Richardson Orders 'Full Investigation' at Paducah

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had ordered a full investigation into allegations that past activities at the Gaseous Diffusion Plant at Paducah, Kentucky had endangered the health of employees and the public, the Energy Department told

"I am determined to uncover more about what actually occurred, who was responsible and what must be done to assure that it never happens again," Richardson said in a statement earlier this month.

"I want to assure the former and current workers and the Paducah community that we are aggressively working to answer their questions and concerns," Richardson said.

The probe was launched after reports of contamination and sloppy waste management at the plant, including worker exposure to plutonium and other highly radioactive material.

However, contract workers chanced upon a radioactive ooze seeping from the ground near an abandoned sanitary landfill at the Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah on July 15 while they were preparing to install wells to monitor another possible contaminated site near the landfill, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

Department of Energy officials fenced off the site and reported the discovery to Kentucky's environmental regulators. Federal officials confirmed that the radioactive ooze found outside the uranium enrichment plant led workers to a dumping ground for radioactive debris.

Radioactivity readings were hundreds of times above levels found naturally in soil and almost nine times higher than the plant's "action level," which would trigger immediate action to seal contaminated areas inside the plant.

Lab tests confirmed the presence of uranium and technetium, a radioactive metal that travels quickly through soil.

The find appears to corroborate an allegation filed in a worker lawsuit that radioactive material was dumped outside the plant in areas within easy reach of the public.

The suit by workers and an environmental group says contaminated debris streamed out of the plant for years. Some was allegedly dumped in woods and abandoned buildings in a state wildlife area. But other waste was transported to a state-licensed landfill authorized to accept only non-hazardous trash, the suit contends.

Both the Energy Department and the plant's current manager, U.S. Enrichment Corporation, have contended that they are unaware of radioactive waste going into the sanitary landfill.

Documents prepared by former contractors list the contents of the dump as "uncontaminated trash and garbage." The landfill is "permitted and operated according to Kentucky regulations," plant records state.

The finding comes in the second week of an Energy Department investigation at the Paducah plant, which for 47 years produced enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, Navy submarines and commercial power plants.