In October 1950, the United States Atomic Energy Commission selected a former World War II munitions plant near Paducah, Kentucky, known as Kentucky Ordnance Works, as the site for the second of three planned uranium enrichment plants in the United States. The other two enrichment plants were located near Portsmouth, Ohio and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP) was first used to enrich uranium for military reactors and the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Later the PGDP was used to supply enriched uranium for commercial power plants. The plant is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and, from 1993 until October 2014, the PGDP was leased to the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC). Today, DOE oversees environmental cleanup activities at the site, including environmental management, waste management, depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion, and decontamination and decommissioning.
Before World War II, the area now occupied by the PGDP site was used for agricultural purposes. Numerous small farms produced various grain crops, provided pasture for livestock, and included large fruit orchards. During World War II, a 16,126-acre tract was assembled for construction of the Kentucky Ordnance Works, a trinitrotoluene (TNT) production facility, which subsequently was operated by the Atlas Powder Company until the end of the war. Ultimately the land was turned over to the General Services Administration.
In 1950, in response to Cold War challenges the U.S. Government began efforts to expand fissionable material production. Due to national security concerns, President Harry S. Truman directed the Atomic Energy Commission to expand further production of atomic weapons, with a provision for a new gaseous diffusion plant.
Eight government-owned sites initially were selected as candidate areas. On October 18, 1950, AEC approved the Paducah Site for uranium enrichment (UE) operations and formally requested the Department of the Army to transfer the site from the General Services Administration to AEC. In October 1951, construction of the plant began. Although construction was not complete until 1954, production of enriched uranium began in 1952.
Uranium enrichment operations ran continuously for more than 60 years at the PGDP. The plant was managed by the Department of Energy and its predecessors until it was leased to private industry, which continued uranium enrichment operations until May 2013. DOE selected a Deactivation Contractor in July 2014 and accepted the leased facilities on October 21, 2014. Deactivation activities are underway to prepare the PGDP for decontamination and decommissioning.
TIMELINE OF OPERATIONS AT THE PADUCAH SITE (click to view larger)
Members of the Paducah Citizens Advisory Board helped create the book The Story of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Megawatts to Megatons to Megawatts.
“We believe the stories of plant workers are important to preserve for future generations.”
– Judy Clayton, CAB member and lead developer of the book
A virtual museum designed to capture and catalog the history of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is available online. You can view the virtual museum at http://pgdpvirtualmuseum.org/index.html.
Published in 2021, the site was developed as a collaboration between DOE and the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research’s Kentucky Research Consortium for Energy and Environment.