COLD WAR SECRETS: Recycling Radionuclides Infused Spent Nuclear Fuel onto Machinery

Updated 10 years ago by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Fusion Reactor (file photo)
Fusion Reactor (file photo)

Some people growing up in Huntington during the Cold War  heard that the city would be a primary target for Russia’s thermonuclear weapons. Charleston, WV, too. The proportion  of Kanawha Valley chemical manufacturers explained the state capital. “Why Huntington” likely was pondered by those who may have considered the “warning” a tall tale.

Back then, the uranium and nickel processing facility known as the Huntington Pilot Plant (Reduction Pilot Plant) was top secret. Those working there needed security clearances and promised not to reveal ‘classified’ details about their positions. Once the documents became unclassified, the Jewel City did not have atomic weapons within the city limits; no, it had a nearly mandatory component of what followed the Manhattan Project and America armed for mutually assured destruction as a deterrent to nuclear doomsday.


The use of nickel in ‘the bomb’ and diffusion process was itself classified until the 1950s. But, in addition, the HPP/RPP prepared materials for the three gaseous diffusion plants (Portsmouth, Paducah , Oak Ridge) and later recycled spent radioactive fuels.

Specific contamination variables remain buried and classified in Piketon, Ohio. However, Vina Colley, a former PGDP worker and President of the activist group PRESS, has stated cogently that  radioactive materials sent to Huntington for re-cycling contaminated the HPP. (Additional interviews and documents indicate materials from other nuclear plants, including some of the most dangerous like West Valley, New York, Savannah River, and others. However, the materials from those facilities likely came indirectly --- through the recycling deliveries. Some testimony indicated that before a 2000 moratorium recycled scrap metals were sold which contained traces of radioactivity.)

The contaminated plant building sat on the INCO campus from about 1963 until 1978 on cold stand by. In 1978-1979, Cleveland Wrecking demolished the multiple story structure and the classified debris was either trucked or sent by rail for burial on the PGDP grounds in an area known as X-749A, the classified materials disposal landfill.

After the Cold War nuclear race ended, the arsenal itself became subject to disarmament and banning of bombs led to attempts to discover more economically efficient waste disposal, improved options for permanent burial of highly radioactive substances, and plans to extract valuable minerals  (nickel, uranium, plutonium) out of weapons grade material for use as conventional electrical nuclear plant fuel and to obtain funds to assist with the billions needed for environmental cleanup.




One factor in the radioactive contamination at the HPP/RPP came from recycling of barrier and core materials from Portsmouth and other nuclear plants. A report on dose reconstruction at the Fernald, Ohio, facility explained, when these recycled feed materials were used , “small amounts of other radionuclides called fission and activation products were introduced into the processed steam and later released.”


Like residue analysis from HPP/RPP,  Fednald had “particulate” fusion products --- strontium 90, technetium- 99, cesium 137, neptunium 237, plutonium 238, 239 and 240 --- however, the concentrations varied widely. Although apparently no unclassified official records of atmospheric venting and purging at HPP/RPP exist (except for a former worker’s notations), the Fernald study concluded that “releases of uranium are by far the most important contributors to the potential does to the atmosphere” and for liquid releases, “radium isotopes were of primary importance.” (A previous 1981 residual radiation document confirmed the presence and test for these minerals performed by Oak Ridge Universities reference the Compressor Building.)

Similarly, a list of declassified materials that can be found at former K-25  site in Tennessee includes, among other things, asbestos, beryllium, chlorine trifluoride, Freon, lead, mercury, plutonium, and uranium. The tests ran in 1981 in Huntington resulted in an at or  below the accepted requirement for nuclear workers, which, contradicts other scientists who state nearly any radiation can have unwanted consequences.


Diagram of Downgrading Highly Enriched Near Weapons Grade Uranium to Low Content.
Diagram of Downgrading Highly Enriched Near Weapons Grade Uranium to Low Content.

Interestingly, nickel use in the weapons process had been classified , along with a gas known as nickel carbonyl. Nickel carbonyl which was part of  Huntington’s re-cycling method  is at its “smelting point” a very toxic gas causing “immediate poisoning, hemorrhagic pneumonia and delayed lung effects.” (discussing similar process at Portsmouth: ) Mere conjecture, could this have been a potential chemical weapon that would be banned by treaty?


Mary Byrd Davis discussed nickel carbonyl , too, in “Uranium Enrichment Process” (November 4, 2000), A Guide to Key Facilities at the PGDP prepared for Earth Island Institute.


Materials placed at the X-749A landfill (1953-1988) were “all connected with the gaseous diffusion process” except for two boxes of “specimens” from Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory  (metal shapes clad with zirconium, zirconium alloy, or hafnium.” Other waste buried at the site included a “dismantled INCO (International Nickel Company) Nickel Plant from Huntington, WV. The INCO play was contaminated with nickel carbonyl and uranium. The plant had produced nickel in support of DOE’s three enrichment plants.” The burial site contains “classified records, compressor blades (the compressor building was left on the INCO campus), and other classified parts.”  (The landfill was closed in 1994 when a multilayer cap and drainage system was installed to capture surface water runoff.)

Reprocessing  appears dirty and dangerous enough, but it is “the fundamental link between a nuclear reactor and a plutonium bomb. Irradiated, or “spent,” fuel is separated into its constituent ingredients. The plutonium can be used to make MOX reactor fuel or bombs. The most lethal reactor at the melted down Fukushima plant in Japan utilized MOX fuel. Accounting for civilian use of plutonium is one of the world’s greatest proliferation accountability problems.  Reprocessing procedures leave millions of gallons of radioactive liquid in aging tanks threatening to leak into waters of Washington, Idaho, South Carolina and New York.

The weapons grade (or high assay) enriched uranium cylinders at the diffusion plants resulted in  potential money generating schemes. There were 41,000 depleted uranium cylinders at Paducah and approximately 20,700 depleted uranium cylinders at Portsmouth. Of those, 8,800 at Paducah and 5,800 cylinders at Portsmouth had so-called “high assay tails.” Instead of an environmental liability, the proposal was to generate $2.2 B by turning them into a re-enriched commercial asset for at the time 19% of U.S. electricity came from nuclear power. The re-enrichment would delay mothballing Paducah, keep workers earning, and provide 10% of the nation’s nuclear electricity needs, while postponing the allocation for D & D mandates at Paducah. (From Paducah Citizen Advisory Board, Re-Enrichment of High Assay Tails, dated August 25, 2011.)

According to Congressional records, President Obama requested $155 million in FY 2012 for DOE’s research and development program , as well as now providing loan guarantees for the proposed reprocessing facility at the site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion facility. However, the plain English description of the plan appears to be a revival of the imperfect re-processing that had been done at HPP/RPP and certain diffusion plants.


SHUT DOWN 1963-1978

Before the determination to wreck the HPP/RPP, it set ready for re-start for 15 years. During that time the scope of worker activity again appears vague. Qualifying for nuclear worker compensation for cancer and other illness often requires ‘reconstructing’ a computer generated potential work dosage.  Despite radioactive half-lives of tens of thousand to hundreds of thousand years, those workers who maintained the HPP/RPP in its cold stand by status and who removed items from the plant have been labeled as not receiving  the same high levels as those who worked when the plant was active.


Here’s a redacted transcript from one decision where a worker who entered the cold stand by site did not qualify for nuclear worker compensation:

[ from 2004 decision[

Affidavit from [Co-worker 1] in which he attested that he worked with [Employee] in the refinery and that [Employee] was assigned to pick up contaminated material from the pilot plant, and melt it in the furnace.  [Co-worker 1] also attested that [Employee] volunteered to work in the pilot plant during shut downs sweeping and cleaning.


7.      Affidavit from [Co-worker 2] in which he attested that he worked with [Employee]   in the 1960s.  [Co-worker 2] also attested that he and [Employee] went to the pilot plant to load contaminated material and transport it back to the refinery department for melt down. 



Former Huntington Pilot Plant (file photo)
Former Huntington Pilot Plant (file photo)
The decisions of what is “classified” and “unclassified” impacts the community and workers. With certain details still classified for national security, some former workers do not understand that part of their former job which they can now speak in public and what they must not.  Unfortunately, since many activities cannot be revealed, workers claiming cancer from radiation exposures face hurdles of incompleteness  --- from who worked where and how long to the components,  contents and exposure to elements of the manufacturing process.

An internet search revealed one such quandary:  The assay content (weapons grade, fuel grade, high level waste, low level waste) of items. The presence of a material (such as plutonium or uranium) is now unclassified, but the documents appear to retain classification to knowledge of whether the assay content at plant locations exceeded certain levels.

Why?  Perhaps, once the potency of plutonium became known ( six kilograms could set off an explosion), the element became a critical disarmament chess game. Plutonium bomb tests occurred in 1962, the HPP/RPP went into cold stand by (in Portsmouth a term used for newer technologies were more economical and the demand for enriched products had dipped) the next year.

Legacy Management Must Fulfill Commitments

DOE sites declared “closed” and administered by the Office of Legacy Management (OLM) still have continuing requirements for funding and public involvement. Budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars annually for decades to come are needed for worker pensions, ongoing monitoring, public information, and community participation at dozens of sites.

One of those requirements states:

Bar the disposal of radioactive and chemical wastes in unlined pits and trenches.

Others require that the DOE maintain a database of contracts and agreements regarding cleanup milestones and the federal funds to meet them.

(Editor's Note: Since in 1994 HPP/RPP was "released" by the DOE, the location --- unless an oversight action exists --- is not now under federal control, although the AEC/DOE leased the location during the 50s, 60s and 70s. )