The toxic morass that was America’s nuclear weapons complex is no secret. Hazardous conditions in places like the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio moved Congress in 2000 to create a compensation program for former workers who developed illnesses that may have been caused by radiation or chemical exposures.
The program, run by the US Department of Labor, assumes that conditions significantly improved at nuclear sites after 1995 and processes claims accordingly. A new report by federal health investigators, however, casts doubt on that assumption.
The report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, dated December 21, 2015, summarizes the results of a NIOSH inspection at Portsmouth begun two years earlier. The Center for Public Integrity, which highlighted historical problems at the site in an article last month, obtained it this week from a former worker.
The most notable finding: air sampling in Building 326 of the now-closed uranium enrichment plant, undergoing decontamination and decommissioning, showed the presence of hydrogen fluoride, a potentially lethal gas, in concentrations up to 30 times the NIOSH “ceiling limit,” described as “a value that should never be exceeded.” Apart from its capacity to kill, hydrogen fluoride, commonly known as HF, can cause chronic lung disease, skin damage and blindness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.