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Thousands exposed to PU at Paducah enrichment plant

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(August 13, 1999) US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered an immediate investigation into reports that thousands of unsuspecting employees at a Kentucky uranium enrichment plant were exposed on the job to cancer-causing plutonium. The Washington Post revealed on August 9, that reprocessed uranium from military nuclear fuel was contaminated with plutonium.

(515.5056) WISE Amsterdam - Richardson will meet with workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and would request a National Academy of Sciences study to probe the links between worker illnesses and exposure to radioactive materials that occurred over decades at the federally owned plant. His remarks came after The Washington Post reported that workers at the Paducah plant had been unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other radioactive metals that entered the plant over decades in shipments of used uranium from military nuclear reactor fuel. The report was based in part on sealed court documents filed as part of a lawsuit by workers and the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council. The suit alleges that government contractors concealed evidence of the exposure for decades while allowing plutonium and other hazards to spread into the environment. According to Thomas Cochran, a nuclear expert with the NRDC who reviewed conditions at the plant, health and safety practices there were the worst "outside the former Soviet Union."

Paducah workers were exposed to plutonium through shipments of contaminated uranium that arrived at the plant from 1953 to 1976, a period when national security priorities often surmounted concerns over risks to workers and the environment. The plutonium shipments stopped, but contaminants remain spattered over hundreds of acres of buildings and grounds. Workers did not learn of the problems until at least 1990, and some contend they were never told. The US Enrichment Corp., a corporation that took over management of the plant this year after privatisation, contends that all significantly contaminated areas have been cleaned up or marked with warning signs.

Although no comprehensive study of worker medical histories has been conducted, current and former workers at the plant have linked past exposures to a string of cancers and other diseases. Besides the health study by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, the Energy Department will institute a medical surveillance and screening program for employees. A screening of former Paducah workers is just beginning as part of the Former Worker Program, a congressionally ordered study of past exposures of employees in the US nuclear complex. The department's fiscal 2000 budget request will be reassessed and revised as necessary to include money to probe and rectify environmental and health concerns at the government's uranium enrichment plants.

The Post said the Paducah plants issue was an "unpublished chapter in the still unfolding story of radioactive contamination in the chain of factories in the country that produced America's Cold War nuclear arsenal."
Radioactive contaminants from the 300 hectare plant, built in 1952, spilled in ditches and eventually seeped into creeks. Workers claim that former plant managers allowed contaminated waste to be dumped into a state-owned wildlife area and a landfill not licensed for hazardous waste. They further contend that radioactively contaminated gold and other valuable metals may have been shipped out of the plant without being properly tested.


  • Washington Post, 9 August
  • Reuters, 10 August 1999

Contact: Thomas Cochran, NRDC, 1350 New York Avenue, NW, Suite 300. Washington DC 20005, USA Tel: +1-202-289-68869; Fax: +1-202-289-1060 E-mail: