Clipped From The Cincinnati Enquirer
adioacMve secrets revealec Piketon workers await answers after learning they handled plutonium BY KATIIER1NE RIZZO The Associated Press WASHINGTON During the Cold War, three big, secretive factory factory complexes in Ohio, Kentucky Kentucky and Tennessee made nuclear warfare possible, getting uranium ready for bombs that never had to be used. Only recently have workers and nearby residents learned that the gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah, Ky, handled uranium contaminated with plutonium. Then some of it was sent for further further refinement to the plant in Piketon, which also got uranium laced with plutonium from other sources. Because of the secrecy imposed on contractors by federal federal officials in past decades, no one has been' able to say with certainty certainty how much plutonium was involved, where all of it came from, or where it ended up. The best guesses of Energy Department Department officials have changed from week to week as long-ignored long-ignored long-ignored documents and reports yield new revelations. The result has been new attention attention on Paducah, Piketon and the K-25 K-25 K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., new examinations of overlooked information and renewed questions questions about why, in 1999, it's still not clear exactly what workers were exposed to in the 1950s, '60s and 70s. Plutonium and uranium both are radioactive, and exposure to either can be harmful, but plutonium plutonium is more frightening to workers workers because it is more deadly and because they didn't know it was there, Plutonium is 100,000 times more radioactive dian natural uranium, uranium, and roughly 1,0(X) times more radioactive than the highly enriched uranium Piketon workers workers knew they were handling. Now that it's clear plutonium was handled at the three plants, an ongoing series of medical screenings on former workers seems insufficient to Dr. Steven Markowitz of Queens College, City University of New York, who's overseeing the tests. His proposal for $3.6 million in additional additional testing was incorporated into an Energy Department bid to supplement its fiscal 2000 spending request. '.interest I Casualties of (he Cold War nM.ia.ii n O . M I mi riHiiii niamt r rrvr 1mm m runiuM- runiuM- iri 'nr-ft' 'nr-ft' 'nr-ft' 3L An aerial view of the uranium plant in Piketon where workers unknowingly handled uranium that was shipped from the gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah, Ky. i "We want to include lung cancer cancer screenings for people at highest risk," he said. "That's certainly a plausible cancer related related to plutonium exposure." Up to now, the medical screenings have been tests to identify those who suffered liver liver damage, kidney damage, bladder cancer and hearing loss. With a limited budget, allowing allowing about $200 per person, with some 18,000 eligible to be tested at the three plants, those health problems were selected as the most likely to result from exposure exposure to solvents, acids, asbestos, beryllium, nickel and high noise levels. When the medical project was being put together three years ago, plutonium was not a consideration, consideration, said Sylvia Kicding, a Denver-based Denver-based Denver-based union official who helped plan it. While Dr. Markowitz moved immediately to go after more money for the tests under his control, the Energy Department pursued a broader initiative. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson Richardson asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into "the relationship relationship between hazardous MICHIGAN Lake Erie ! I OHIO Columbus o Cincinnati ' KENTUCKY exposures and illnesses in our workers at Paducah and other Energy Department sites." Next month, the investigators will go to southern Ohio's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, which is now operated by U.S. Enrichment Corp. The plant about 75 miles east of Cincinnati enriches uranium uranium to make fuel for power plants, and is under federal contract to buy Russian uranium removed from nuclear warheads and sell it to utilities. With the immediate focus on Paducah, residents in Piketon are taking a wait-and-see wait-and-see wait-and-see wait-and-see wait-and-see attitude. The plant employs 2,100 workers . JLLiV in a part of the state with an above-average above-average above-average jobless rate. Vina Colley, a disabled former Piketon worker who thinks her numerous health problems stem from exposure to polychlorinat-ed polychlorinat-ed polychlorinat-ed biphenyls (PCBs) and other dangerous materials at the plant, said the discovery that Paducah handled 100,000 tons of plutoni-um-laced plutoni-um-laced plutoni-um-laced plutoni-um-laced plutoni-um-laced uranium has gotten her name in the paper a couple of times but didn't seem to immediately immediately help her cause. She is president of a small local group, Portsmouth and Piketon Residents for Environmental Environmental Safety and Security, which wants a more complete accounting accounting of worker exposures and compensation for those who contracted contracted leukemia, cancer and other other diseases as a result. Ms. Colley says she raised the possibility of plutonium contamination contamination at the plant during a 1993 meeting, though at the time she didn't fully understand what she was talking about A devoted reader and collector of documents related to activities at the plant, Ms. Colley had encountered reports making references references to transuranic contami- contami- TheAsscx;iated Press contaminated with plutonium nation. When she asked about that contamination, she was told amounts were small and the word plutonium never came up. Transuranics are elements such as plutonium with atomic weights higher than uranium. "I didn't know what that meant," said Ms. Colley, who was an electrician at the plant in the early 1980s. "I'm not a scientist." The presence of plutonium and other transuranics was revealed in different ways over the years, in bulletins, reports and at a routine public meeting. "The issue of transuranics has been with us for years," said Energy spokesman Steve Wyatt The spokesman acknowledged acknowledged the information wasn't communicated very well. An expert who works with citizen citizen groups such as Ms. Colley's contends poor communication is the same as covering up. "This is a working-class working-class working-class area where people often have no more than a high school education," said Bob Schaef for of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. 'To talk about it only in college-physics-or-above college-physics-or-above college-physics-or-above college-physics-or-above college-physics-or-above college-physics-or-above college-physics-or-above terms is to be intentionally deceptive."