Friday, September 24, 1999

Paducah workers fear they are dying

Senate investigators hear about worries

The Associated Press

        PADUCAH, Ky. — The way the employees tell it, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant sometimes operated as if Homer Simpson were running the place. Except that what happened there wasn't funny.

        Workers used to wipe “green salt” off the plant lunch tables, fully aware it was a radioactive byproduct of the plant's main task — enriching uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors.

        They would bury truckloads of uranium shavings that ignited and burned upon being exposed to the air. They would dump thousands of barrels filled with radioactive contaminants into ponds and bury them in the ground. All the while, they were told they were working with materials that were “safe enough to eat.”

        Now the employees and many other people in Paducah fear they are dying because of what happened at the 47-year-old plant, McCracken County's biggest source of jobs.

        Chris Naas, a heavy equipment operator who has worked at the plant for 25 years, told Senate investigators this week that he was taken off a job in 1974 after being told he was “hot” — meaning, he assumed, that he had been exposed to too much radiation.

        Mr. 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,” Mr. Naas said. “My question is: Will I turn up the same, and what recourse will I have?”

$1 billion cleanup
        In June, three plant employees filed a federal lawsuit alleging that workers unwittingly were exposed to plutonium and other highly toxic substances from 1953 to 1976. The lawsuit is sealed.

        The Energy Department, which owns the plant and is overseeing a $1 billion cleanup, later acknowledged that 103,000 tons of recycled uranium containing a total of 12 ounces of plutonium were handled in Paducah during the period.

        Plutonium is much more potent than uranium — it can cause cancer if ingested in quantities as small as one-millionth of an ounce. The Energy Department is investigating why workers were exposed to plutonium and whether contractors who operated the plant covered it up.

        The plant site, with its combined enrichment and cleanup operations, is the county's largest employer with 2,000 workers.

Some skeptical of plan
        Energy Secretary Bill Richardson apologized for the government's secrecy about the plutonium during a recent town hall meeting in Paducah, and has proposed $20 million in compensation for plant workers with certain radiation-related cancers.

        Some in Paducah are skeptical the secretary's plan will ever adequately reimburse them, both for the contamination and the alleged coverup.

        “If he does it, OK. It's been a long time coming,” said Nita Bean Rose, whose father, Charles Arvil Bean, retired from the plant with anemia and heart trouble in February 1977. That April, he was found to have acute leukemia. He died the following year, at 65.


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