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DU at Home | The Nation

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DU at Home

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Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest
radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the
past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all
the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three
government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee;
Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some
50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in
huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the
cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After
years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to
convert these wastes to a safer form.

DU is less
radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be
more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the
case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have
been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s,
some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger
amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from
nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three
gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE
nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some
apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans
battlefields.

According to a DOE study released this past
January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled
uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily
exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike
large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy
concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They
were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure
exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this
material because the union might have demanded hazard
pay.

Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official
review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that
workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from
cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other
substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung
and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six
facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede
officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by
workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major
nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last
year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion
plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive
compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which
the burden of proof is shifted to the government.

Workers
are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The
National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at
DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe
levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls.
Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365
billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium
and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national
sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as
our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the
environment, public safety and the US Treasury.

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