Uranium Workers Detail Safety Flaws
Sep. 21, 1999
PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) _ At times, it sounded as if Stephen King had written some of the testimony during a U.S. Senate field hearing into allegations of wrongdoing at a federally owned uranium-processing plant.
Tales of radioactive salt on lunch tables, burying truckloads of uranium shavings as they ignited and burned and tossing contaminated barrels into ponds emerged from the hearing Monday.
``Time after time, we were put at risk, lied to and made to feel that we were safe,'' Phillip Foley, a 24-year worker at the plant, told the subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Foley testified during the first of several planned hearings into the operation of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The plant uses gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors.
The U.S. Department of Energy owns the plant and oversees a costly environmental cleanup of the site. The agency is investigating why workers were unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly toxic and radioactive substances and whether contractors who operated the plant covered it up.
The Washington Post reported today that managers at the Paducah plant for decades knew of the radiation hazards inside the complex, but failed to warn workers for fear of a public outcry.
The newspaper cited old memos from the 1960s found in government archives. The documents had been turned over to a House Commerce subcommittee that is holding a hearing Wednesday on working conditions at the Paducah plant during the Cold War years.
In one 1960 memo, a government physician wrote that hundreds of workers should be screened for exposure to radiation from plutonium and neptunium, but the warning was ignored, the Post said.
Foley, who is now an electrician, said when he first started working at the plant, he would dispose of contaminated barrels by tossing them into ponds that are scattered throughout the 3,600-acre site.
He also testified that retirees often told him of wiping ``green salt'' off the lunch tables in two buildings. The substance actually was depleted uranium hexafluoride, a radioactive byproduct of the enrichment process.
``I think probably the most overpowering feeling my fellow workers and retirees share is uncertainty and apprehension about how they might be affected by chemical and radiation exposures at the plant,'' he said.
``I hear stories and fears about everything from cataracts to cancers to heart disease and emphysema.''
Chris Naas, a heavy equipment operator who has worked at the plant for 25 years, said he used to bury truckloads of uranium chips and shavings.
When his co-workers dumped the uranium for him to cover with earth, the material would spark and burn because it spontaneously ignites when exposed to air.
Naas also remembered being taken off a job in 1974 because he was told he was ``hot.'' Hourly workers assumed it meant they had been exposed to a certain level of radiation, but management never explained what it meant.
Naas said his father turned up ``hot'' on several occasions during the 20 years he worked at the plant.
``Today he has a form of terminal cancer _ lymphoma. We will never know what was the cause,'' Naas said. ``My question is: Will I turn up the same, and what recourse will I have at that point in time?''
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced last week that he will ask Congress to expand the pilot medical-monitoring program for former plant workers. Richardson wants 600 more ex-workers in the program, bringing the total to 1,000, and to add 900 current workers.