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Is Radioactive Gold Worth More Or Less Than Regular Gold?
Date: Thu, 2 Sep 1999 15:23:50 EDT

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
contaminated form,'' Ronald Fowler, a radiation safety technician at the
plant, states in court documents that were unsealed last month by the

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. Congressional leaders, industry officials
and scores of environmental groups have called on the Clinton administration
to halt a controversial Department of Energy program that would recycle
metal from Paducah and other facilities into products that could end up in
household goods or even children's braces.

Opponents' concerns soared with revelations, first reported in the
Post last month, 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.
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, launched jointly last year 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
ranging from intrauterine devices to hip replacements?'' asked Wenonah
of the watchdog group Public Citizen, one of 185 organizations to sign a
letter to Vice President Al Gore 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 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
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
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
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
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
to human health or the environment.''

The recycling program, announced in 1996 by Gore as part of his
government'' initiative, was touted at the time as a ``win-win'' deal for
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

Purifying nickel is technically difficult because the radioactive
contamination extends below the surface of the metal. According to
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
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
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
. . . 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.

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle -- continued...
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Fuck the misgovernment! They deserve revolution, not obedience!

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