The End of Uranium Enrichment at Paducah, KY Plant

by Crane-Station

Aerial view of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant from Wikimedia

note: The video contains a chilling and sad photograph at 2:22

The Louisville Courier-Journal and the USEC website have reported that the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, KY has ceased enriching uranium as of the end of May, 2013, taking 1100 jobs with it. USEC employees are already receiving layoffs. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, commonly called ‘USEC,’ began enriching uranium in 1952 for atomic weapons (giving the town the nickname ‘Atomic City’) and is the only U.S.-owned and operated uranium enrichment facility in the United States. USEC leases the plant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In the 1960s, USEC switched from enriching for nuclear weapons use (which requires a higher level of enrichment) to enriching uranium for nuclear power plants.

Robert Van Namen, USEC senior vice president and chief operating officer stated:

While we have pursued possible opportunities for continuing enrichment, DOE has concluded that there were not sufficient benefits to the taxpayers to extend enrichment. I am extremely disappointed to say we must now begin to take steps to cease enrichment.

USEC will use existing inventory to meet customer orders, as it transitions the plant back to the DOE. The Department of Energy is under the control and supervision of the United States Secretary of Energy, a political appointee of the President of the United States. Nuclear Physicist Ernest Moniz is the current and the 13th US Secretary of Energy. He assumed office on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, just four days prior to the announcement.

Secretary of Energy Moniz has come under criticism from environmental groups recently, for his business connections. Notably in this instance, he sat on the strategic advisory council for USEC, from 2002 to 2004.

From 2002 to 2004, Moniz sat on the strategic advisory council of USEC, a public company that provides enriched uranium to nuclear power plants. A company spokesman said Moniz was paid for his role on the nine-member council, but declined to say how much. USEC, which has been seeking a $2 billion loan guarantee from the Energy Department for a centrifuge plant in Ohio, has applauded Moniz’s nomination.

Dr. Moniz had served as the head of the Physics Department at MIT, and was an MIT Physics professor when he was appointed to serve on the USEC Inc. Strategic Advisory Council in 2002. His career also includes service in prior government capacities. While Dr. Monitz is in favor of nuclear power, he is also concerned with climate impact related to excess carbon in the atmosphere, as he explains in his post-Fukushima paper titled Why We Still Need Nuclear Power. The paper explains, in pertinent part, that nuclear power production does not add carbon to the atmosphere. Dr. Moritz does concede dire need for safety upgrades to nuclear power plants.

USEC’s Educational Resource Tab has an overview of the nuclear fuel cycle. Uranium is an element mined from the earth, primarily in Kazakhstan, Africa, Australia and Canada, where it is concentrated into uranium oxide at a mill and shipped to a conversion facility. One conversion facility is operational in the U.S., at Honeywell, in Metropolis, Illinois (on the Ohio River). The material is then ready for enrichment, and is transported to an enrichment facility.

Only the U235 isotope of Uranium is fissionable (recall that a great amount of energy can be obtained from original mass in accordance with the formula E = mc2); U235 is only present in 0.7 percent of mined uranium, so it must be separated from the more abundant U238 (hence the term ‘enriched’). Gaseous diffusion is one way to do this, through a series of membranes, at the enrichment plant. An alternative method is a gas centrifuge, a newer, more energy-efficient method. The end product, ie: the product that is ‘enriched’ enough to use for nuclear power reactors is 5-7 percent U235.

One potential issue with the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is, the technology is being updated to a centirfuge technology, where U235 and U238 are separated by a series of centrifuge cycles.

Note: Please watch the haunting video. After transition back to the DOE, the focus will be on cleanup. In other words, it is a superfund site.

The National Priorities List (NPL) is the list of the most hazardous sites across the U.S. and its territories.

This site is on the NPL and is known as a Final NPL site (see glossary).

The Department of Energy is the responsible federal agency.

Superfund law requires that EPA give communities information about site progress and plans so that they can be actively involved in site cleanup decisions.

23 Responses to The End of Uranium Enrichment at Paducah, KY Plant

  1. parrot says:

    Just wanted to tell you Crane, that I appreciate your posts. Thank you.

  2. Charles Ramsey says:

    One thing that is not common knowledge but is not hidden is there was a 5000 pound and a 7000 pound release of uraniumhexefloride in 1960. Both isotopes break down into radioactive iodine. This is quickly taken up in the thyroid by vulnerable populations. The solution to this would have been to inform the town so they could have taken iodine. This was not done and there is an epidemic of under active thyroids and thyroid cancer. My main problem with this is the government refuses to acknowledge this and compensate the victims. Thyroxine is cheep. Don’t underestimate epidemiologists. It is estimated there were 14000 early deaths in the United States caused by the tsunami that hit Japan. It was also printed in the Paducah Sun that uranium was extracted from human waste at the plant. It is rather obvious to me the plant could continue to run solely to extract the contamination at the plant. I was wounded in the cold war until I get my medal and compensation I don’t support any nuclear power.

  3. bettykath says:

    Closing of this plant would be better news if it also included a plan to stop making nuclear weapons and to phase out all nuclear power plants in favor of solar power.

    I can’t help wondering how much profit this company made and how much money was set aside for clean-up. I suspect that nothing was set aside for clean-up and that the taxpayers will take the hit, along with the residents of the area who have lost their jobs and their homes will be worth a lot less. And what kind of “incentives” from the taxpayer will this same company get for setting up its centrifuges so we can continue to have nuclear weapons and nuclear power?

  4. BillT says:

    this my not be popular but reality is we can build SAFE new reactors that will “burn” what we now call nuclear waste….look up thorium reactors and their history….see we could have built thorium reactors decades but they could NOT be used to make weapons……nuclear is the safest cheapest and in reality cleanest way to produce electricity……but the public has been told for many decades to fear radiation(sunlight is radiation).

    • bettykath says:

      If you consider the cleanup costs and the costs to health, nuclear is the most expensive power generator. We’ve received lots of propaganda so that we don’t think about the cleanup or the health of workers and their families and neighbors. Another industry with similar huge costs of cleanup and health is coal.

      • bettykath says:

        Several countries in Europe are rapidly moving from nuclear to solar energy.

      • BillT says:

        with all due respect i disagree strongly…….how many die in coal mining every year? how many are harmed from the emissions of coal powered plants? what about natural gas which explodes often in neighborhoods? and solar simply isnt feasible in any way yet, have you looked at the environmental damage done in the manufacturing of solar panels?

        how many have been harmed in the USA by nuclear plant accidents over the decades????? NOBODY was harmed by radiation at 3 mile island…….where is all the dangerous debris from fukashima? where is the death cloud they said would form?

      • bettykath says:

        Interesting that you mention Fukusima. Increased radiation from Fukusima has shown up on the Pacific Coast and in the food supply. It will be years before we know the full story.

      • BillT says:

        again the food supply indeed does have radiation it comes from the SUN……there have been NO harmful levels detected and not ONE death even among those that went INSIDE the plant right after the tsunami……..and when you are talking about decades before something shows up blaming that accident, for a death 50 years from now cant be done using science.

  5. fauxmccoy says:

    thank you crane for bringing this to our attention. there is nothing that will convince me that plants such as this are deliberately located amidst the poor. sure it provides employment opportunity which is desperately needed, but at what cost? union carbide already has one of the worst names in the business, this does not shock or surprise me, sadly. what is truly unfortunate is that poor people suffer and although this plant was apparently unionized, nobody cared enough about poor people being sick and dying.

    i can say with confidence that the health and safety program i executed as GM of a health food store was better than what these folks got. i am going to try to find a video of another story similar to this that i was reminded of while viewing/reading what you had posted.

    thank you again.

    • fauxmccoy says:

      ahhh, here it is. camp lejune, n. carolina. i have seen other documentaries which focused more on the number of birth defects — 30 years of mothers miscarrying or giving birth to children that died soon after for no apparent reason. it was heartbreaking to watch, they all felt guilty somehow, as if it was their fault. finding out that the marine corps covered up the levels of contamination in the water for many years did not help much. these mothers knew that they drank that water during their pregnancies, used it to mix forumula and bathed their babies in horribly contaminated water.

    • I think that N. Carolina will be another place to watch, because there is newer enrichment process being tested there. I am going to watch your video now, thank you so much for posting it. I happened to be eating dinner when I first viewed the video in the post above, and it made me sick and heartsick. It looks as if the man, the worker, was literally burned from the inside out, and it killed him plain and simple. Astonishing, I feel so for the wife who kept that diary.

      • fauxmccoy says:

        thanks, crane — i think you will find the story i posted just as sickening, unfortunately. the more one learns about it, the sicker one feels, this is just a starting point.

        because of my many years in the natural food biz, i have also been quite the activist against pesticide manufacturers. i was invited to testify before the california department of agriculture when they were forming their written opinion of the US organic food act because california already had stricter standards in place. the first natural grocery store i worked at, rainbow grocery in san francisco, practically invented the organic verification process and i did a lot of work towards verification at my time there.

        the other interest i have in stories such as these is deeply personal. i grew up in such an isolated, rural part of california that my grade school was an old 2 room building with a former stable converted to a school room. there were 40 kids from kindergarten to 8th grade. we are talking small. i did run off to san francisco as soon as i was able, but have fond memories of the region and have since returned but to a neighboring city to raise my own children.

        i was diagnosed with hodgkins lymphoma in 1995 at the age of 30. one of the known contributors of hodgkins is environmental factors. i was the first person from my little school to be diagnosed, since then 3 others have. that, statistically, is of interest to me. it would be a pocket of incidence. the other thing we had in common, other than the school we attended was growing up in the shadow of a power substation which we all played around. my curiosity is piqued, to say the least. i would be most interested in knowing just what went on at that substation in the 70s, but of course answers are difficult to obtain.

        • No way is that not statistically significant. What are the chances? Now you have me curious…you don’t have to answer, of course, but if you care to, what was the name? Nuclear or electric?

          My very elderly parents (88 and 90) are furious about Hanford, for example, today even. Apparently the Columbia River is affected, and people in the Pacific Northwest are in an outrage, after shelling out billions and nothing being done.

          I love California, lived in the LA area for 13 years (college and after, on and off), and Northern California and the SF area are so beautiful; I hate that you got that diagnosis, but I love the good work you have done, thank you for sharing about it.

          • fauxmccoy says:

            oh, thanks crane for your response and compassion. yeah, hodgkins sucked, but i got through it, met the love of my life while on chemo, and went on to have two beautiful daughters because i went to stanford to participate in a trial (now the protocol) for treatment which preserved my fertility. that was my biggest worry as hodgkins has been ‘curable’ if caught early enough, (i was a stage 2B) since the 70s, but fertility had always been the issue until recently.

            the substation was PG&E, electric and in Glenn County, CA, a sparsely populated ag community about 90 miles north of sacramento. it’s beautiful country up here — i watch the sun rise over the sierra nevadas and set over the coastal range while the might sacramento bends and twists throughout this gorgeous valley. i can get to a world class city, the beach or the mountains with just a bit of driving. i absolutely love it here.

          • Well, what a miracle. I do know from the years I worked for a medical device company that there is certainly world class medicine in that area. Very happy to hear that you had an excellent outcome.

            That whole area is absolutely gorgeous.

            Do they grow almonds in that area, or is that more Modesto?

      • fauxmccoy says:

        oh we are almond, orange and olive central here. it is a true mediterranean climate which is shared by only 3% of this great planet’s landmass.

        i cannot overstate my love for this area — i minored in california studies and read steinbeck like a fiend. i grew up on a family run beef ranch and was shocked when i became an adult at what was available in stores. you simply cannot even buy the quality of range-fed beef that i grew up on, completely unaware of how spoiled i was.

        • Okay, yeah, I thought so. I really enjoy just hearing you talk about that beautiful area, truly jaw-dropping, and it has everything, because you are also just a stone’s throw from some of the best schools (and funnest city) in the world. Paradise, if you ask me.

  6. LeaNder says:

    After decades of protest they finally are looking for alternative “final” disposal sites. The final is a joke, if you look how long the containers will hold. We now have a commission a panel looking for alternative final disposal sites.

    Up to 1976 the handling of the disposal or had be done or financed by the state or the public while the gain of course with the exception of taxes went to the few energy giants.

    We have a lot of similar cases over here, cover ups concerning danger and much higher cancer rates even in the environment of some plants.

    • Yes, I understand. My father’s first cousin was an early worker at Hanford, in Washington State, which is also a superfund site, and he died of three different simultaneous and unrelated types of cancer. My mother says, “Draw your own conclusions,” and it’s maddening- the passing public isn’t stupid. Everybody knows there are connections, and the stuff is extremely dangerous.

  7. Two sides to a story says:

    One issue with nuclear power is that it takes plenty of petroleum to deal with plant infrastructure and dispersal of waste. In a peak oil world, it’s not just falling bridges we have to worry about. What will happen to superfund sites and decaying nuclear facilities?

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