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Radioactive metals may have been soldBy Laura Frank
The U.S. Department of Energy is investigating whether highly radioactive metal was released for recycling starting in the 1950s from its Paducah, Ky., nuclear weapons fuel plant, 150 miles northwest of Nashville.
The investigation, disclosed in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post, will try to determine whether gold, lead, aluminum and nickel reclaimed from retired nuclear warheads were highly radioactive, and whether DOE then sold the metals on the open market.
The probe comes on the heels of strong criticism of a DOE-supported, Tennessee-approved plan to clean and recycle metal from Paducah's sister plant in Oak Ridge. The recycled Oak Ridge metal could be sold for use in consumer products, such as toys and tableware.
In the past week, congressional leaders, steel industry officials and scores of environmental groups called on the Clinton administration to reconsider the controversial Oak Ridge program.
Tennessee regulators, DOE and officials from BNFL Inc., the British-owned company contracted to recycle the metal in Oak Ridge, say it would be cleaned to a safe level before being released for unrestricted use.
"It's an insignificant amount of radiation," said Milton Hamilton, commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, which approved the plan. "Once it's cleaned, if it's done to the standards we intend, it will be safe. No way under the sun would this department or I sign off on any process believed to harm the general public."
The state's action set a standard for releasing such metals that even federal regulators have been wary to set, and did so without any public input.
Though the metal would still be somewhat radioactive, a BNFL-commissioned study shows a child wearing orthodontic braces made from the metal would be exposed to 13,000 times less radiation than the same child would get from the X-rays required to be fitted for the braces.
Plan opponents say they don't trust the study and point to the investigation of DOE's previous metal recycling attempts to support their skepticism.
The allegations that DOE released radioactive metal from Paducah without testing came to light after documents from a workers' lawsuit there were unsealed this week. Workers brought the lawsuit claiming DOE failed to warn them that uranium at the plant was contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium.
"If DOE denied or didn't know plutonium was present at Paducah, why should we trust them to release waste from identical production plants into products ranging from intrauterine devices to hip replacements?" Wenonah Hauter, of the watchdog group Public Citizen, told the Post. Public Citizen is one of more than 185 organizations that signed a letter to Vice President Gore on Thursday demanding a halt to the Oak Ridge program.
Gore has not responded to the letter.
The Paducah plant, and another sister facility in Portsmouth, Ohio, were under the control of Oak Ridge officials until 1992.
DOE wants to recycle some 100,000 tons of radioactive metal from Oak Ridge. Most of this is contaminated on its surface and will be cleaned to levels agreed upon by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But about 6,000 tons of nickel is contaminated internally. There are no federal guidelines for releasing such metal.
Tennessee set its own standards for releasing internally contaminated metal.
That action drew fire from congressmen and a federal judge, who voiced concern that Tennessee lacks the resources and expertise of a federal regulatory agency, and set its standard with no public scrutiny.
The Steel Manufacturers Association, which represents half of the nation's steel companies, says it won't accept any metal that sets off its members' radiation monitors because it fears costly contamination of its facilities and potential liability for health and safety.
"I don't want to use the word boycott," said SMA president Thomas A. Danjczek. "But we're calling for zero tolerance. We don't want this material released into the stream of commerce."
Before DOE announced the massive Tennessee recycling plan, recovering gold and other valuable metals from retired nuclear weapons had been a little-known mission of the government's uranium enrichment plants over the past five decades. At Paducah, the Post reported, the process began in the 1950s and was conducted under extraordinary security, with heavily armed guards escorting warheads into the plant under cover of darkness.
Garland "Bud" Jenkins, one of three Paducah workers involved in the lawsuit filed under seal in June, says he worked for several years in Paducah's metals program recovering gold, lead, aluminum and nickel from nuclear weapons and production equipment.
"The gold was never surveyed radiologically prior to its release, to my knowledge," Jenkins said in court documents.
Jenkins also said he never saw tests performed on nickel and aluminum ingots that were hauled out of the plant in trucks.
"It is my belief that these recycled metals were injected into commerce in a contaminated form," Ronald Fowler, a radiation safety technician at the plant, states in the unsealed court documents.
In later years, when plant managers did begin screening the metals, many were found to be contaminated, he said. Hundreds of nickel ingots are still stored at the plant, too tainted to go anywhere, the Post reported.
A plant report included in the lawsuit documents may shed light on the degree of contamination in the gold. In a radiological survey of the plant last year, technicians discovered gold flakes inside an old ingot mold used for gold recovery. The fish scale-size flakes were tested and found to emit radiation at a rate of 500 millirems an hour, the report said. By comparison, the average person receives between 200 and 300 millirems each year from all sources, including X-rays, radon gas and cosmic radiation from space.
"If you had a wedding ring made out of those flakes you'd be getting twice as much radiation in an hour as most people get in a year," said Joseph R. Egan, a lawyer representing the employees.
Tennessee officials say the metal leaving Oak Ridge will be much different, both in scrutiny and safety. In the beginning, each 2-foot nickel ingot will be drilled in its four corners and its radioactivity tested. The state and BNFL are negotiating a lesser number of tests eventually.
BNFL says products made from its metal will emit radiation thousands of times lower than the average background radiation in the environment, 200-300 millirems. Braces, for instance, would expose the wearer to a thousandth of a millirem per year.
Gore announced the recycling program in 1996 as part of his "reinventing government" initiative, which was touted at the time as a "win-win" deal for the environment, industry and taxpayers. BNFL, which was awarded the recycling contract in a noncompetitive bid, has already begun recycling some of the 100,000 tons of radioactively contaminated metal that was once part of the defunct K-25 complex at Oak Ridge, the world's first full-scale uranium enrichment plant.
Originally, the plan called for restricting the use of the metal to batteries.
"This major cleanup effort at the Oak Ridge facility will improve the environmental quality of the region and provide more job opportunities to workers in the state," Gore said in announcing the original plan in 1996.
The final contract did not restrict the use of the metal, however.
And in June, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler sharply criticized the arrangement, saying the DOE had effectively thwarted public debate of an issue in which "the potential for environmental harm is great."
However, Kessler said federal law prohibits courts from delaying federal cleanup of contaminated sites.
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