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Posted at 12:36 a.m. EDT Saturday, September 4, 1999


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Memo mentions highly toxic metal at plant

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) -- A highly toxic metal used in nuclear weapons was used at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, but not a similar enrichment plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, according to a memorandum seen by an official assisting with a health study of former plant workers.

Mark Griffon, a health physicist, said he did not recall whether the old Department of Energy memo mentioned when the metal, beryllium, was in the plant, although it was probably not in recent years, The Paducah Sun reported in a copyright story Friday.

``It could have been in a laboratory on a very small scale, so I don't want to raise any concerns until we know more about this,'' Griffon said.

``It didn't say anything about potentially exposed workers, either, so I'm not sure in what quantity or where this beryllium might have been at the Paducah facility.''

A few former plant workers recalled dismantling nuclear missile parts for smelting many years ago but knew nothing about beryllium, said Griffon, of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

``Some folks have suggested that the cones of the missiles were made of or coated with beryllium,'' Griffon said. ``I didn't make much headway into that issue.''

The retired workers said they had not heard about beryllium until news reports in July, when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that the department would provide at least $11 million in benefits for contract workers exposed to certain toxic substances, notably beryllium.

The department mentioned former workers in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and other cities as being exposed, but not Paducah. Union officials and federal lawmakers from Kentucky pledged to fight to expand the benefits to the Paducah plant.

Griffon, involved in the study of thousands of former enrichment plant workers, said he saw the beryllium memo about three months ago in an archive vault at a closed uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge. The memo was from department officials in Oak Ridge to those in Washington, he said.

Griffon said the memo mentioned that beryllium was at the Oak Ridge plant, and to a lesser extent at Paducah, but not at an enrichment plant at Portsmouth, Ohio.

Beryllium, a lightweight metal machined for use in nuclear weapons and reactors, is extremely toxic when particles are inhaled or ingested. The result is chronic, often disabling and sometimes fatal lung ailments.

The department, which is investigating reports that workers were unwittingly exposed to radiation and toxins, says traces of plutonium entered the Paducah plant as a contaminant in nuclear fuel rods from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. The department has not mentioned beryllium in association with the probe.

Griffon said a few past workers recalled recovering gold from missile parts and smelting the leftover metal for ingots.

``They didn't have any knowledge of any plutonium exposure associated with their work,'' he said. ``That doesn't mean it wasn't there. It may have been a small quantity.''

Dr. Steven Markowitz, an epidemiologist with Queens College, City University of New York, is leading the health study. The investigation has not revealed beryllium, although only about 100 Paducah workers have been screened, he said.

``We don't have any knowledge that beryllium was used at Paducah, but if it should surface, we would obviously add it to the medical screening,'' Markowitz said. ``It has a way of showing up unexpectedly.''

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