Nathan Lynn grew up playing at West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area in Paducah, Kentucky, just next door to his family’s 14 acres of corn and soy. He and his friends spun around on four wheelers, frog gigged, and hunted for squirrels and deer. Now 39, Lynn still drives through the area with his two kids for recreation, but he said it’s strange to imagine wading through the ponds or fishing on the site.
That’s because of what the wildlife area surrounds: the 750-acre Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Built in a horseshoe bend of the Ohio River, the plant was the last uranium enrichment facility for nuclear fuel and weaponry in the U.S. before it shuttered its 50-year operation in 2013. It turned a solid — uranium — into a gas called uranium hexafluoride, or UF-6, which was then shipped off to facilities like Oak Ridge in Tennessee (infamous for its role in the Manhattan Project). Due to the presence of hazardous and radioactive wastes contaminating soil, groundwater and surface water, the Environmental Protection Agency added the plant to its Superfund National Priorities List in 1994.
Lynn is a folk musician and works in the family history department of the local public library. His family has lived a mile from the Paducah site for more than 150 years. “Growing up and living so close, there’s a shroud of mystery that goes along with the plant,” he said. But growing up in an environment of sprawling green farmland and braided waterways, Lynn also has a lot of hometown pride.
Bookended by the Tennessee River to the east and the Mississippi River thirty miles to the west, Paducah is the commercial center of western Kentucky. It’s part of the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, memorialized in larger-than-life murals along the concrete floodgates separating downtown from the wide waterway. Home of the National Quilt Museum and a UNESCO Creative City, Paducah is now a vibrant arts community.
For over half a century, the plant was Paducah’s main employer, providing up to 7,000 jobs in a place where nearly a quarter of people now live in poverty. But poor working conditions and unregulated waste disposal also harmed Paducah residents. The legacy of these problems have cost the town and taxpayers. Despite multiple recommendations from a watchdog government agency, the Department of Energy is decades behind schedule on cleanup efforts.
Some experts say the federal government doesn’t know the full cost or scope of what cleaning them up will entail, and that becomes more complicated with more frequent extreme weather.
It’s a problem Superfund sites — and especially nuclear waste sites — around the country face.
Lynn said there’s a lot of secrecy surrounding the cleanup, as well as the health risks that may be associated with it. He’s just one Paducah resident, along with a slew of former workers, who say they’ve been left in the dark about problems with a complex cleanup.
“It’s really hard as a citizen to focus all your energy on something like that,” said Lynn, “even as passionate as I am about it.”
There are 16 nuclear sites still managed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) across the country — from Vermont to Washington, Nevada to South Carolina — most of them built between the 1940s and 1950s. Some created nuclear defense materials like plutonium — a core ingredient in atomic bombs that is 100,000 times as radioactive as uranium and can cause liver, lung, and bone cancer.
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant was one of the smallest projects in the U.S. When the plant was built in 1952, the town proudly adopted a new moniker: “Atomic City.” While gaseous diffusion was the public face of the plant, there were other operations, including programs with NASA, storing defunct materials from Oak Ridge, and work for Sandia, a nuclear security laboratory. By the early 1990s, many of the plants, including Paducah, had started transitioning to produce uranium for the nuclear power reactors that now provide a fifth of U.S. electricity generation.
“People who were not highly educated could make really good money working in these industries so you could have a good house, a boat, a couple of cars, raise your kids and send them to college,” said Mark Donham, who used to manage the DOE’s Citizens Advisory Board, which helps the agency monitor the plant’s environmental remediation. “Not only that but the government was saying, this is your patriotic duty. We need this. So everybody just went along because the compensation was pretty good.”
However, a 1999 investigation by The Washington Post revealed the federal government used the plant to illegally recycle over 103,000 tons of used nuclear reactor fuel containing plutonium and other transuranics — man-made heavy metals derived from splitting atoms. The same year, workers filed a $10 billion class action lawsuit against three federal government contractors that led to the passage of a federal law intended to compensate current and former employees (or their survivors) for exposure to cancer-causing radiation.
Greg Landhorff, a utilities worker at the plant for 30 years, wasn’t involved in the lawsuit, but said he was exposed to “all kinds of different chemicals.” He said the exposure was an open secret, and workers weren’t given proper equipment or training. He claims operators told him about the exposure when he was hired, but didn’t report it because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. Landhorff now rattles off his health issues like a grocery list: beryllium disease, COPD, chronic bronchitis, and skin cancer.
Although the plant closed in 2013, hundreds of people still work on site. Nuclear sites often function like small towns, with wastewater treatment and steam plants, sewers, landfills and lagoons, administrative offices, enormous water towers, and medical centers. David Trimble, director of the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, said 30 to 60 percent of the DOE’s cleanup budget goes toward these “recurring activities.” The same is true for Paducah: Dawn Harris-Young, a spokesperson for the southeast regional EPA, said that only a “small fraction” goes toward environmental cleanup post-closure. This means that until the site is torn down, day-to-day operation often takes up more of the DOE’s cleanup budget than the necessary environmental remediation.
The DOE has demolished 84 facilities, removed over 66 million pounds of contaminated scrap material, and dug up over a million cubic feet of contaminated soil. While there is no official estimation of how much contaminated material remains, at least 400 buildings — and everything inside them — still need to be decontaminated and demolished at the Paducah site.
The DOE requested $277 million specifically for Paducah in 2020, despite its budget for nuclear cleanup shrinking by $50 million in the last five years. But it’s still a small fraction of the budget DOE will need: cleanup isn’t expected to be completed until 2065, and the EPA has said it could take even longer because of the lack of knowledge about sources of contamination and the vast size of the facility. The waste at Paducah includes the gaseous diffusion plant, buried radioactive disposal sites, and waste leftover from neighboring nuclear sites in Ohio and Tennessee. It also includes over 52,000 cylinders of uranium hexafluoride, or spent uranium fuel, much of it from Oak Ridge.
But there is still no solution for how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel, except to bury it. In recent decades, federal and state regulators have strategized for the remediation of these sites. But some have faced major problems like fires, radioactive leaks, and spills. According to Rodney Ewing, nuclear security expert at Stanford University, “there’s no path forward” to dispose of uranium hexafluoride, either. “That’s why they’re still stored in tanks out back,” he said.
When the leaves fall on Ronald Lamb’s property, he can see the water tower and the grey siding of facility buildings at the Paducah plant just two miles away. On the road near Big Bayou Creek, which runs through both the plant and his 120-acre property, signs warn against getting in the water. His well is padlocked because of groundwater contamination from trichloroethylene, or TCE — a degreaser used to clean uranium equipment — which can impact childhood development, damage the central nervous system, and is linked to cancer. Lamb said the well water left his family with severe gastrointestinal problems.
“I never said a bad thing about the plant the whole time I was growing up,” Lamb said. “It made the economy good. But then we got sick.”
DOE officials report that the agency has cleaned over four billion gallons of contaminated groundwater through a pump and treat system, but two toxic plumes of TCE still flow through four miles of groundwater that lead to the Ohio River.
The DOE lacks a national strategy for nuclear cleanup, instead relying on site managers to contract with companies that manage, operate, and cleanup nuclear facilities. The Paducah cleanup is now being managed by Four Rivers Nuclear Partnership, a conglomeration of companies hired by the DOE for soil and groundwater remediation. One of them is Jacobs Engineering, a contractor that was sued for exposing hundreds of workers to toxic substances during cleanup of the nation’s largest coal ash spill in Tennessee; more than 40 have died. At least three other nuclear sites — Oak Ridge, Hanford in Washington, and Savannah River in South Carolina — have also contracted with Jacobs. (Jacobs Engineering declined an interview for this story.)
The DOE also declined to answer questions but said the agency was committed to the safe remediation of the plant and that they “look forward to continuing successful cleanup efforts in the future.” The agency works with the Citizens Advisory Board — a group of community members who apply and are appointed as well as liaisons from Kentucky and the regional EPA office — on environmental management at the Paducah site, including the monitoring of groundwater and planning for the site’s future use. Lamb advocated for the board many years ago, and the bi-monthly meetings are supposed to serve as a public comment period.
The board doesn’t have any power beyond giving recommendations to the agency, and current and former members are divided about its effectiveness. Lesley Davis joined for about a year in 2016; her grandfather had worked at the plant and died of cancer. “It was informational at times, but it didn’t feel like it was making much of a difference,” she said. “In hindsight, it felt like they were trying to keep a good public face.”
Lamb was a member for years, but he said he “can’t afford to care anymore,” because of his own health issues. “Someone else would have to carry the torch and it’s not likely to happen… It was a different time then,” he said, “and now it’s just sort of docile.”
In February, Paducah put up its floodgates, families stacked sandbags, and the bridge over the Ohio River to Illinois closed as floodwaters as rains drowned the region. According to local news stations, highway crews reported so much water they had trouble setting up warning signs. Former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin declared a statewide emergency due to heavy rainfall and flooding.
The Ohio River, three miles north of the Paducah plant, had record flooding in 2018 and 2019. Record flooding this year across the Midwest hit eight Superfund sites, and a GAO report released in November showed that 60 percent of U.S. Superfund sites are at risk from the impacts of climate change. By mid-century, there will be heavier rainfall, increased flooding, and more intense hurricanes in the Southeast, which has nearly a quarter of the 1,335 active Superfund sites on the EPA’s National Priority List.
An EPA spokesperson said that the Superfund program ensures that “severe weather event risks” are “woven into Superfund site-specific risk assessments and remedial designs.” But according to a 2017 report by the DOE, the Paducah plant hasn’t made any federal or local partnerships “for collaboration or exploration of local climate change measures.”
The Green New Deal resolution, which has not yet passed through the U.S. House of Representatives, identified cleaning up brownfields — contaminated sites previously used for development — and hazardous waste sites like Paducah as a key priority in restoring the American landscape — but there’s not yet a road map for that plan. While underground waste repositories may provide a solution, Ewing said that over the long term, the changing climate could make it more challenging: in a wetter environment, the amount of water leaking through the rock over the repository could be expected to increase.
Instead of focusing on cleanup plans, some state lawmakers and federal agencies are loosening regulations on hazardous sites. In 2017, Kentucky passed a bill lifting a nuclear moratorium, a move that some hope will turn the site into a research facility or nuclear reactor; the law loosens the requirements for toxic waste management. Last year, the DOE also moved to relax restrictions on the disposal and abandonment of radioactive waste.
Meanwhile, many people in the Paducah area are still waiting for answers about their health, about jobs, and about the future of the place they live. “I don’t necessarily know that I understand the long term plan or if it’ll ever be cleaned up in terms of the groundwater,” Lynn said. “I don’t know if that’s even possible.”
This story was published in partnership with Scalawag for our Powerlines series, which looks at climate change, justice, and infrastructure in the American South. The series is supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.
Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, In These Times, onEarth, Sierra, and Vice. You can find her stories here and follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @austyngaffney.