It was one of the most secretive missions at a factory that was all about secrecy: Nuclear warheads, retired from service and destined for the junkyard, were trucked at night to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to be dismantled, hacked into unrecognizable pieces and buried.
Workers used hammers and acetylene torches to strip away bits of gold and other metals from the warheads' corrosion-proof plating and circuitry. Useless parts were dumped into trenches. But the gold -- some of it still radioactive -- was tossed into a smelter and molded into shiny ingots.
Exactly what happened next is one of the most intriguing questions to arise from a workers' lawsuit against the former operators of the U.S.-owned uranium plant in western Kentucky. Three employees contend that the plant failed for years to properly screen gold and other metals for radioactivity. Some metals, they say, may have been highly radioactive when they left Paducah, bound perhaps for private markets.
The claim -- based partly on circumstantial evidence -- is now being investigated by Department of Energy officials who are also probing the workers' accounts of plutonium contamination and alleged illegal dumping of radioactive waste at the uranium plant.
"It is my belief that these recycled metals were injected into commerce in a contaminated form," Ronald Fowler, a radiation safety technician at the plant, states in court documents that were unsealed this week by the Justice Department.
The investigation comes amid heightened scrutiny of government efforts to recycle valuable metals piling up at more than 16 factories that are part of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. In the past week, congressional leaders, industry officials and scores of environmental groups have called on the Clinton administration to reconsider a controversial Department of Energy program to recycle scrap metal from nuclear weapons facilities into products that could end up in household goods or even children's braces.
Opponents' concerns soared this week with revelations, first reported in The Washington Post, that plutonium and other highly radioactive metals slipped into the Paducah plant over a 23-year period in shipments of contaminated uranium. The plutonium accumulated over decades in nickel-plated pipes where uranium was processed into fuel for bombs, government documents show. Smaller amounts of tainted uranium went to sister plants at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Portsmouth, Ohio, the records show.
Scrap nickel from those plants is now the primary target of the Energy Department's metal recycling program, which would be run jointly by the federal government, the state of Tennessee and a private contractor, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL).
"If DOE denied or didn't know plutonium was present at Paducah, why should we trust them to release waste from identical production plants into products ranging from intrauterine devices to hip replacements?" asked Wenonah Hauter of the watchdog group Public Citizen, one of 185 organizations to sign a letter to Vice President Gore Thursday demanding a halt to the program.
Recovering gold and other valuable metals from retired nuclear weapons had been a little-known mission of the government's uranium enrichment plants over the past five decades. At Paducah, the process began in the 1950s and was conducted under extraordinary security, with heavily armed guards escorting warheads into the plant under cover of darkness.
Garland "Bud" Jenkins, one of three Paducah workers involved in the lawsuit filed under seal in June, says he worked for several years in Paducah's metals program recovering gold, lead, aluminum and nickel from nuclear weapons and production equipment.
"We melted the gold flakes in a furnace to create gold bars," Jenkins said in court documents. "The gold was never surveyed radiologically prior to its release, to my knowledge."
Jenkins also says he never saw tests performed on nickel and aluminum ingots that were hauled out of the plant in trucks. In later years, when plant managers did begin screening the metals, many were found to be contaminated, he said. Hundreds of nickel ingots are still stored at the plant, too tainted to go anywhere, he said.
A plant report included in the lawsuit filings may shed light on the degree of contamination in the gold. In a radiological survey of the plant last year, technicians discovered gold flakes inside an old ingot mold used for gold recovery. The fish scale-sized flakes were tested and found to emit radiation at a rate of 500 millirems an hour, the report said. By comparison, the average person receives between 200 and 300 millirems each year from all sources, including X-rays, radon gas and cosmic radiation from space.
"If you had a wedding ring made out of those flakes you'd be getting twice as much radiation in an hour as most people get in a year," said Joseph R. Egan, a lawyer representing the employees.
Fowler, the radiation safety technician, said he filed a report on the discovery of the radioactive gold in December but received no response from the plant's management. Nothing further was done to investigate "the possibility that [the plant] may have contaminated the nation's gold supply" at Fort Knox, he said.
Plant officials shed little light on the process. U.S. Enrichment Corp., the plant's current operator, says gold recovery at Paducah was the responsibility of the Energy Department.
Department officials, in a response to written questions from The Post, acknowledged that gold was recovered from nuclear weapons at Paducah. But, "since these actions occurred many years ago, information regarding their past dispositions is not readily available," the statement said.
In a letter to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.)., department officials strongly defended their efforts to salvage nickel and other valuable metals that have been piling up at nuclear complex sites for years.
"Let me assure you that the safety of the public and workers and compliance with state and federal regulations are of paramount importance," said Undersecretary of Energy T.J. Glauthier. Glauthier said BNFL's license requires that "any metals released for unrestricted use will not pose a risk to human health or the environment."
The recycling program, announced in 1996 by Gore as part of his "reinventing government" initiative, was touted at the time as a "win-win" deal for the environment, industry and taxpayers. BNFL, which was awarded the recycling contract in a noncompetitive bid, has already begun recycling some of the 100,000 tons of radioactively contaminated metal that were once part of the defunct K-25 complex at Oak Ridge, the world's first full-scale uranium enrichment plant. Eventually the program expanded to Paducah and other facilities.
Purifying nickel is technically difficult because the radioactive contamination extends below the surface of the metal. According to department officials, BNFL was awarded the contract because it has developed a unique technology that can safely remove nearly all of the contaminants.
But opponents say the technology has never been proven on such a large scale. Moreover, they note, there are no federal standards for releasing contaminated metal into the marketplace. Previous attempts to set such standards in the early 1990s were abandoned because of public opposition.
And, opponents add, the lack of restrictions on the recycled metal leaves the public in the dark about which products may have come from contaminated scrap. Even if radioactivity levels are low, consumers are entitled to an informed choice when buying materials that might be used by children, activists said.
"The DOE has admitted they can't protect the safety of their workers and misled them," said Robert Wages, executive vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union. "Now DOE wants to dump radioactive metals into everything from baby rattles to zippers . . . and tell us not to worry."
Because there are no federal standards, the Energy Department's recycling program relies on the state of Tennessee to set guidelines and regulate the process. In June, a federal judge sharply criticized the arrangement, saying the DOE had effectively thwarted public debate of an issue in which "the potential for environmental harm is great."
But U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected an attempt by labor and environmental groups to halt the recycling program, citing a law that prohibits courts from delaying federal cleanup of contaminated sites. Still, in unusually blunt language, the judge accused the Energy Department of "startling and worrisome" behavior in its alleged attempts to avoid federal oversight and public review.
"There has been no opportunity at all for public scrutiny or input on such a matter of such grave importance," Kessler wrote in her opinion. "The lack of public scrutiny is only compounded by the fact that the recycling process which BNFL intends to use is entirely experimental at this stage."