Paducah Kentucky Map

Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Paducah

There’s more than just moonshine brewing in the hills of Kentucky. Since 1952, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has been cranking out enriched uranium for use in reactors and bombs. It’s also been a de facto nuclear landfill over the years, and arguably this is one of the most “,nuclear polluted” areas in the United States.

The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP) was originally created to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. In the mid-1960s, it began to produce enriched uranium for nuclear power plants and recycling used nuclear reactor fuel rods. Today PGDP employs about 1,400 people and focuses solely on enriched uranium for use in reactors instead of weapons. One of its biggest sources of uranium for processing now comes from former Soviet nuclear warheads.

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When PGDP was first opened, local residents welcomed it as a source of well-paying, stable jobs; the historically poor Paducah area had a surge of welcome prosperity as a result of PGDP. The unprocessed uranium arrived in the form of a dusty powder before it was processed into reactor fuel or bomb material. The working conditions were hot and dusty, but workers were told the enriched uranium processed at PGDP was relatively benign for radioactive material. To drive that point home, some supervisors sprinkled green “uranium dust” on sandwiches and ate them. Workers were also told that any ingested uranium dust would quickly be eliminated from the body through the urine.

But something started happening in the 1970s workers at the plant began developing various cancers and dying at rates far above the national average. And it wasn’t until a few years later that workers learned that the dust they worked with and inhaled contained far more dangerous radioactive material: plutonium.

A 1999 investigation by the Washington Post revealed that workers exposed to the dust with plutonium were typically “protected” only by cotton gloves and overalls; respiratory protection was optional and usually not used. There were no showers or changing facilities, so workers brought the plutonium-contaminated dust home with them. (According to the Post, workers would often find the dust on their bed-sheets and furniture.) Unaware of the risks, workers would shovel or wash any spilled powder into the nearest drain or ditch. Other radioactive debris was simply dumped in the woods around the PGDP.

How bad was the plutonium contamination at PGDP? The exact levels, and the extent of the affected areas, have been the subject of numerous lawsuits. It is known that levels as high as 500 picocuries of plutonium were found in certain areas of the plant grounds.

And the Department of Energy has determined that the maximum safe exposure to plutonium without protective clothing, including breathing protection, is just 5 picocuries.

Some of the plutonium dust got into groundwater and several areas, including campgrounds and streams, adjacent to PGDP are still considered unsafe. In the wake of this revelation, massive cleanup efforts were begun and most areas at or near PGDP are now within safety limits. But that is of little consolation to those who lost family members to cancers during the 1970s and 1980s.

What’s There: PGDP consists of over 160 separate buildings, including four “process buildings” that are over 1,000 feet long, 900 feet wide, and 90 feet high; it’s inside these buildings that uranium enrichment operations are performed. Over 400 miles of piping is contained inside the four main process buildings. The PGDP buildings occupy 750 acres and the entire site (including contaminated areas) totals over 3,400 acres.

Getting a Look Inside: PGDP offers no tours of the site itself, but you can visit their Environmental Information Center at 115 Memorial Drive in Paducah; take exit 7 from Interstate 24.

Unusual Fact: Beginning in the early 1980s, workers at PGDP began reporting a blue glow or “fire” from a burial pit used for radioactive discarded reactor and weapons parts. The glow was seen most often after heavy rains, and the pit was covered by earth. In its October 25, 2000 issue, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that it had obtained a memo written by Ray Carroll, a health physicist employed at Paducah. In his memo, Carroll said the blue glow could be caused by a spontaneous, low-level nuclear fission reaction. “If the cause is a fission source,” Carroll added, “personnel entering the area could potentially receive a lethal dose of radiation.” Don Seaborg, the DOE manager at Paducah, discounted the possibility of a fission event being the cause of the blue glow and instead said spontaneously igniting metals in the pit, such as uranium or aluminum, were a more likely cause.

Just spontaneously igniting uranium well, that’s a relief!

Getting There: PGDP is located approximately ten miles west of Paducah. Take Exit 3 from Interstate 24 onto Highway 358 and continue approximately eight miles to the intersection with Highway 996.

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