Centrus Part 2: The Paducah, Kentucky enrichment site history

How do you even begin to understand the clean up of a site that includes 3,556 acres? How do you begin to grasp how to clean up around 1600 tons of atomic weapons parts that are throughout an entire facility that was supposed to be for enriching uranium for nuclear power plants? How do you begin to understand the effects of hundreds, possibly more dying of cancer because of false promises? This is what a person has to understand when thinking about the Paducah enrichment facility that is getting cleaned up. This clean up is slated to go on for over twenty more years.

All that being said, just talking about this site can take many articles and that is just covering a synopsis of the facts. People in Paducah needed jobs. The government, through the use of government contractors, gave them that. The safety of these sites are such that billions of dollars and hundreds (if not more) lives were put at risk. The issue with the Paducah contamination is not the fault of Centrus, then USEC, but their decision to lean heavily on a site that was already in the cleanup process is the fault of those running the company.

History of the Paducah site

The site in Paducah, Ky was one of three enrichment plants started in the United States during the 1950s. The site, along with the other two were run by private contractors. The company that ran Paducah was Union Carbide. From 1953 to 1976, the plant had 103,000 metric tons brought in to be enriched. The site was originally enriching the uranium for military reactors and nuclear weapons. The plant itself produced low enriched uranium and that was moved to another plant to be prepared for further enrichment.

In the 1960s, the plant use was changed to only help nuclear power plants. The contract for the plant changed over to Martin Marietta in 1984 until USEC took over in the 1990s. The site ceased operations in 2013. When it shut down, the site was the main enrichment site for USEC. The cleanups started in the late 1980s.

In the book Uranium by Tom Zoellner, he describes a visit to the plant while it was controlled by USEC. He said that at that time the electrical needs for the plant exceeded the output in several underdeveloped nations. He states that the waste was burned out of the smokestacks at night. The soil was contaminated up to a mile away. There was 1600 tons of atomic weapons parts, some contaminated, all throughout the site.

A history of lawsuits

Because of the conditions of the plant, many workers got sick. There started to be a history of lawsuits against the plant and the companies running it. Part of the problem was that the people inside the plant were breathing in plutonium-laced dust. Lawsuits and watchdogs found that the government and the contractors failed to warn the workers.

In the next article, we will discuss these lawsuits in more detail.


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