Evidence Mounts in Paducah
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 22, 1999
The exhumed bones of a
long-dead uranium worker have given a powerful boost
to current employees' claims of dangerous exposures inside a government-owned
Kentucky plant that supplied radioactive fuel for the nation's nuclear bombs.
The long-overlooked medical
evidence from the case of Joseph Harding suggests
that for some workers radiation doses at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant
were far higher than previously believed, and may have been dozens of times
above federal limits, according to one analysis of the data.
The hazards for uranium
workers are further underscored by unpublished
research from a sister plant in Tennessee. A draft study of workers at the
K-25 plant in Oak Ridge shows unusually high death rates for former uranium
workers, as well as sharply higher rates of lung and bone cancers.
The results of Harding's
posthumous tests, conducted as part of a lawsuit in
1983 but never published, offer the strongest corroboration to date of
hazardous conditions inside the Paducah plantstrongest corroboration to date
of hazardous conditions inside the uranium , where workers labored for
decades in a haze of radioactive dust that was sometimes laced with deadly
"Uranium content of the
bone was far in excess of normal expectations," wrote
Alice Stewart, an internationally known British researcher who reviewed the
results of laboratory tests of Harding's remains for his estate. "The
terminal finding overrules all earlier impressions [from U.S. government
officials] of NO internal depositions of uranium."
Lab technicians were unaware
of the presence of plutonium at the plant and
did not test for it. Plutonium is about 100,000 times more radioactive per
gram than uranium and can cause cancer if inhaled in microscopic amounts.
Workers only recently learned that plutonium and other highly radioactive
metals entered the plant in contaminated uranium shipments from the early
1950s to the mid-1970s.
The Department of Energy
has launched an extensive investigation into claims
of worker exposures at the Paducah plant as well as the K-25 plant and a
third facility in Ohio. While the department had not evaluated the results of
Harding's bone tests as of last week, agency officials said it is now clear
that uranium workers were not properly protected until at least 1990, when
new safety guidelines were implemented.
"This reaffirms our decision
to get out of the business of fighting sick
workers," David Michaels, assistant secretary for environment, safety and
health, said in an interview Friday. "This case is an example of how the DOE
placed mission and secrecy in a paramount position in the past. Right now, we
should be bending over backward to help those workers who helped win the Cold
War for us."
Both the Paducah and K-25
plants were owned by the federal government and
operated by the same group of corporate contractors: Union Carbide from the
1950s to the early 1980s, followed by Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin
The latter two are the
targets of a lawsuit filed by a group of current
employees who allege unsafe working conditions and environmental
contamination. Former workers also have alleged that radiation monitoring
equipment at the Paducah plant was defective; in some cases, they say, "film"
badges used to monitor exposures contained no film.
"The dose evidence corroborates
our allegations that the health physics
program at Paducah has been essentially nonexistent," said Thomas Cochran,
nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which
joined workers in the lawsuit. "The contractors have been operating in
callous disregard for the health and safety of the work force."
Harding, an 18-year veteran
plant worker who died of cancer in 1980, was
hailed last week by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson as a "hero of the Cold
War." But for the nine years before his death his claims of radiation
exposure were vigorously challenged by contractors and Energy Department
officials, who said conditions in the plant were safe.
The department disputed
Harding's allegations – verified years later by other
workers – of a dense fog of uranium dust and smoke that would cling to
workers' skin and coat their throats and teeth. A department study in 1981
attributed Harding's death to a combination of smoking and eating country ham.
Eventually Harding developed
stomach cancer along with an array of unusual
maladies that are sometimes linked to radiation exposure, including
perforations in his lungs and strange fingernail-like growths on his palms,
wrists and shoulders. But after being discharged from the plant in 1971,
Harding was denied a disability pension and lost his medical insurance. His
widow's efforts to reclaim the pension were opposed by lawyers for Union
Carbide and the Energy Department, and she eventually settled her claim for
The exhumation of Harding's
remains in 1983 was a final attempt by Harding's
widow to verify his assertions of exposure to radioactive uranium dust in the
plant. His bones were analyzed by a Canadian lab for uranium, but for reasons
now unclear the results were never published.
The lab report – obtained
last week by The Post – not only supported
Harding's claims of radiation exposure but also suggested hazards at the
plant were far greater than previously believed: More than a dozen years
after Harding left the plant, his body contained uranium at levels up to 133
times higher than is normally found in bones.
Moreover, the type of
uranium found was "not from natural sources," and
apparently came from the plant's uranium enrichment process, the report said.
Because uranium is slowly
purged by the body over time, the levels in
Harding's bones would have been "several-fold higher" during the time he was
employed, the lab report stated.
Exactly how much higher
is unclear. But Carl Johnson, a Colorado physician
and radiation consultant who analyzed the test results for Harding's widow in
1983, said Harding's uranium "bone burden" in the 1970s would have been
between 1,700 and 34,000 times higher than normal. Based on those levels, the
annual radiation dose to Harding's bone tissue would have been 30 to 600 rems
a year. Under current standards, U.S. nuclear industry workers are allowed a
maximum full-body dose of 5 rems a year.
Radiation experts who
reviewed the data for The Post said the results could
have been skewed by a number of factors, including the possible presence of
plutonium in Harding's bone tissue. But by any measure, the exposure was
Arjun Makhijani, president
of the Institute for Energy and Environmental
Research, said conditions at Paducah appear to have been similar to an Energy
Department site at Fernald, Ohio, where concentrations of radioactive
particles in the air are now known to have far exceeded then-allowable
limits, in one instance by 97,000 times.
"The DOE and its contractor
Union Carbide committed a gross injustice on Joe
Harding," Makhijani said. "The DOE is perpetuating that injustice upon the
half-million people who worked in the nuclear weapons complex since it has
not yet provided the vast majority of the survivors among them with medical
monitoring and medical help."
Energy Department officials
are now pledging increased medical tests and
possibly compensation to thousands of men and women who were exposed to
chemical and radiological hazards at Paducah and other facilities in the U.S.
nuclear weapons complex. The department's investigative team at Paducah in
coming weeks will attempt to determine exactly what the hazards were, and who
The task is fraught with
obstacles, including a dearth of monitoring data
from the early years when radiation exposures were likely to be highest.
Unlike the K-25 plant, no comprehensive study of worker histories has been
attempted at Paducah.
The draft study of uranium
workers at the K-25 plant appears to offer further
support for concerns about hazards inside such facilities. The mortality
study of about 11,000 former workers at the plant was conducted by the Oak
Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Although the research essentially
was completed in 1994, funding for the study was dropped before it could be
peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal.
The draft report, obtained
by The Post, shows higher rates of death for all
causes among former workers, a finding that is significant in itself, given
that government workers are typically healthier than the general population
because of higher salaries and access to health care.
The study also shows higher
rates of cancers of the lung (19 percent) and
bone (82 percent) among white male workers compared with the general
population. Both cancers are sometimes linked to radiation exposure.
Researchers point to several
factors that could have skewed the results,
including the inclusion in the survey of a sample of thousands of people who
worked at the K-25 plant for a relatively brief period during World War II.
Since many able-bodied
men were in the military during that period, the
remaining work force may have been less healthy than the general population,
the authors said.
A new study is underway
to track death rates among K-25 workers who were
exposed to the highest amounts of radiation. Similar mortality studies at the
Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio have shown relatively low rates of
Another possible problem
in evaluating risks for Paducah workers is the
reliability of the data. Previous Energy Department audits of the plant's
safety records cited extensive problems with monitoring programs and
equipment. And former and current workers at the plant say they believe
radiation monitoring was shoddy in the past.
Al Puckett, a retired
union shop steward who worked at the gaseous diffusion
plant in the 1960s and 1970s, said workers would sometimes open their "film"
badges only to find no film inside. Suspecting that no one ever examined
workers' radiation monitors, Puckett and his colleagues sometimes exposed the
badges to radiation by leaving them for hours on top of barrels of enriched
"We turned the badges
in and that was the last we heard of it," he said. "No
one ever said anything to us."