WASHINGTON — Thousands more people than anticipated face health and pollution threats from plutonium and other highly radioactive elements that fouled vast amounts of uranium recycled by the U.S. nuclear weapons program over the past 50 years. Recycled uranium was shipped worldwide from 1952 until 1999, when distribution was halted by revelations of its contamination.
Now, new federal studies reviewed by USA TODAY show that the program yielded 250,000 tons of tainted uranium — roughly double the estimates of two years ago. The material was handled at about 10 times the number of sites revealed previously, reaching more than 100 federal plants, private manufacturers and universities.
The studies suggest that thousands more workers than expected might have unwittingly faced radiation risks beyond those associated with normal uranium, increasing their odds of developing cancer and other ailments. That places an unexpected burden on a soon-to-begin federal program to compensate sick nuclear weapons workers.
Contaminants from the tainted uranium also raise the potential for soil and groundwater pollution at some of the newly recognized processing sites. That threatens to complicate cleanup plans.
Most recycled uranium went back into nuclear weapons production or was used as fuel for power reactors. But thousands of tons also were used in everything from academic research to the making of armor for Army battle tanks.
The vast majority of the material contained only traces of impurities — too little, scientists say, to pose risks beyond those posed by natural uranium, which is mildly radioactive and raises health hazards if inhaled as dust. But some plants handled recycled uranium in ways that concentrated its contaminants, significantly boosting its hazards.
"This stuff circulated much more widely than we'd thought," says Robert Alvarez, an official at the Department of Energy when it launched the new studies in 1999.
"The problem is, they really don't have reasonable estimates of how much (contamination) was in a lot of this recycled uranium," adds Alvarez, now a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. "It could range from very tiny amounts to relatively high levels."
Federal researchers conclude in the new studies that contamination generally was "extremely low." But that finding masks problems.
The uranium's contaminants apparently were concentrated at a dozen or more previously unrecognized sites, raising pollution and worker health threats. But it's unclear which batches of uranium were most dangerous — or where they went — so not all high-risk sites are identifiable.
Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says, "The government has a responsibility to follow