PADUCAH, Ky. — James “Smoothy” Wilkerson is thankful for his $150,000 share of the more than $110 million paid to compensate sick Paducah nuclear workers.
He’s even happier that a tiny tumor in his right lung was detected early by a scanner that sees lung images as thin as paper.
Wilkerson, 72, of South Fulton, Tenn., said the thousands of current and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant should take the government-paid tests that saved his life.
Comparing Wilkerson’s second and third scans, technicians detected slight growth in a half-inch node in August 1991 and doctors removed the lower third of his right lung. Recent tests showed a recurrence. The whole lung may be removed if his other lung is healthy enough to compensate.
“Even if I lose the whole lung, I have a pretty good chance of survival,” Wilkerson said. “An X-ray would never have seen it.”
Funded by the Department of Energy, the plant Worker Health Protection Program is run locally by workers and retirees affiliated with Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International. Medical screening is done by local physicians working in concert with Queens College of Flushing, N.Y.
Dr. Steven Markowitz, a Queens College epidemiologist and head of the program, said 1,760 Paducah workers and retirees have been screened, out of which 1,188 have qualified for scanning based on age, smoking habits and job health factors that put them at high risk for lung cancer.
Four cases of lung cancer have been detected, two in the early stages. That is less than has been found at closed enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Piketon, Ohio, but the results may be “statistical variations,” he said.
Markowitz said 12 percent of the tested Paducah workers have indications of asbestos exposure, 15 percent have chronic bronchitis or emphysema and 70 percent have hearing loss.
“For people breathing hydrofluoric acid vapors at the plant and at the same time smoking, really their lung problem was caused by both,” he said.
Wilkerson, who retired in 1994 after 37 years at the plant, said he smoked and helped clean equipment containing mildly radioactive, toxic uranium hexafluoride. The most dangerous component of toxic uranium hexafluoride is caustic hydrofluoric acid.
Wilkerson worked in a now-closed building where workers made toxic uranium hexafluoride and fed it into the plant’s massive production buildings.
“We would clean the equipment up before the maintenance people would cut into it, but you couldn’t get all the (hydrofluoric acid) out of it,” he said. “You didn’t have to be rocket scientist to know you didn’t need to be breathing it.”
An Energy Department investigation revealed three years ago that Paducah plant workers machined beryllium, a highly toxic metal, while dismantling nuclear weapons parts during the Cold War. As a result, beryllium testing has been added to the health screening program and workers with chronic beryllium disease quality for $150,000 compensation.
Markowitz said 1,107 current and former Paducah workers have been tested for beryllium exposure, which requires two positive tests to determine beryllium sensitivity. Thirty-four workers had one positive test and 28 of them had a second test. Of the 28, seven have shown beryllium sensitivity, which does not mean they have the disease but qualifies them for free medical screening the rest of their lives.
Wayne O’Keefe of Vienna, Ill., said he was diagnosed as beryllium-sensitive and recently had a free lung biopsy in Oak Ridge. Although he has some symptoms — stiff joints and hot flashes — associated with the disease, he has not yet been diagnosed as having it. Incurable but treatable by steroids, the malady can cause loss of lung function.
O’Keefe, 79, retired in 1985 after 28 years at the plant in two stints, the first starting in 1951 when construction began. He later worked in a building housing the machine shop. “I never heard of beryllium until they told me it was in my blood,” he said.