The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

Bomb casings found that should be buried

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Sections of 17 nuclear bomb casings, apparently from the early 1960s, have been found standing in a scrap yard on the north side of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Several other half-round parts of bomb sections were stacked in the yard. The material, while not an imminent threat to the public, was the latest finding by a Department of Energy team investigating secret outside work done by the plant during the Cold War.

Although the uranium enrichment plant reportedly never made nuclear weapons, various former workers have said they milled weapons parts to recover previous metals such as gold. Others have said components were brought to the plant from across the nation for classified disposal as bombs and missiles were phased out.

The aluminum casings discovered Tuesday were unclassified, or nonsecretive, but in an unexpected place, said John Driskill, president of the plant guard workers' union. He said weaponry is typically in classified landfills.

"It's just another piece of proof that points to the fact they don't know what they've got out here," said Driskill. "They don't know the nature and extent of the materials they have at this plant."

Driskill, who has repeatedly criticized downgrading security at the uranium enrichment facility, said he learned of the finding by reviewing a draft public statement from the department. DOE issued the statement Thursday in response to an inquiry by the Sun.

Department spokesman Walter Perry said an employee found the casings in a contaminated, unclassified scrap yard in the rear of the plant. The casings, identified as coming from B-53 nuclear bombs, were inspected and found empty, he said.

No gamma radiation, which can penetrate the body, was detected, Perry said.

"This is part of an ongoing review of weapons-program work for others at the site," he said. "It illustrates the investigation is working. We're getting to the bottom of a lot of issues and questions regarding past activities at the plant."

Perry said he hopes the information will help rebuild trust and credibility the department has lost since revelations of unsavory past practices at the plant started surfacing last year.

The B-53 was a nine-megaton bomb with the explosive force of 9 million tons of TNT, and contained highly enriched uranium. It was dropped from a B-52 bomber.

According to published reports, about 340 of the bombs were made from 1962 to 1965, and the first model was retired in 1967. The bomb was 50 inches around, weighed nearly 9,000 pounds and was 12-1/2 feet long.

Former plant worker Harold Hargan, a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against former plant contractors, told the Sun earlier this year that he and others removed plating from nuclear-weapons parts to recover gold. He described watching the first deactivated nuclear bomb enter the plant on a flatbed truck and watching the last buried near the so-called "drum mountain," which DOE has pledged to clean up this year.

"There never were active nuclear weapons there, and we never made weapons at the plant," he said. "But we milled them for precious metal and made various components. The Paducah plant was very involved in that."

Because of its security and space, the plant was a disposal site for bomb and missile parts from across the nation, he said in previous interviews. "A lot of them were brand-new parts that had never been out of the crates," he said.

DOE weapons-recovery operations took place secretly for decades and ended in the mid-1980s. Dale Jackson, a DOE official who is heading the weapons-work investigation, said earlier that "following the paper trail" was hard because the work was largely classified and done for the Department of Defense.

The department has acknowledged that plant contamination from beryllium, a highly toxic metal, and radioactive tritium may have come from some of the weapons work. Both substances were used in nuclear weaponry.

Some nuclear weapons parts were built in the plant's machine shop and shipped to customers. An earlier DOE memo obtained by the Sun said that while the general practice was to break down and smelt weapons materials, whole weapons, "minus the nuclear package," were buried at the plant.