Recycled uranium spread wider than thought - USA Today
WASHINGTON - Thousands more people than expected face health and pollution threats from plutonium and other highly radioactive elements in vast amounts of uranium recycled by the U.S. nuclear weapons program over the past 50 years, USA Today reported yesterday.
Recycled uranium was shipped worldwide from 1952 until 1999, when distribution was halted by revelations of its contamination with plutonium and other radioactive elements.
USA Today, citing an examination of more than 1,000 pages of new reports and documents on recycled uranium, said the reports showed that the recycling program yielded 250,000 tons of tainted uranium, twice the amount estimated two year ago.
It said the material was handled at about 10 times the number of sites revealed previously, reaching more than 100 federal plants, private manufacturers and universities.
USA Today said some of the documents were quietly released by the government this spring, but others it had obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The studies suggest that thousands more workers than expected might have unwittingly faced radiation risks beyond those associated with normal uranium, increasing their odds of developing cancer and other ailments, according to the paper.
That places an unexpected burden on a soon-to-begin federal program to compensate sick nuclear weapons workers.
Contaminants from the tainted uranium also raise the potential for soil and groundwater pollution at some of the newly recognized processing sites. That threatens to complicate cleanup plans.
Most recycled uranium went back into nuclear weapons production or was used as fuel for power reactors. But thousands of tons also were used in everything from academic research to the making of armor for Army battle tanks.
Scientists say the vast majority of the material contained only traces of impurities, too little to pose risks beyond those posed by natural uranium, which is mildly radioactive and raises health hazards if inhaled as dust.
But some plants handled recycled uranium in ways that concentrated its contaminants, significantly boosting its hazards, USA Today reported.
The uraniums contaminants apparently were concentrated at a dozen or more previously unrecognized sites, raising pollution and worker health threats. But its unclear which batches of uranium were most dangerous - or where they went - so not all high-risk sites are identifiable.
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