LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant participated in radiation experiments during the 1950s, but some may not have been informed of the dangers, according to a federal report obtained by The Courier-Journal.
At least 14 workers at the federal uranium processing plant who tested the effectiveness of respirators against radioactive dust, gas and smoke may not have even known they were participating in an experiment, according to the draft report by the Department of Energy.
The report was made in an investigation by the department into health, safety and environmental problems at the plant.
In other experiments, staff members volunteered to breathe a radioactive gas to see how quickly uranium was excreted in their urine, and a senior staffer drank a solution containing uranium. The Energy Department said some workers believed they could eat uranium fluoride – known as green salt – without injury because they were covered in it at mealtimes and often ingested some of the substance. Although the general dangers of radiation were known at the time of the experiments, its interactions with the human body were not entirely understood. Many believed that uranium dust and byproducts of the enrichment process posed little or no hazard for humans.
The results of the experiments either could not be found or were never published, according to the Energy Department.
The report said worker awareness of hazards was limited by the fact that many aspects of plant operations were classified and details of activities were given out on a “strict need to know” basis.
The draft report also says wholesale pollution of the air, ground and water around the plant – in quantities that may have been significantly underreported – may have exposed area residents to radiation.
The report says protection of workers against radiation often was inadequate or nonexistent. Even the plant’s theater and lunchrooms were contaminated.
When asked about the report, Energy Department officials said only that it was under review. The Paducah plant has been managed by the department, as well as by predecessor federal agencies and private contractors.
The report details a range of problems at Paducah from 1952 to 1990. For years, investigators found, workers were not always told of the dangers they faced working with highly toxic radioactive materials. Their families also may have been exposed when workers took contaminated clothing home to be laundered.
Vast amounts of uranium-contaminated smoke, steam and gas were vented into the open air – sometimes secretly in what employees called “midnight negatives.” Inside some buildings, workers were exposed to unplanned releases and leaks of radioactive gases and hazardous chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid, the report said.
The Energy department began its review after a lawsuit by three employees alleged that former plant operators Lockheed Martin Corp. and Martin Marietta Corp. had profited by lying to the government about the extent of environmental pollution and worker exposure to radiation.
The investigators said that although measured exposures to radiation were high by today’s standards, total exposures were comparable to those occurring at Defense Department facilities, commercial nuclear power plants and other DOE factories.
However, documents showed that, during the 1950s, 40 to 60 workers sought medical help every four months after exposure to accidental releases of uranium, hydrogen fluoride and fluorine.
In a companion story focusing on a feed mill at the Paducah plant, The Courier-Journal reported that workers were exposed to radiation levels so high it was possible for a worker to be exposed to as much radiation in one day as was then considered safe for an entire year.
The paper cited a newly released report, dated Feb. 21, 1961, that contained data on radiation emissions.
During a typical week, about 60 to 70 men worked round the clock in four shifts in the feed plant, producing fluorine from hydrofluoric acid and combining the lethal gas with uranium powder. The feed mill was closed in the late 1970s.
The feed mill “was without a doubt the worst, most hazardous building out there,” said Russell Hines, 69, a retired maintenance worker and union steward who spent about 10 years inside.
Workers said temperatures sometimes climbed above 120 degrees and equipment there belched dust and gas, and pipes dripped acid while smoke rose from piles of ash and slag. They said chemical burns were a frequent occurrence.
“The dust and green salt were everywhere,” said Jimmy Webber, 73, who worked at the plant 30 years before retiring two decades ago. “The feed plant, well, that was where they sent you to work if you messed up on a job somewhere else.”