Steven L. Wyatt, (865) 576-0885

December 21, 2000



Paducah, Kentucky -- The Department of Energy (DOE) today issued two reports covering Cold War era work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The first covers "Work For Others" activities, including weapons support and disposition-related activities conducted for other federal agencies at the facility from the 1950s until 1986. The second report provides information on the recovery and disposition of various metals at the Paducah site from 1952 to 1986.

The report on "Work for Others" activities at Paducah was initiated last year by the Department of Energy based on the department's safety and health investigation, which included a preliminary assessment of classified information related to nuclear weapons activities, and traces of elements not normally associated with uranium enrichment activities. These elements included beryllium, tritium, and cobalt-60. The purpose of this review was to identify potential worker hazards resulting from the processing of these materials. The activities involved primarily a smelter facility and a machine shop at Paducah.

"Work for Others" activities included recovery of precious metals from damaged and retired nuclear weapons, fabrication of lunar lander parts for NASA, fabrication of research reactor components; and assembly of electronics and parts for missile systems. Major activities also included the recovery and recycling of metal contained in weapons casing and electronics and the destruction of classified parts for security purposes.

From this review, DOE has determined that explosives and fissile materials, such as enriched uranium and plutonium, were removed primarily at the Pantex facility in Texas prior to shipment to Paducah. Documentation, however, does confirm that neutron generators containing radioactive tritium were shipped and buried at Paducah in the 1960s. Environmental sampling at Paducah conducted since the late 1980s under the site's cleanup program also indicates the presence of low-levels of tritium that may have resulted from the placement of these components in classified burial grounds at the site.

In the early days of these operations, worker health and safety programs at Paducah typically met standards applicable at that time but that are not considered adequate by today's standards. Over time, however, potential hazards were better understood and safety practices were improved. For example, early smelting operations did not include adequate respiratory protection from airborne vapors or particulates. The report identified five materials associated with these past activities that have the potential for adverse health effects to workers or environmental impacts. These included beryllium, cobalt, lead, tantalum, and tritium.

In a separate report, DOE also investigated past metals recovery programs performed at the site from 1952 to 1986. The review included an extensive study of historical documents and interviews with current and retired employees. During this period, large quantities of steel, nickel, aluminum, copper, monel, cobalt, gold and silver were recovered at Paducah.

Based on available records, DOE estimates that between 2,800 and 5,300 pounds of gold from retired nuclear weapon assemblies and scrap parts was recovered and shipped from the Paducah Plant from 1964 to 1985. The operations used to reclaim gold were kept separate from other materials and contaminated processes onsite, but were conducted in contaminated areas of two buildings. For much of this period, recovered gold was shipped to the U.S. Department of Treasury for refinement and reuse. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some gold was sold to commercial reprocessors.

While the potential for contamination of gold with uranium and technetium-99 did exist during recovery until 1985, a chemical analysis of gold samples from the site indicates that any potential exposure to the public would have been very small and less than a tenth of the annual natural background radiation levels. These estimates are based on actual measurements of contamination in gold samples and a conservative assumption that the recycled gold sold to commercial reprocessors entered directly into commerce without further refining or mixing with other non-Paducah sources of gold.

Also, 7,650 pounds of silver were reclaimed from the reprocessing of classified X-ray film from 1966 to 1974. Although, like gold, there was a potential for contamination of the processed silver, analysis of metal samples indicated that the potential for contamination was at low levels that would not have a public health consequence.

Processing of contaminated and uncontaminated scrap nickel also was a major function of the Paducah site in the 1970s and 1980s. Approximately 19.6 million pounds of slightly radioactive barrier - the material used to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238 - were removed from the gaseous diffusion cascades at the Paducah, Portsmouth, and Oak Ridge facilities during major upgrades of these facilities completed during this period. The material was smelted and remains in storage at Paducah. None of the contaminated nickel was sold to private industry.

Approximately 17 million pounds of clean nickel that was not used in the gaseous diffusion cascades was also smelted and made into ingots at Paducah. The nickel was sold to private industry from 1976 to 1983.

From 1967 to 1986, the Paducah site also recovered approximately 4.5 million pounds of aluminum. The aluminum, formed into ingots, was either sold into commerce or stored on site. The materials sold in commerce were considered at that time to be non-contaminated, however, randomly selected samples have been analyzed and found to contain low levels of uranium, plutonium, and thorium. Aluminum considered to be contaminated at low levels that would not present a public health risk by today's standards was stored onsite, where it remains today.

The two investigations were performed by the Energy Department's Oak Ridge Operations Office and complement the department's independent oversight investigations at the three gaseous diffusion plants. While the independent oversight investigation reports provided general information on the Paducah "Work for Others" and metals recovery programs, the new reports each expand the department's and public's knowledge of several facets of historic operations at the Paducah Plant.

Copies of the reports are available on the internet at the following website: