PADUCAH GASEOUS DIFFUSION PLANT
A CHALLENGE IN PROGRESS
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP), located in far Western Kentucky, was the last operating government-owned uranium enrichment facility in the country. Plant enrichment operations began in the early 1950s as the initial uranium enrichment step for Cold-War weapons development and a growing nuclear power industry.
The now-antiquated gaseous diffusion process was used to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power at the PGDP and required extensive water, power, and cooling infrastructure. Site process operations utilized up to 32 million gallons of water per day and reportedly consumed as much electricity as the cities of St. Louis or New York City. The byproduct of the enrichment process, depleted uranium feedstock, is stored at the PGDP for re-enrichment, recycling or disposal and comprises the largest stockpile of mined uranium in the world.
PGDP operations, maintenance, and process upgrades generated waste materials that were disposed of in site landfills and burial grounds, as well as waste fluids that were released to site waste and water systems, treatment lagoons and surface waterways. Leaching of disposed materials contaminated site soil and groundwater resulting in the largest documented trichloroethene (TCE) and technetium-99 groundwater plumes in the DOE complex among the largest TCE plume systems in the world.
The number of source areas contributing to soil, surface water and groundwater contamination – along with the depth, contaminants and site groundwater geochemistry of the plumes – pose world-class technical and regulatory challenges for compliance, oversight and cleanup.
During the 6 decades of enrichment operations, the PGDP contributed billions of dollars to the local economy through employment and local business. During the 1950s, 29,000 construction workers and tradesmen were employed in the construction of the PGDP, and two nearby power plants required to supply electricity for PGDP operations. During enrichment operations, PGDP employed an average of 1,700 skilled workers and scientists to operate the enrichment process and maintain plant infrastructure.
When industrial enrichment operations ceased in May 2014, the PGDP continued to employ more than 1,400 skilled workers and scientists to address the complex tasks of de-activating plant facilities, implementing plant decontamination and decommissioning, and continuing environmental restoration activities.