Kentucky community worries about radiation from government plant
Thursday, September 23rd 1999, 12:00 am
News On 6
PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) -- 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.
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?"
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
"We were told that the uranium substances we were working with
were safe and posed no threat to our health, or to the health of
our families," Garland "Bud" Jenkins, who worked there for 30
years, told a House committee Wednesday in Washington. "We were
even told the materials were safe enough to eat."
The plant site, with its combined enrichment and cleanup
operations, is the county's largest employer with 2,000 workers.
But plant workers are not the only people in this rural area in
western Kentucky who are questioning whether their health has been
Ronald Lamb's family has lived and worked for years down the
road from the Gaseous Diffusion Plant. His father, William, who
opened the family's auto repair shop in 1961, died five years ago
after being diagnosed with prostate and bone cancer. Lamb said the
well at the family's house was found to have a trace of plutonium
Lamb, 47, sued the contractor that operated the plant at the
time, but a federal judge dismissed the case, saying there was no
evidence the well was contaminated. The Energy Department told Lamb
that the positive test for plutonium in the well water was
erroneous, he said.
But Lamb isn't convinced. He said he suspects contaminated well
water is responsible for a long series of illnesses he has endured
for 10 years, including nerve damage, an ulcer and intestinal
problems. But he can't prove that, either.
"It's just my own belief," he said.
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
"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.
Wilma Kelley runs a T-shirt and sports clothing shop a half-mile
up the road from the school. Her husband worked at the plant for 31
years before retiring in 1988.
Ms. Kelley said she remains optimistic the government will do
the right thing.
"If bad stuff is here, then they will clean it up," she said.
"That's all we can hope."