Friday, September 24, 1999

Possible plutonium exposure at Fernald probed

DOE documents hint substance was sent to plant

Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — The Energy Department plans to investigate whether Cold War-era workers at the federal uranium processing center at Fernald were unknowingly exposed to highly radioactive plutonium, officials said Thursday.

        The investigation into the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center, which operated from 1951 to 1989, is a spinoff of the recently initiated examination of workers at Paducah, Ky., being exposed to plutonium without their knowledge.

        The department is calling the investigation the “mass flow project” — a detailed study of how plutonium and other radioactive materials traveled throughout the government's nuclear weapons production system, which stretched from Idaho to the South to the Northeast.

        The department has set a target of June 2000 to complete the study.

        Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades and Labor Council, the union representing Fernald workers, said it has long been known that there were at least trace amounts of plutonium at the site.

        But he said he would not be surprised if the investigation shows higher exposures than previously known.

        “It is a never-ending chase to get to the bottom of this, to find out the truth,” he said. “Is there more we don't know about? There is a good possibility there is.”

        Plutonium, which is much more radioactive than uranium, was a core ingredient of many Cold War weap ons. It is produced in nuclear reactors.

        David Michaels, assistant secretary of Energy, said in documents presented to Congress this week that “preliminary analysis” indicates some plutonium-laden materials went through Fernald.

        “It (Fernald) is part of the investigation,” DOE spokeswoman Natalie Wymer said Thursday.

        The Energy Department has been rocked by revelations of workers at Paducah being exposed to high doses of plutonium without their knowledge — doses believed to have caused cancers and other severe problems.

        “Preliminary analysis also indicates that recycled materials may have also been transferred to the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center and the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge (Tenn.),” Mr. Michaels said.

        The department has already learned that uranium-bearing ash, with plutonium mixed in, was regularly sent from Paducah to Fernald.

        During the Cold War, the department estimates, it produced more than 100,000 metric tons of materials containing at least trace quantities of plutonium and other products of nuclear reactions.

        “We are concerned not only with the flow of this material, but also its characteristics such as the level of residual plutonium and fission products,” Mr. Michaels said. “Today our understanding of where that material went is limited.”

        Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered the study of how plutonium-containing materials flowed throughout the weapons complex.

        Other plants involved in the flow of materials included Weldon Springs, Mo.; Ashtabula, Ohio; Portsmouth, Ohio; Oak Ridge; Barnwell, S.C.; the Idaho Laboratory in eastern Idaho, and the West Valley Demonstration Project near Buffalo, N.Y.


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