be eligible to join a $10 billion federal lawsuit alleging that former contractors poisoned the work force with radiation, according to attorneys who filed the action Sept. 3.

The suit seeks $5 billion in compensatory damages, $5 billion in punitive damages and the recovery of "hundreds of millions of dollars in unjust profits." Defendants include former plant contractors Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin.

Of the 14 plaintiffs, three &emdash; Jenkins, Ronald Fowler and Charles Deuschle &emdash; filed a "whistleblower's" (False Claims Act) suit against Lockheed Martin in June. Union Carbide is exempt from this suit because of a statute of limitations.

The Department of Energy (DOE) disclosed in August that it had been assessing worker exposure at Paducah since June. Because the whistleblower's lawsuit had been sealed, the government was unable to discuss or acknowledge it until a court lifted the seal Aug. 11, three days after the first news reports.

"I want to assure the current and former workers and the Paducah community that we are aggressively working to answer their questions and concerns," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said. "Our workers are entitled to open discussions of health and safety issues, and if they have been harmed in the past, they should be treated and compensated."

The first phase of a DOE investigation, which covered working conditions in the 1990s, did not reveal any immediate threats to worker safety and health, according to findings disputed by some plant employees. However, legacy hazards from the Cold War continue to constitute a challenge, as do efforts to clean up contaminated soil and water inside and outside the complex.

Legacy Issues

At Paducah, recycled uranium was introduced into the enrichment process shortly after the plant's start-up in 1953 and continued through 1964. Activities resumed in 1969 and continued through 1974.

During those years, Paducah received approximately 100,000 tons of recycled uranium containing an estimated 328 grams of plutonium, 18.4 kilograms of neptunium and 661 kilograms of technetium-99. The average concentration of plutonium in recycled uranium at all three plants is estimated to be about four parts per billion, the DOE investigation revealed.

Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., contends that workers were not told that the uranium processing work was dangerous or that exposure was hazardous.

"The Department of Energy has a decades-long, disgraceful record of denying the truth to workers in nuclear weapons plants who labor every day with highly radioactive material, often under dangerous conditions," Klink said at a Sept. 22 hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "They also have a long and shameful history of telling their workers that handling radioactive materials is not even dangerous and punishing those who asked questions or conducted the studies that determined otherwise."

Jenkins testified at the hearing that workers were not provided with proper personal protective equipment. They trusted contractors when told they were not getting any doses of radiation.

"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."

DOE has initiated an exposure assessment project to establish the potential ranges of worker radiation exposures and to identify, document and communicate radiological issues that may have affected worker health since the plant's opening. The six-month search by a University of Utah team will include reviewing documents, records and processes.

1990s Bring Changes

Few question that dissemination of information increased, at least somewhat, after 1990. This post-Cold War era of improved worker health and safety was initiated, ironically, by the federal government.

Critics began calling into question how government-run uranium plants could be self-regulated. DOE was responsible for monitoring all worker safety and environmental issues, including those of contractors.

"It was the fox guarding the hen house," 25-year worker Jim Key said. "They hid (exposure information) under a veil of secrecy."

When reports surfaced of lax DOE oversight, Congress became involved and passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which established the privatized United States Enrichment Corp. (USEC) on July 1, 1993. Before USEC, contractor operators of the plant were Union Carbide (1952 to 1983) and Lockheed Martin Energy Systems (1984 to 1993).

While DOE continued to own the country's uranium plants, USEC leased enrichment production facilities at Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio. Paducah employs approximately 2,300 workers. About 500 are in the DOE program, which includes contractors, and the rest work for USEC.

Now, DOE is responsible for environmental cleanup of waste generated through ongoing agency activities and for management of various uranium inventories. It has no oversight authority of USEC.

The Energy Policy Act may have changed oversight responsibilities, but it didn't help workers learn about past exposure to radiation.

Key, an environmental, safety and health representative for Local 5-550 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, testified before the House subcommittee in September. He told the congressional panel that the "reality of plutonium contamination in the production process did not register with the overwhelming majority of the hourly work force at Paducah" until reading about it in newspapers last summer.

"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, as a result, be stricken with a fatal disease," he testified.

With USEC's uranium enrichment process now falling under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) authority for worker safety and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for environmental management, the situation has improved greatly, Key told Occupational Hazards.

"We now have a voice to be heard. At any given time, we can file a formal or informal complaint with OSHA," he said. "Each worker has stop-work authority when they have questions or suspicions. We're now coming to a point where workers will utilize that. Previously, they would call me, and I would have to go out and review the job for fear of retaliation on them or not having the basic knowledge pertaining to the issue."

As of Nov. 1, the Paducah plant had not been inspected by OSHA.

Internal help also has been more forthcoming in the 1990s, Key said. USEC's industrial hygiene staff has met his requests for information and has gone beyond those requests to ensure that adequate assessment and exposure data are maintained, he added.

Current Exposure

While acknowledging that working conditions have improved at Paducah in the last several years, there still are concerns, according to some workers and plaintiffs in the lawsuits, which do not include USEC.

Excessive exposure and poor or unlawful control of radiation remain for DOE and its contractors, said Thomas B. Cochran, director of the nuclear program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is a party to the lawsuit.

"Monitoring of workers for internal exposure to radioactivity is inadequate," Cochran testified at the September hearing. "Workers are not properly advised of their radiation exposure. In any case, historical exposure records would be erroneous and incomplete because of the failure to adequately monitor for internal and external exposure. Documents reveal shocking inadequacies as recent as this month."

At least some of these conditions, Cochran claims, appear to have been confirmed by a recent DOE audit that led to Richardson ordering a one-day stand down at the plant. The agency and its contractor, Bechtel Jacobs, had the work force receive additional health physics training. Cochran said it was not enough.

"Sadly, if the secretary thinks he can solve worker health problems in 24 hours, he is being very ill-advised by his staff or is offering up a political, rather than a substantive, fix," he testified.

The stand down did not include USEC because it already had completed its internal safety and health program review and felt confident of the adequacy of its worker protection programs, said Georgeann Lookofsky, USEC public affairs representative.

Fowler, one of the plaintiffs in the whistleblower lawsuit and an applied health physicist for USEC, contends that there basically was no health physics program when he arrived in 1991. He tried to help implement a proper program in the following years. He said he was bucking a management culture that had told workers for decades that there were no health hazards at Paducah and that the radiation would not harm them. In fact, he was told that a person could eat the radioparticulate substances commonly used at the site.

What Fowler and Deuschle found in results of radiological surveys were radiation levels tens of thousands of times higher than permitted limits in plant areas such as the cafeteria, the kitchen, locker rooms, storage rooms and parking lots.

"On a virtually weekly basis now, I continue to report health physics and other safety infractions to management," Fowler testified in September. "Those infractions have continued, right up to the present month. Last April, I noticed unplacarded trucks with uranium hexafluoride cylinders parked in downtown Paducah in an unsecured open lot, with children on bicycles riding freely among them."

Fowler's testimony surprises Orville Cypret, USEC's radiation protection manager at Paducah. Cypret said workers have known for years there were transuranics such as plutonium.

"When I came to work here in 1992, there were classes under way for the general plant population about transuranics," he recalled. Cypret said he was hired because of management's concern about its ability to appropriately monitor, detect and analyze transuranics in a worker's body. "Two of the people (Fowler and Deuschle) who were involved in making this big announcement worked for me at that time. They were aware of it and deeply involved in some of the training and surveying that was done later."

USEC, in preparation for taking over management of the uranium enrichment process, did site radiological characterization to determine conditions, Lookofsky said. "I can't say we were surprised," she said of the results. "Everybody knew this was a 40-year-old industrial facility and knew of problems that any industrial facility of this age would have, with a few wrinkles provided by the fact that it processed radiological materials for those 40 years."

Two programs were instituted once USEC was on site: radiation protection and OSHA compliance upgrade. As a result of USEC's efforts, safety officials maintain that workers' opinions of company management generally are favorable.

"They (workers) have a high level of trust," said Diane Snow, Paducah's industrial hygiene and safety manager. "They feel like we're committed and will address their concerns."

Yet, some employees are disputing reported worker exposure levels to radiation. While not naming USEC, Cochran claims that contractors at Paducah have "engaged in systematic falsification of reports to the federal and state governments and to the public" in order to cover up excessive exposure and unlawful control of radiation exposure of workers.

Cypret reports that USEC's annual exposure limit per person is 500 millirems (mrem), while NRC's limit is 5,000 mrem. The most exposed employee will be near 300 mrem, with an average worker exposure of 4 mrem, he said. Even the number of those in the 300 range is "exceptionally small," Lookofsky said.

"Our radiation doses here are very, very small," Cypret said. "The regulations require people who are expected to get 500 millirems or more in a year to be monitored for radiation. We don't have anybody that high; yet, we have 700 people who we monitor for radiation dosage."

Fowler contends that worker radiation levels reported by management are inaccurate. "I recently asked for my radiation dose records from Paducah and received a supposed dose history reporting that I had received no dose whatsoever for all but two of the more than 30 quarters I have worked at the site," he testified. "These records are clearly fraudulent."

Investigation Results

DOE, in issuing a report on the first phase of its investigation Oct. 20, found no immediate danger to workers. The investigative team noted that the site's 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, the program requires a higher level of discipline, formality and rigor to provide workers with maximum protection, the report concluded. The team found that improvements are needed in establishing, maintaining and following procedures, particularly for work performed by subcontractors.

Paducah was found to have processed the majority of transuranics, but two other DOE plants -- at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Portsmouth -- will be investigated.

The second phase of DOE's investigation is a technical review of past operations involving recycled uranium and worker health problems before 1990. More than 150 current and former workers are being interviewed by DOE to learn more about where recycled uranium may have been used most, whether workers were told about their exposure levels and how they were told, and the types of protection given to workers.

Overall data collection of DOE's investigation is expected to be completed by March 2000, with a final, consolidated, departmentwide report to be prepared by June 2000.

What Paducah workers want and deserve, Key said, is medical monitoring, coverage under a federal workers' compensation system that keeps the burden of proof off workers, and health insurance coverage for all at-risk employees and their spouses through retirement.

Under an ongoing DOE program, medical monitoring is being provided to 1,200 former workers at the agency's gaseous diffusion plants. The program is intended to provide an objective, independent and expert evaluation of workers' health status.

Richardson announced Sept. 16 that he was seeking a $21.8 million supplemental budget allocation to pay for expanded worker medical monitoring, radiation exposure assessments and accelerated cleanup at the three gaseous diffusion plants. Monitoring and exposure assessments would receive $7 million, with $14.8 million for accelerated cleanup. However, the $16 million bill passed by the House and the Senate mostly funds cleanup efforts. Only $1.2 million of the $7 million for monitoring and assessments was funded.

"Harm to humans needs to be taken as seriously as environmental harm to dirt," Key said. "Workers are afraid of what may happen to them in the future. These workers, who served our nation as veterans of the Cold War production era, must not be forgotten."

An Environmental Legacy

Radiological contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has spread beyond worker exposure and is affecting groundwater and soil accessible by the public.

A Department of Energy (DOE) investigation faults contractors for failing to properly warn the public about radioactive hazards, including "relatively high" levels of plutonium in ditches outside the Kentucky plant.

That finding confirms a February 1999 site visit by Thomas B. Cochran, director of the nuclear program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Cochran said he noticed that contaminated areas outside the plant's main security fence lacked proper warning signs.

"The lack of protective measures I witnessed off site is astounding," he said.

The DOE report, released Oct. 20, also concludes that the federal agency and its contractor, Bechtel Jacobs, need more effective oversight of environmental, safety and health performance. The plant's managers were given 30 days to come up with a plan for addressing problems ranging from lax safeguards to radioactive seepage from a half-mile-long pile of contaminated scrap metal, known as "Drum Mountain."

"The investigators documented a number of weaknesses that perpetuate the risks and hazards of legacy operations and that the department needs to fix," said Dr. David Michaels, DOE's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health. "These are not insurmountable problems."

Michaels' comments are not reassuring to some elected officials.

Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton told a Senate subcommittee panel Oct. 26 that state experts believe underground plumes of contamination already are depositing radioactive technetium-99 into the Ohio River. The DOE report claims the transuranic has not reached the river, but is getting closer at the rate of a foot a day.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called for an independent regulator to protect the environment and workers at the 3,556-acre DOE reservation. At the Senate hearing, McConnell charged that allowing DOE to simultaneously operate and regulate the site "is like putting a mouse in charge of the cheese."

The Paducah complex, a designated Superfund site, includes 748 acres within the main security fence. More than 30,000 drums of low-level waste are on site. Many of the degrading, 55-gallon drums sit on open ground.

Site air monitoring programs have not assessed potential legacy "fugitive" emissions from scrap metal piles, contaminated ground and rooftops of contaminated buildings. In addition, the investigative team said 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.

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 environmental, health and safety 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 andreviewed hundreds of documents.

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