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Report underlines recent worker hazards at old weapons plants via The Center for Public Integrity

Federal health investigators found serious problems when they inspected a former uranium enrichment plant being dismantled in Ohio

The toxic morass that was America’s nuclear weapons complex is no secret. Hazardous conditions in places like the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant  in Ohio moved Congress in 2000 to create a compensation program for former workers who developed illnesses that may have been caused by radiation or chemical exposures.

The program, run by the U.S. Department of Labor, assumes that conditions significantly improved at nuclear sites after 1995 and processes claims accordingly. A new report by federal health investigators, however, casts doubt on that assumption.

The report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, dated December 21, 2015, summarizes the results of a NIOSH inspection at Portsmouth begun two years earlier. The Center for Public Integrity, which highlighted historical problems at the site in an article last month, obtained it this week from a former worker.

The most notable finding: air sampling in Building 326 of the now-closed uranium enrichment plant, undergoing decontamination and decommissioning, showed the presence of hydrogen fluoride, a potentially lethal gas, in concentrations up to 30 times the NIOSH “ceiling limit,” described as “a value that should never be exceeded.” Apart from its capacity to kill, hydrogen fluoride, commonly known as HF, can cause chronic lung disease, skin damage and blindness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program is intended to provide payments to and cover the health care of people harmed by working at nuclear-weapons sites. Many claimants and some members of Congress find the program deeply flawed and question the Labor Department’s rationale for denying claims.

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The dismantling of the Portsmouth plant involves more than 2,000 workers and is being overseen by Fluor BWXT, a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy. In a letter to NIOSH dated December 3, 2015, Fluor BWXT said it has “robust” industrial hygiene and hazard-communication programs and closely monitors workplace hazards. The company said it had taken more than 57,000 air samples for radiological hazards in Building 326 since 2012. These samples, combined with urine testing, “have shown no reportable internal exposures” to workers, it said.

In an interview, Bob French, Fluor BWXT’s environment, safety, health and quality director, said NIOSH was invited to Portsmouth in 2013 by both the company and the United Steelworkers union.

Last month’s report brought no surprises because NIOSH kept Fluor BWXT officials apprised during its two-year inquiry. As NIOSH would raise safety issues, the company would correct them, French said.

“There’s nothing we want more than to assure the safety of our workers,” he said. Building 326 is targeted for demolition in June 2017.

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