Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant

Coordinates: 37°06′50″N 88°48′37″W / 37.11389°N 88.81028°W / 37.11389; -88.81028

Aerial view of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is a facility located in McCracken County, Kentucky, near Paducah, Kentucky that produced enriched uranium 1952–2013. The plant is now owned by United States Enrichment Corporation, a subsidiary of USEC Incorporated, a publicly traded corporation (NYSE: USU). It was the only operating uranium enrichment facility in the United States in the period 2001–2010. The Paducah plant produced low-enriched uranium, originally as feedstock for military reactors and weapons refining and later for nuclear power fuel.

The gaseous diffusion plant covers 750 acres (300 ha) of a 3,425 acres (1,386 ha) site. The four process buildings cover 74 acres (30 ha), and consume a peak electrical demand of 3,040 megawatts.[1]

The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant ceased operations in 2013 and was handed back to the Department of Energy for decontamination and decommissioning.[2][3]


The former Kentucky Ordnance Works site was chosen from a candidate list of eight sites in 1950. The construction contractor was F.H. McGraw of Hartford, Connecticut and the operating company was Union Carbide. The plant was opened in 1952 as a government-owned, contractor-operated facility producing enriched uranium to fuel military reactors and for use in nuclear weapons. The mode of enrichment was the gaseous diffusion of uranium hexaflouride to separate the lighter fissile isotope U-235 from the heavier non-fissile isotope U-238. The Paducah plant originally produced low-enriched uranium which was further refined at Portsmouth and the K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. From the 1960s the Portsmouth and Paducah plants were dedicated to uranium enrichment for nuclear power plants. In 1984, the operating contract was assumed by Martin Marietta Energy Systems. Lockheed Martin has operated the plant since the merger of Martin Marietta with Lockheed in 1995. From 2001, all USEC production has been consolidated at Paducah.[4][5]

The Paducah plant had a capacity of 11.3 million separative work units per year (SWU/year) in 1984. 1812 stages were located in five buildings: C-310 with 60 stages, C-331 with 400 stages, C-333 with 480 stages, C-335 with 400 stages and C-337 with 472 stages.[6]

Before its downsizing and final cessation of uranium enrichment on May 31, 2013, the Paducah facility consumed about 3,000 megawatts of electricity at peak operation.[7] Power for the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant came from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). In 2012 the majority of the TVA grid was generated by coal fired plants, with three nuclear power plants counting for about 30 percent of TVA's energy.[8]

Geoffrey Sea of "Neighbors for an Ohio Valley Alternative" wrote a series of articles on USEC for the Ecowatch news site.[9][10] Although in 1996 the National Academy of Sciences estimated that total costs of gaseous diffusion cleanup ranged from $8 billion to $46 billion,[11] it was reported that USEC plant's decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) fund was diverted and the surcharge was waived.[12] The reporter further asserted that USEC had threatened the Department of Energy with "a sudden shutoff of power at Paducah at the end of May (2013)" despite its charter "to return the facility to DOE 'in safe condition.'"[13]

In May 2013, Paducah mayor Gayle Kaler said "Our priority as a community is first and foremost demanding cleanup dollars. We cannot accept a dirty shut down."[14] It should be noted that the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is located outside the city of Paducah. When USEC ceased enrichment operations at its Portsmouth gaseous diffusion plant in Piketon, Ohio in May 2001, it reportedly did not purge the diffusion cells although it had nine years time and had received the funding.[15] In late May 2013 the reporter predicted a dirty power down at Paducah.[16] As of late June 2013, it was reported that USEC had shut down about 60 percent of the cascade, with the remainder to be shut down over the summer.[17]

On November 17, 2013 a tornado damaged the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant.[18] A spokesman for the plant operator, USEC Inc., reported that damage was limited to the exterior of one of the four enrichment production buildings, adjacent cooling towers and an electrical switch yard. The spokesman stated that there was no release of hazardous or radioactive materials.[19] In the previous year, on March 2, 2012 the "Camp Creek tornado" reportedly stopped a few miles short of the Piketon, Ohio plant.[9]

Geoffrey Sea wrote in September 2013, USEC's demise will be either by creditors (by October 2014 loan repayment deadline), "regulators who find their spines", or by "repeal of the USEC Privatization Act by Congress."[10]

Employment and economic impact

USEC employed around 1100 to operate the plant. The Department of Energy employs around 600 through contractors to maintain the grounds, portions of the infrastructure, and to remediate environmental contamination at the site. The facility has had a positive economic impact on the local economy and continues to be an economic driver for the community. Elected officials are trying to ensure that the plant continues to operate despite the reality that other methods of enriching uranium, such as centrifuging, are more efficient.


Plant operations have contaminated the site over time. The primary contamination of concern is trichloroethylene (TCE), which was a commonly used degreaser at the site. TCE leaked and contaminated groundwater on and off the site. The groundwater is also contaminated with trace amounts of technetium-99, a radioactive fission product; Other contaminants include polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs). Through normal operations, portions of the plant are contaminated with uranium.

In 1988, TCE and trace amounts of technetium-99 was found in the drinking water wells of residences located near the plant site in McCracken County, Kentucky. To protect human health, the Department of Energy provided city water at no cost to the affected residents, and continues to do so.

In 1999, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson ordered a 24-hour stand down to assess the level of contamination.[20] This followed reports of "radioactive black ooze seeping from the ground a quarter mile" away, three buried drums found behind a residents yard,[21] and thick uranium dust at the plant.

On April 30, 2013 a contamination event occurred following a pressure spike during unloading of UF6 cylinder causes in the C-337A Feed Facility at the Paducah enrichment plant.[22][23]


In the 1980s, the family of former employee Joe Harding brought a lawsuit relating to medical conditions that they believed he incurred from having worked at the Paducah plant. His widow Clara Harding eventually settled the suit for $12,000.[24]

In 1998 a lawsuit was brought by employees of the plant against Lockheed Martin, one of the operators of the Paducah plant, relating to falsifying of contamination reports.[25] The Department of Energy later joined this suit.

In 1999 a class action lawsuit was brought against the Paducah plant for former and current employees who believed that they had suffered significant medical expenses because of exposure to ionizing radiation at the plant. The suit was dismissed in 2003 because a judge ruled that the plant was covered by the Price-Anderson Act.[26]

Cleanup status

The Department of Energy is using electrical resistance heating, ET-DSP (trademarked) to vaporize the TCE from the groundwater. This cleanup action began in mid-2008. Groundwater and soil remediation efforts are still being performed as of mid-2014. Much of the contamination of the actual plant will not be cleaned up until the plant ceases operations.

See also


  1. "Key Facts: Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant". USEC, Inc. Retrieved 14 November 2010.
  2. Wald, Matthew L. (2013-05-24). "USEC to Shut Uranium-Enrichment Plant in Kentucky". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  3. "Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant Transition | Department of Energy". Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  4. "Overview: Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant". USEC, Inc. Retrieved 14 November 2010.
  5. "History: Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant". USEC, Inc. Retrieved 14 November 2010.
  6. Cochran, Thomas B.; Arkin, William M.; Norris, Robert S.; Hoening, Milton M. (1987). Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. III: U.S. Nuclear Warhead Facility Profiles. Natural Resources Defense Council. pp. 127–128. ISBN 0-88730-146-0.
  7. Sea, Geoffrey (May 31, 2013). "Uranium Enrichment Ends at Paducah (Part 3)". ecowatch. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  8. "Nuclear Energy". TVA. November 2012. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  9. 1 2 Sea, Geoffrey (March 6, 2012). "Tornado Nearly Strikes USEC Centrifuge Facility". ecowatch. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  10. 1 2 Sea, Geoffrey (September 19, 2013). "USEC's Tsunami: Uranium Company Washes Out". ecowatch. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  11. Committee on Decontamination and Decommissioning of Uranium Enrichment Facilities, National Research Council (1996). "Affordable Cleanup? Opportunities for Cost Reduction in the Decontamination and Decommissioning of the Nation's Uranium Enrichment Facilities". The National Academies Press. p. 79. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  12. Sea, Geoffrey (March 23, 2012). "Paducah Closure Throws Nuclear Policy into Chaos". ecowatch. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  13. Sea, Geoffrey (July 12, 2013). "Uranium Titan Tumbles". ecowatch. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  14. Sea, Geoffrey (May 28, 2013). "Slow Cooker at Paducah Comes to a Boil (Part 2)". ecowatch. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  15. Sea, Geoffrey (June 4, 2013). "Stiffed USEC Sues Feds in Nuclear Slugfest (Part 4)". ecowatch. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  16. Sea, Geoffrey (May 22, 2013). "Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah (Part 1)". ecowatch. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  17. Sea, Geoffrey (June 26, 2013). "Kentucky's Nuclear Future Melts Down to Lawsuits (Part 5)". ecowatch. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  18. Bruggers, James (November 17, 2013). "Tornado damage reported at Paducah nuclear fuel factory". Watchdog Earth. Courier-Journal. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
  19. Bruggers, James (November 18, 2013). "Damage assessment continues at storm-damaged Paducah nuclear fuel plant". Watchdog Earth. Courier-Journal. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
  20. Warrick, Joby (September 9, 1999). "'Stand Down' Ordered for KY. Nuclear Facility". Washington Post.
  21. Warrick, Joby (Aug 29, 1999). "Radioactive Ooze Found in Paducah". Washington Post. Washington Post.
  22. "USEC Event Report ER 13-01, June 28, 2013". NRC document archive. June 28, 2013. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  23. "Uranium Enrichment -Current Issues (USEC Paducah and Portsmouth plants, USA)". August 10, 2013. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  24. Warrick, Joby (August 11, 1999). "A deathly Postscript Comes Back to Life". Washington Post. Washington Post.
  25. Warrick, Joby (August 8, 1999). "In Harm's Way, But in the Dark". Washington Post. Washington Post.
  26. "Paducah nuke plant lawsuit dismissed". Associated Press. July 18, 2003. Retrieved June 11, 2004.


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