Smelting Gold out of Nickel Led to Nuclear Fuel Recycling; Injured Workers Seek Meeting with DOE Secretary

Updated 1 year ago by Tony E. Rutherford, News Editor
Smelting Gold out of Nickel Led to Nuclear Fuel Recycling; Injured Workers Seek Meeting with DOE Secretary

Vina Colley, a former electrician  at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and one of the founders of National Nuclear Workers for Justice, wants to urge Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry to investigate the denied claims of nuclear workers.

"I'm working on it," she told HNN. "I was supposed to meet with the DOE (on July 31 the day  of his visit) . We were going to the river to see the pipe where all the lines from the plant dumped into the Scioto River and Ohio River."  The meeting has been postponed for a month, Colley said.

She wants to ensure that a regulation is not removed that prevents the punishment of whistleblowers through civil penalities .

But , according to a Washington Post article, the DOE has only held contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation twice in the last 20 years. Colley has asked DOE secretary to examine the accounts of injured workers:

"Mr. Perry, Thank you for taking the time to visit the cleanup site at Piketon, Ohio . It means a great deal to our area for you to be here, however cleanup and repurposing should not only be for the contaminated site but also for the workers who were and are at this site. Such work is good for the economy only if we protect our region's greatest asset--the workers. I am a sick worker from the plant and would like to tour the plant with you and talk about the other sick workers from here."

Colley of Portsmouth, Ohio, helped found National Nuclear Workers for Justice and was active in calling for help for ill workers since before the compensation program was formed. She has letters from multiple doctors stating that they believe her ailments are linked to toxic exposures. But officials shelved her claim for years, for reasons she still hasn't figured out. Despite the fact that Ohio workers' compensation officials agreed that she has work-related illnesses, the federal government denied parts of her claim multiple times and has yet to fully compensate her.

The diffusion plants Oakridge, Paducah, and Portsmouth were three of numerous nuclear facilities throughout the U.S. during and after the Cold War which have been the subject of Wall Street Journal, NY Times, and USA Today articles.


The Washington Post on August 14, 1999 revealed

Recovering gold and other valuable metals from retired nuclear weapons had been a little-known mission of the government's uranium enrichment plants over the past five decades. At Paducah, the process began in the 1950s and was conducted under extraordinary security, with heavily armed guards escorting warheads into the plant under cover of darkness.

Workers used hammers and acetylene torches to strip away bits of gold and other metals from the warheads' corrosion-proof plating and circuitry. Useless parts were dumped into trenches. But the gold – some of it still radioactive – was tossed into a smelter and molded into shiny ingots.

Garland Jenkins, one of the workers, recovered gold, lead, aluminum and nickel from nuclear weapons and production equipment," the Post said.

"We melted the gold flakes in a furnace to create gold bars," Jenkins said in court documents. "The gold was never surveyed radiologically prior to its release, to my knowledge."

Jenkins then said  he never saw tests performed on nickel and aluminum ingots that were hauled out of the plant in trucks. In later years, when plant managers did begin screening the metals, many were found to be contaminated, he said. Hundreds of nickel ingots are still stored at the plant, too tainted to go anywhere, he said.

An attorney representing employees said a ring of recycled gold would receive twice the amount of a simple X-ray per hour.

The Huntington plant on the Huntington Alloys plant was operated under the Atomic Energy Commission. It received shipments from at least three diffusion plants for fuel refabrication and recycling. Purifying nickel is technically difficult because the radioactive contamination extends below the surface of the metal.   Once the Huntington plant was dismantled and buried when the process was deemed uneconomical, another wave of recycling occurred in 1999 claiming that all contaminants could not be prevented. The program was dropped due to public pressure.


According to interoffice correspondence from July to December 1977, the contents of the buried facility would include 26,000 cubic fee of equipment, 10,000 feet of pipe  which would be placed in a ditch 24 feet wide , 150 feet long and 12 feet deep. A former worker said the burial took six months and "all kinds of stuff" went into the classified burial site. The July 11, 1977 memo stressed two contaminants : Nickel Carbonyl (Nickel Tetra Carbonyl) , a colorless , volatile liquid , flammable, poisoious residue soluble only in alcohol and con nitric acid  and uranium process piping in the PPM range as "slightly enriched" . Some equipment contained exposures that would require continued monitoring.

Colley and other indicated that since the HPP / RPP from Huntington recycled products from the three diffusion plants plutonium was on the list of worker exposures.


A December 1979 memo (after the burial) described existing uranium recovery system including transuranic elements --- neptunium and plutonium --- would not plate out of "equipment in the recovery system." The memo continues  that both of these radioactive matter could be where "the aluminum metal is added to the recovery solution. "The aluminum metal acts as a salting agent and fluoride complexer reduces neptunium and plutonium to a "concentration of insoluble Pu and Np fluorides." 

At that time Colley asked how have these wastes  ( radionuclides, plutonium, neptunium)  contaminated 340 acres of groundwater. Pre treatment of water waste flowing to the Scioto (and eventually the Ohio) River would go on indefinitely before river discharge. /Since the monitoring would be for thousands of years, "to pay for this perpetual maintenance... a more reliable source of funding than annual Congressional appropriation is needed."

What about 2017?

Colley told HNN there are still cover ups despite decades of declassification.

"There is still a big cover-up at both plants. At Piketon the PU was covered up. We have had Plutonium since the start up in 1954....Your plant and Portsmouth was covered up. What ever KY had we had. Platinum was also at the plant I heard."

So no gold rush, please.

Comments powered by Disqus