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.