Neptunium recovery began in '58
By Bill Bartleman
September 26, 1999
Neptunium was recovered from uranium hexafluoride waste and fluorination ash in an apparently highly secretive operation from November 1958 until at least 1960 at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
A July 1960 government document obtained by The Paducah Sun appears to be a status report about the recovery of "X element."
It doesn't define "X element," but two sources familiar with the history of the plant and the document said it is in reference to neptunium. One said the significance of the document is that it shows that neptunium, which if taken into the body can cause a much greater health problem than uranium or plutonium, was concentrated in large quantities, rather than as a miniscule amount in thousands of tons of uranium waste material.
The Sun also has obtained a May 1, 1963, document in which a plant official concluded that there would be no potential environmental problems if 140 drums contaminated with radioactive materials were buried on the plant site.
The drums contained waste product from an unspecified recovery operation and identified the radioactive material only as "trace." Two plant sources said "trace" was the code name used in some 1950s and 1960s documents to refer to transuranics, which can be any element that is radioactive.
The document also confirms that contaminated chemicals were dumped into Little Bayou Creek, which runs through the plant and onto private property. The creek is believed to be the source of the contamination of private wells near the plant.
Here's a look at what is contained in the documents:
The "X element" document says that prior to the start of the recovery operation, more than 6,000 grams of neptunium were dispersed through the uranium processing system.
The report did not say whether the 6,000 grams is still in uranium waste stored at the plant in steel cylinders, whether it was disposed of in some other way or whether it was released into the environment.
A source familiar with the historic operations of the plant said the document is significant because it is evidence that neptunium and other transuranics were processed and shipped from the plant in concentrated form.
Neptunium contamination has been found in ditches and creeks both on and off the plant site. It is highly radioactive and was contained in spent nuclear reactor material that was shipped to Paducah from a weapons production facility in Hanford, Wash. In Paducah, the reactor fuel was reprocessed for reuse in weapons.
Neptunium can cause cancer, and research documents indicate that 75 percent of the neptunium ingested into the body goes to bone and has a 50-year biological half-life.
The document says the recovery operation began because a significant amount of neptunium was accumulating in uranium fluorination ash.
"X element was found in Paducah plant fluorination ash samples early in 1957," it says. "Limited information indicated that about 500 grams were available for recovery at Paducah in mid-1958. Authorization was received on Aug. 26, 1958, for the construction of a recovery unit and recovery system was placed in operation in November 1958." The document, which included a detailed description and drawing of the recovery process, said 2,576 grams of "X element" were recovered from November 1958 through July 1, 1960. Of that amount, 2,320 grams went back to Hanford and 256 went to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
While the document does not say what the recycled neptunium was used for, one of the Sun's sources who has knowledge of the document and neptunium recovery operation said it was sent back to Hanford for use in producing atomic bombs. At Oak Ridge, it was used for weapons research, the source said.
The 1960 document said the amount of neptunium being brought into the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant would decrease to less than 300 grams per year. "This low receipt rate will probably result in periodic operations of the recovery facilities as conditions warrant," it said.
This document is identified as internal correspondence of Union Carbide Nuclear Co., which was the original operator of the plant. It indicates that some of the contamination in the drums may have been thorium, which was one of the by-products from the neptunium recovery process.
"A request for approval to bury the 140 drums of accumulated trace raffinate would not be unreasonable on the basis of radiation safety or water pollution," the document said.
In justifying that conclusion, the author said the level of contaminated material is so low that one drum per day could be dumped into the Little Bayou Creek without exceeding contamination limits that existed at the time.
"Since Little Bayou is a controlled stream, high concentrations (of waste) would not be inconsistent with our existing disposal procedures for chemical wastes," it said in revealing that hazardous materials were dumped into the stream.
In its conclusion, the report said that because the material would not cause higher-than-allowed concentrations in Little Bayou Creek, "burial on-site should not be an objectional method of disposal."
The Department of Energy is now spending more than $1 billion to clean up contamination at the plant, much of it coming from discharges into streams and leakage from landfills, dumps and burial grounds.
Gov. Paul Patton last week asked DOE officials to increase cleanup funding to at least $100 million a year. The increased funding would reduce cleanup from at least 11 years to seven or less, Patton said.