Plant recovered gold, DOE confirms
By Bill Bartleman
Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers recovered thousands of ounces of gold from components of disassembled nuclear weapons that were shipped to Paducah from Texas in the early 1950s until 1986, a Department of Energy official said.
Allegations that nuclear warheads were shipped into the plant in the dark of night and disassembled to recover the gold are not true, DOE spokesman Steve Wyatt said Monday.
The allegations were contained in a weekend Washington Post story based on a workers' lawsuit against the former operators of the plant.
Wyatt also said the gold that was recovered was not contaminated with radioactive material, also an allegation in the suit and reported by the Post.
"There were classified, non-radioactive weapons parts that were shipped from the Pantex facility (in Amarillo, Texas) to Paducah in wooden crates," Wyatt said. "There was no nuclear material involved."
DOE's Pantex facility was the final assembly point for nuclear weapons and the place where nuclear weapons removed from the nation's defense stockpile were disassembled, Wyatt said.
Gold was used in electronic components and in coating parts of the weapons because gold is corrosion-proof and durable. Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons are no longer produced in the United States.
Wyatt said the gold recycling process ended in Paducah in 1986. He said he didn't know if DOE was still recovering gold from components, or if so, where.
The process at the Paducah plant was classified and secretive because it involved nuclear weapons components that were part of the nation's defense strategy.
Sources said the work at the Paducah plant involved putting component parts in an acid-like liquid that eliminated all but the gold. The gold was melted and cast into 40-ounce bars.
News of gold recycling at the plant became public in 1980 when one of the bars was stolen by an employee and sold to a Paducah jewelry store. It later was sold to a gold dealer in New York. Four people were convicted of the theft and sale of the gold bar, then valued at $20,000.
At the time, DOE officials said they could not give details about where the gold came from, except to say it was recovered from dismantled nuclear equipment.
The late Clay Zerby, plant manager when the gold disappeared, said then that about 1,100 ounces of gold was recovered annually and that it was sold on the open market twice a year. Zerby reported that the gold was not contaminated and was not a danger to the public.
One allegation in the suit and the Post article is that the gold was contaminated and sold to the public or placed in the nation's gold reserve at Fort Knox.
There also were allegations that some of the contaminated gold may have been used to produce jewelry.
Gold recycling was one of two non-enrichment operations assigned to the Paducah plant, Wyatt said. The other operation was a large machine shop that built equipment for other government agencies.
"The main job of the machine shop was to do repair work on equipment used in the gaseous diffusion plant," Wyatt said. "Because of the size of the equipment out there, it did some work that was not available from private vendors outside the plant."
Wyatt said that one of the jobs it did was to build a wind tunnel for NASA.
He didn't know details of the work or what else might have been done.