Bomb Part Storage at Ky. Plant Disclosed
Friday, February 11, 2000
More than 1,600 tons of nuclear weapons parts reportedly lie scattered around the Energy Department's Paducah, Ky., uranium plant, a safety manager informed regulators yesterday in a new disclosure of potential hazards unknown to workers or civilian plant supervisors.
Some of the bomb parts are stored in above-ground shelters and could pose a risk of exposure or even an accidental nuclear reaction at the plant, if the components are contaminated with radioactive substances such as enriched uranium and plutonium, the official reported in a signed statement to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The U.S. Enrichment Corp. (USEC), the government-chartered private company that now runs the plant, acknowledged yesterday that its senior officials recently discussed the issue with the Department of Energy.
"USEC has been assured that DOE is not aware of any conditions that create a radiological hazard to USEC personnel at the site beyond those already known and controlled," company spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said.
Energy Department officials involved with the country's classified nuclear weapons program apparently were aware of the shipment of bomb components to Paducah over many years, but the department did not until recently inform the plant's civilian overseers and safety officials who were in charge of evaluating threats to workers.
The statement by Raymond G. Carroll, a senior manager of health and safety programs at the plant since 1992, quotes a conversation with another senior civilian plant official who reportedly told Carroll he was worried about the bomb parts after hearing of their existence from a DOE official.
Carroll also said he was told that DOE officials recently began hauling away documents related to weapons dismantlement.
A DOE spokesman confirmed that the department is investigating "classified national security programs" conducted at Paducah in the past, along with the Justice and Defense departments.
"This review includes the examination of potential worker exposures and any safety, health and environmental issues associated with these national security programs," the official said.
Carroll's statement was obtained by The Washington Post yesterday as the government was making its most detailed acknowledgment to date of historically unsafe practices at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a hulking industrial complex that has produced enriched uranium for nuclear bombs and power plants since 1952.
The 77-page DOE report faults a "climate of secrecy" for keeping workers and neighbors uninformed and unprotected while radioactive contaminants spread through factory buildings and surrounding areas. A few volunteers were deliberately exposed to uranium in a series of previously undisclosed human experiments, the report said.
The DOE report does not mention nuclear bomb parts. A worker lawsuit against plant contractors last summer revealed that some weapons parts had been melted down at the plant to recover gold and other metals. But details of the scope and purpose of the bomb program have remained shrouded in secrecy.