Sunday, October 01, 2000

Paducah plant spewed plutonium

By Joby Warrick
The Washington Post

        A uranium-processing plant in Paducah, Ky., spread plutonium farther around the facility than was previously known and even contaminated ground water in the area, according to newly released documents.

        Maps drawn last summer but not released to federal investigators reveal that plant officials had taken hundreds of measurements over 10 years showing plutonium in soil and water more than a mile from the plant's fence. Most disturbing was the discovery of the highly dangerous metal in dozens of ground-water tests, which has ominous implications for local drinking water supplies.

        The results of these tests suggest that government contractors knew far more about the extent of the contamination than was previously acknowledged, and the spread of plutonium was much more extensive than Energy Department officials reported after an investigation last fall. The probe began after The Washington Post reported such problems in August 1999.

        Until the new documents were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request to the Energy Department, federal officials had reported finding no plutonium in ground water other than the traces found everywhere from nuclear weapons testing.

        A department spokesman said Saturday that investigators had no knowledge of the maps until they were alerted by reporters. However, they stressed that they believed there was nothing in the maps that suggested greater threats to the public or wildlife, partly because area residents had stopped drinking water from private wells.

        “We don't see any information on the maps that would have changed our approach during our environmental investigation,” said Ray Hardwick, acting deputy assistant secretary for the department's Office of Oversight.

Critics charge cover-up
               Some questioned whether the plant and its federal overseers ever intended to tell the community the full truth.

        “It's mind-boggling,” said Mark Donham, chairman of the Paducah plant's local citizen advisory board. “For years they never wanted to talk to us about what they found in the water. Obviously this is why.”

        The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant was built in 1952 to produce enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. Soon after it opened, Atomic Energy Commission officials began quietly supplying the plant with a dirty form of uranium containing plutonium and other radioactive metals far more hazardous than ordinary uranium. Although the tainted shipments continued for more than 20 years, most workers and neighbors never knew about plutonium until it was revealed in a Post report.

        Energy Secretary Bill Richardson started an investigation, which culminated last fall in a pair of reports highly critical of safety and environmental practices of the plant's former contractors, including Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin. Independent tests confirmed that plutonium had polluted plant grounds and outside ditches and stream banks.

Plutonium everywhere
               The problems depicted in the agency's reports are mild, however, compared with the picture that emerges from the new documents. Four maps prepared for the government were posted on the Energy Department's Web site after being released in response to the FOIA request. They show plant officials had been searching for plutonium for years — and found it nearly everywhere they looked.

        The diagrams reflect what knowledgeable agency sources described as a composite of all positive test results for plutonium recorded by plant contractors since 1989. The unsigned maps, bearing a handwritten date of Aug. 26, 1999, show a plant ringed with contamination that extends in some cases for well over a mile. The diagrams also show elevated levels of plutonium in the Ohio River, about two miles north of the plant.

        The risk to the public and wildlife is unclear. Although the quantities of plutonium detected are still microscopically small, plutonium is regarded by many scientists as one of the deadliest substances.

        Experts who reviewed the maps for the Post said the risk to residents was probably slight.


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