Congress Asked to Double Cleanup Funds for Gaseous Diffusion Plants

By Cat Lazaroff

PADUCAH, Kentucky, January 31, 2000 (ENS) - Energy Secretary Bill Richardson pledged $222.7 million Saturday in cleanup, waste management and worker health initiatives for two of the nationís uranium enrichment plants. The proposed funding includes more than $120 million in new spending to hasten work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky and the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio.

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Energy Secretary Bill Richardson (Photo courtesy Department of Energy)
The funding proposal is the first Department of Energy (DOE) budget initiative for fiscal year 2001. It would double funding for Paducah and increase spending at Portsmouth by 83 percent.

Richardson and the political leaders who accompanied him on his weekend visits to Paducah and Portsmouth promised to pressure Congress to approve full funding for Richardsonís initiative.

"Our budget request to Congress puts our word into actions - we're investing dollars to clean up our gaseous diffusion plants, protect worker's health and create new jobs," Secretary Richardson said to employees at both plants. "The Clinton/Gore Administration and this country have the resources and the will to make this happen."

Richardson also announced that the department is sending a request to Congress for $26 million for additional cleanup and health activities this year - of which each plant would get more than $11 million. The supplemental request includes $3.3 million at both the Paducah and Portsmouth plants as well as a third gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to fund expanded medical monitoring of workers and the ongoing environment, safety and health investigations at the plants.

Paducah

The Paducah plant feeds uranium hexafluoride UF6 into its enrichment process at two feed facilities. Here, large containment autoclaves are used to heat the cylinders, converting the solid UF 6 to a liquid and then to a gas. (Photo courtesy U.S. Enrichment Corporation)
The plants were originally designed to handle only uranium. After World War II, the gaseous diffusion facilities were used in a government experiment to recycle leftover uranium from nuclear reactors that made plutonium for bombs. Through an enrichment process, uranium dust contaminated with neptunium and plutonium was turned back into nuclear fuel.

Radioactive dust and contaminated metal parts still litter the sites. Many workers at the facilities received potentially deadly doses of radiation during decades of nuclear fuel production.

Since August 1999, when the "Washington Post" broke stories detailing radioactive hazards and worker illnesses at the two plants, the DOE has launched investigations, apologized to workers and pledged compensation for those who developed diseases linked to radiation exposure.

"We believe there is a link," Richardson said Saturday. DOE and independent studies point to higher cancer rates in nuclear weapons workers than in similar populations that were not exposed to radioactive contamination.

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Rail cars delivering enriched uranium hexafluoride to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio (Photo courtesy Portsmouth GDP)
Richardson has lobbied the White House to study whether to extend worker compensation to other sites that produced nuclear weapons materials. In March, a White House panel is scheduled to decide whether workers and their families at all DOE sites should be compensated for illnesses and deaths.

"The work that took place here, and the men and women who performed it, helped bring down an iron curtain 5,000 miles from here," Richardson said during a speech to Paducah employees. "Now, you help us ensure a lasting peace."

At Paducah, the 2001 budget request would provide:

The DOE will use the cleanup funds to remove a pile of drums containing scrap metal known as Drum Mountain and begin to characterize the ground underneath it. Richardson pledged to make Drum Mountain disappear by the end of this year.

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Trucks deliver cylinders full of natural assay uranium hexafluoride to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky (Photo courtesy Paducah GDP)
With the new funding workers could continue removing more than 50,000 tons of contaminated scrap in eight outside storage areas to reduce contamination in creeks and characterize the ground beneath.

They could dispose of 5,000 drums of low level radioactive waste, and ship more than 2,000 drums of hazardous and radioactive waste to an offsite facility.

The current cleanup budget for Paducah is $54.2 million. The fiscal year 2000 supplemental cleanup budget request of $8 million will speed up work already planned to characterize and clean up areas of radioactive contamination, dispose of waste and stabilize shut down facilities.

Contaminated equipment would be removed from two shut down facilities, a metals reduction plant and a feed plant, this year, at least a year earlier than previously planned.

At Portsmouth, the 2001 budget proposes:

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Depleted uranium storage cylinders (Photo courtesy Environmental Assessment Division of Argonne National Laboratory )
The money would help complete cleanup of contaminated groundwater plumes at the south side of the site. The DOE would also design and implement cleanup plans for contaminated soil and a groundwater plume on the northeast side of the site.

The current budget for cleanup at Portsmouth is $46.1 million. Supplemental funds of $8 million would be used to dispose of more than 1,000 boxes of contaminated sludge and soil. Some 18,000 containers of mixed, low level waste will be characterized so they can meet criteria for disposal facilities.

The waste to be disposed of includes personal protective equipment, sampling equipment, floor sweepings and other miscellaneous debris contaminated with low levels of radioactive material. Closure of a waste storage area would be completed this year, at least a year earlier than previously planned.