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Study shows higher radiation levels for Paducah workers

Thursday, October 05, 2000



Workers at the Energy Departments Paducah, Ky., uranium plant were exposed to deadly metals at levels far higher than previously believed, including radiation exposure up to 20 times the legal limit, according to a draft study.

The report, which has provoked intense controversy within the agency, documents for the first time the gravity of the threat posed by tiny particles of plutonium and neptunium that workers unknowingly inhaled while processing uranium for nuclear weapons.

Researchers, using newly uncovered data from air-monitoring equipment, concluded that as many as 4,000 workers faced increased risks from exposure to plutonium and neptunium, highly radioactive metals that entered the plant in shipments of "dirty" uranium from other U.S. bomb factories. Of those workers, about one in 10 had the potential for exposures that "approached or exceeded regulatory limits," according to the report.

Based on the levels of radioactive dust in the air, some workers during the 1960s could have received an annual radiation dose of between 7.6 and 98 rem, compared with a government-mandated maximum of 5 rem per year for nuclear workers, it said.

The release of the report, completed last month, was being delayed pending a scientific "peer review," a move that some observers said reflected sharp disagreement within the agency over the authors methods and conclusions. A copy of the report was obtained by the Washington Post.

The Energy Departments Oak Ridge operations office, which oversaw worker safety at the plant throughout its 48-year history, called the report "intentionally biased" and said the radiation estimates would "confuse [the] layperson and lead to unfair conclusions," according to an internal agency memo.

David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environment, safety and health, said the peer review would inoculate the report against future criticism. "This report is very different from other DOE reports," said Michaels, who predicted the study would be formally released within a month. "It was important to show that we did this with a high standard of credibility and independence."

)2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.

-- Carl Jenkins (, October 05, 2000

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