What Lurks Below? 1987 Department of Energy Report “Revealed” Some Details on the Buried , Disassembled , Classified Huntington Uranium Processing Plant

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Huntington Pilot Plant (file photo)
Huntington Pilot Plant (file photo)

HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) – A 1987 Safety and Environmental Audit from the Department of Energy sheds some sunlight on the Huntington, WV uranium processing plant buried on the grounds of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Compiled in 1987, the document discusses items buried at the X-749 and X-749A (Classified)burial sites.

The Huntington uranium processing Pilot Plant operated by the Department of Energy on the grounds of INCO operated from about 1951-1962 and then during its razing in 1978-1979. A “classified” facility, the atomic weapons site made materials for the gaseous diffusion plants.  Known also as the Reduction Pilot Plant, the facility recycled materials from various gaseous diffusion plants including barrier materials , which came from nuclear reactors.

Although the 1987 document stresses “nickel carbonyl” contamination, accounts from workers and more recent declassified government documents indicate that uranium, plutonium, neptunium and other radioactive materials flowed through the plant.

When the Cold War wound down, the location remained “closed” but  in “stand by” mode for more than a decade and a half. Abruptly, DOE determined that the structure and its contents were contaminated and the five story plant was dismantled and trucked to Portsmouth’s  Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, where the remains were buried and entombed.

The 1987 document defines “classified wastes as generally equipment which due to material composition, size or shape” becomes subject to secrecy.

“Between 8,500 and 13,600 cubic yards of materials have been disposed of in the facility as of December 1984. There materials include (1) miscellaneous aluminum, nickel and steel process scrap which is radioactively contaminated and (2) uncontaminated metallic and polymetric materials.”

The survey team explained that “groundwater contamination from X-749A may occur from direct leaching of hazardous substances from buried materials. The drums and wooden boxes used to contain these wastes have probably deteriorated.  The risk of groundwater contamination in this area is increased because acidic runoff from the X-600 coal pile may mobilize the metals (nickel and uranium) in X-749A and facilitate their migration to groundwater.”

Finally, the audit describes what’s beneath the surface subject to maintaining the classified nature. Explaining that “most of the classified material was classified for reasons other than chemical composition,” the survey preliminary report continued, “Generally the burials consisted of boxes and containers of aluminum scrap , barrier scrap, centrifuge manufacturer rotors scrap, magnetic tapes, computer disks, security ashes, and other miscellaneous material of a classified or sensitive nature.”

“The largest single source of nickel in X-749A was the INCO Nickel Power Plant, which was dismantled and transported from Huntington , West Virginia, for burial at PUEC. The 1,333 cubic yards of buried piping and equipment from the INCO plant was slightly contaminated with nickel carbonyl, according to PUEC, although no information was available on its concentration.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The account is presented as written in the DOE Environment, Safety, & Health Office of Environmental Audit. The copy is dated August 1987.]