Aerial view of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant from Wikimedia

The Louisville Courier-Journal and the USEC website have reported that the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, KY has ceased enriching uranium as of the end of May, 2013, taking 1100 jobs with it. USEC employees are already receiving layoffs. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, commonly called ‘USEC,’ began enriching uranium in 1952 for atomic weapons (giving the town the nickname ‘Atomic City’) and is the only U.S.-owned and operated uranium enrichment facility in the United States. USEC leases the plant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In the 1960s, USEC switched from enriching for nuclear weapons use (which requires a higher level of enrichment) to enriching uranium for nuclear power plants.

Robert Van Namen, USEC senior vice president and chief operating officer stated:

While we have pursued possible opportunities for continuing enrichment, DOE has concluded that there were not sufficient benefits to the taxpayers to extend enrichment. I am extremely disappointed to say we must now begin to take steps to cease enrichment.

USEC will use existing inventory to meet customer orders, as it transitions the plant back to the DOE. The Department of Energy is under the control and supervision of the United States Secretary of Energy, a political appointee of the President of the United States. Nuclear Physicist Ernest Moniz is the current and the 13th US Secretary of Energy. He assumed office on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, just four days prior to the announcement.

Secretary of Energy Moniz has come under criticism from environmental groups recently, for his business connections. Notably in this instance, he sat on the strategic advisory council for USEC, from 2002 to 2004.

From 2002 to 2004, Moniz sat on the strategic advisory council of USEC, a public company that provides enriched uranium to nuclear power plants. A company spokesman said Moniz was paid for his role on the nine-member council, but declined to say how much. USEC, which has been seeking a $2 billion loan guarantee from the Energy Department for a centrifuge plant in Ohio, has applauded Moniz’s nomination.

Dr. Moniz had served as the head of the Physics Department at MIT, and was an MIT Physics professor when he was appointed to serve on the USEC Inc. Strategic Advisory Council in 2002. His career also includes service in prior government capacities. While Dr. Monitz is in favor of nuclear power, he is also concerned with climate impact related to excess carbon in the atmosphere, as he explains in his post-Fukushima paper titled Why We Still Need Nuclear Power. The paper explains, in pertinent part, that nuclear power production does not add carbon to the atmosphere. Dr. Moritz does concede dire need for safety upgrades to nuclear power plants.

USEC’s Educational Resource Tab has an overview of the nuclear fuel cycle. Uranium is an element mined from the earth, primarily in Kazakhstan, Africa, Australia and Canada, where it is concentrated into uranium oxide at a mill and shipped to a conversion facility. One conversion facility is operational in the U.S., at Honeywell, in Metropolis, Illinois (on the Ohio River). The material is then ready for enrichment, and is transported to an enrichment facility.

Only the U235 isotope of Uranium is fissionable (recall that a great amount of energy can be obtained from original mass in accordance with the formula E = mc2); U235 is only present in 0.7 percent of mined uranium, so it must be separated from the more abundant U238 (hence the term ‘enriched’). Gaseous diffusion is one way to do this, through a series of membranes, at the enrichment plant. An alternative method is a gas centrifuge, a newer, more energy-efficient method. The end product, ie: the product that is ‘enriched’ enough to use for nuclear power reactors is 5-7 percent U235.

One potential issue with the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is, the technology is being updated to a centirfuge technology, where U235 and U238 are separated by a series of centrifuge cycles.

Note: Please watch the haunting video. After transition back to the DOE, the focus will be on cleanup. In other words, it is a superfund site.

The National Priorities List (NPL) is the list of the most hazardous sites across the U.S. and its territories.

This site is on the NPL and is known as a Final NPL site (see glossary).

The Department of Energy is the responsible federal agency.

Superfund law requires that EPA give communities information about site progress and plans so that they can be actively involved in site cleanup decisions.