Oak Ridge National Lab cited for beryllium exposure in Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)–The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been cited for allowing unprotected employees to move old machine shop equipment contaminated with potentially fatal beryllium dust from a building at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant complex.
“Individuals were allowed to enter and work in Building 9201-2 without protective equipment despite beryllium surface contamination” at levels up to 10 times higher than considered safe, the Department of Energy’s inspector general said in a report released Friday.
Despite the government’s major effort in recent years to track, treat and compensate sick nuclear weapons plant workers, including those exposed to beryllium, these employees “were not fully identified, formally notified (or) offered the option of a medical evaluation,” Inspector General Gregory Friedman wrote.
The report didn’t say how many employees were exposed or when they were exposed.
But the auditors wrote, “Management concurred with our recommendations and began implementing corrective actions.”
Officials with the lab’s managing contractor, the University of Tennessee-Battelle Memorial Institute, and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge office didn’t immediately return calls for comment Friday.
Beryllium is a light but strong metal that has applications in many industries, including in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. Exposure can lead to chronic respiratory problems. Beryllium also is considered a probable human carcinogen.
The government has long recognized the consequences of beryllium exposure, though studies are continuing at Oak Ridge into why some people are more sensitive than others. The government has paid out about $1.5 billion to compensate sick nuclear weapons plant workers, many with chronic beryllium disease.
About 140 past and present Y-12 workers reportedly have been identified with beryllium sensitivity, an early stage of illness.
The equipment being moved was in a building within the giant Y-12 complex that has been managed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory since the 1950s. The equipment included lathes, milling machines, forklifts, hand tools and metal cabinets.
Beryllium contamination was detected in the building during an inventory in December 2001. However, the auditors, acting on a tip, found no warnings on the building during their investigation this April.
Employees, some with respirators and some without, began moving contaminated equipment from the building in late 2004. The equipment was taken to several uncontaminated locations, including two buildings on the lab’s campus, the lab’s new Spallation Neutron Source project and the East Tennessee Technology Park site of Theragenics Corp. (TGX), which makes radioactive implants to treat cancer patients.
The auditors said DOE managers reported only one piece of equipment wasn’t labeled before it was moved. But the auditors said an inspection of one of the buildings where the equipment was taken found none of the equipment labeled.
Some equipment had to be moved back to the original storage building at Y-12. Auditors said DOE wasted $27,000 moving the equipment and then sending it back.

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