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Science & Technology

Costly cleanup

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Jun 15, 1999 | From the print edition
Factory workers engaged in cleaning bomb factories in the US may be exposed to radiation


the us
department for energy ( doe ), which has been raising money for its costly environmental cleanup of old bomb factories by leasing them to commercial tenants, may be exposing ordinary factory workers to excessive radiation, says a us -based environmental group, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. At the site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the department once processed uranium for nuclear weapons, manufacturers of cardboard boxes and other products pay reduced rent or barter for space by cleaning up the buildings.

The department argues that the programme accelerates the cleanup of a 50-year legacy of bomb-making. Robert De Grasse, director of the office of worker and community transition at the department, said doe was trying to achieve the safety levels set by the us Environmental Protection Agency ( epa ) for reuse of Superfund sites, a category that includes Oak Ridge. "We believe in trying to protect workers that come on to our sites," De Grasse said.

But the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research contends that the department is inadequately monitoring the workers' exposure to radiation. "Are we going to go down the road of creating a new generation of exposed workers, without knowing whether they are members of the general public or radiation workers?" said Arjun Makhijani, president of the institute.

Officials of the epa say they are also concerned about worker safety at the site, now called the East Tennessee Technology Park. "We do not know if workers are at risk or not," said John B Blevins, an Oak Ridge project manager for the agency. "There is not enough information that doe has provided to epa to make a determination either way. In that situation, we think it is not prudent to continue to lease until we can be sure that they are protected," said Blevins. Cleanup work could be creating airborne contamination, he said, and some radiological and chemical hazards left from nuclear operations may not have been cleaned up.

The institute's report said that in one building, cleanup workers in protective clothing were scraping concrete while employees of tenants worked nearby in ordinary work clothes. Energy department officials say they monitor air conditions when workers chip at concrete. About 23 companies now employ about 200 workers at the site. The Energy department has set an exposure limit for the workers equal to exposure for workers in the bomb factory, which is about 13 times the amount of radiation that the average American receives from all sources, natural and human-made.

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