Bill Gates’ Nuclear Pipe Dream: Convert Depleted Uranium to Plutonium to Power Earth for Centuries

Editor’s Note: The following news piece represents the second in a 15-part mini-series titled, Nuclear Power in Our World Today, featuring nuclear authority, engineer and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen. The EnviroNews USA special encompasses a wide span of topics, ranging from Manhattan-era madness to the continuously-unfolding crisis on the ground at Fukushima Daiichi in eastern Japan.


Josh Cunnings (Narrator): Welcome to the EnviroNews USA news desk. I’m Josh Cunnings. Thank you for tuning in for the second episode in our 15-part mini-series, Nuclear Power in Our World Today.

Last time, in our kickoff episode, we focused on the widespread devastation wreaked by 15,000 abandoned uranium mines. These toxic and festering open sores are sprawled all across the entire western U.S. landscape, posing a direct threat to humans and all life.

In episode two, we pick up where we left off with the dirty frontend of the nuclear power industry — which becomes in turn, the nuclear bomb fuel industry.

Following the 1940s and 50s uranium rush to make bombs, over 80 sites were contaminated so badly that they received a special “legacy” site designation on the EPA’s superfund list — a special commitment from the U.S. government to clean up those places because weapons of war were manufactured there. Amongst those legacy sites is the gaseous diffusion uranium processing facility at Paducah, Kentucky.

Voice of Paducah History Film Narrator: Nestled at the intersection of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers lies the quiet city of Paducah, Kentucky. With a population of just over 25,000, Paducah is by no means a major world city, yet just 10 miles outside of its city limits lies a facility that has helped keep America at the forefront of the world’s powers.

Invisible from the city itself, and approachable only by a simple two lane road, is a massive industrial complex. Covering more than 800 acres, the facility was originally constructed in 1952 along with similar facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Portsmouth, Ohio to enrich uranium for use in the production of nuclear weapons.

News quickly spread throughout the country that Paducah had been chosen as the site for a one-half-billion dollar atomic plant, as well as an additional $184 million steam facility needed to supply power to the enrichment facility.

Based on the success of the Oak Ridge plant, officials decided to use the gaseous diffusion process for uranium enrichment at the new Paducah plant. In this process, natural uranium, comprised of the two isotopes uranium 235 and uranium 238 is mixed with fluorine gas, and is pumped under high pressure through a series of membranes or barriers that are located in large tanks called “converters.” The U-235 moves through the barriers more quickly because it is slightly lighter, leading to an increased concentration of U-235.

Due to the high security concerns, employees were not permitted to talk about their job, even with other plant personnel, except on a need-to-know basis. Every worker entering the plant had to be granted access by a guard. Every vehicle entering or leaving the plant, had to pass through a checkpoint.

Voice of 2000 Paducah Plant Documentary Narrator: Even up through the 1980s, Department of Energy investigators say that protection against radiation at the site was very inconsistent. Men walked through uranium dust on the floors, and brushed it off the tables where they ate. Respirators weren’t required. At one point the company stopped providing work coveralls.

Voice of Paducah Plant Worker #1: And when they took those [coveralls] away from us, well we’d have to bring work clothes from home, and we’d work in that stuff, and we would get it all over us, and then we’d bring it home and it’d be washed in the laundry. I told them I didn’t like bringing that stuff home to be washed in the laundry with my kids’ clothes and my wife’s clothes. And the public relations people said, “Well, if you were really concerned, you’d wash your clothes here at the washroom.”

Voice of 2000 Paducah Plant Documentary Narrator: Union Carbide (the original plant owner) has not answered our request for an interview about its management of the plant. Until the late 1970s the plant also recycled spend reactor fuel, exposing workers to intensely radioactive plutonium, technetium, and neptunium. But the Paducah workers weren’t told. A memo shows that officials feared they would demand extra “hazardous duty pay.”

After a Washington Post report in February, the Department of Energy admitted that the plant had also secretly dismantled and milled scrapped nuclear weapons over the years, burying them on the grounds, or storing them above ground, like the rusty uranium cylinders and other heaps of contaminated scrap.

People who lived nearby knew even less than the workers. Energy Department investigators reported earlier this year that on some nights and overcast days that the plant vented radioactive steam and smoke from its stacks. They also found the plant dumped contaminated scrap and equipment near the wildlife reserve, where it was scavenged by workers there.

Voice of Narrator of Kentucky University Paducah Plant Cleanup Video: Before Paducah can move forward, its nuclear legacy must be dealt with. The plant, and the surrounding 3,000 acres, is one of the most contaminated top-secret sites in the United States. In 1988 technetium 99, a radioactive metal, was found in the groundwater.

Voice of Lindell Ormsbee: That kicked in a whole set of federal regulations that ultimately ended up putting the Paducah site on something called the “National Priority List” of superfund sites.

Voice of Narrator of Kentucky University Paducah Plant Cleanup Video: Technetium and TCE, a chemical used to clean equipment, make up five miles of toxic underground plumes.

Voice of Steve Hampson: We’ve put in pump-and-treat systems on both of the plumes that head towards the Ohio River, and they’re there to contain the groundwater contamination. That being said, it would still take well over 100 years in the best scenarios for this groundwater to come back to its natural chemical state.

Voice of Paducah History Film Narrator: In addition to groundwater pollution, the area has also been contaminated by such hazardous chemicals as PCBs, along with heavy metals and radioactive materials. Subsequently, the Paducah plant was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority List of Superfund Sites. In the ensuing decades, the Department of Energy has spent more than $2 billion in cleanup at the facility with site cleanup activities likely to continue past 2020.

In light of the contamination some local residents and former employees have raised concerns about the possible health effects of the plant. These concerns have been investigated by several federal agencies, as well as by local and national newspapers. While some concerns have been found to be unsubstantiated, others were not.

In 1999, then U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, traveled to Paducah to issue a formal apology to plant workers who had been unknowingly exposed to dangerous radiation.

Voice of 2000 Paducah Plant Documentary Narrator: As his health declined, Joe Harding spoke out more, and he began to keep records of other workers’ cancers and early deaths.

Voice of Confrontational Paducah Resident: You’re a bold-faced liar mister.

Voice of Paducah Plant Worker Joe Harding: Yeah yeah. Was you there?

Resident: Yeah, I’ve been there.

Harding: Yeah, you’ve been there, but was you there in 1952?

Resident: You’re a bold-faced liar. You’re a liar.

Harding: Was you there in ’52?

Resident: I ain’t old enough to have been there in ’52.

Harding: Well that’s good, so you’d don’t know what happened back then.

Voice of 2000 Paducah Plant Documentary Narrator: No one knew until this document was released last year that plant officials were also tracking worker cancers and deaths, while denying there was any reason to worry.

Cunnings: Due to poor market conditions, the company running the site went belly-up [in 2014]. The city once labeled as our nation’s premier atomic boomtown, now left in the wasteland of its own nuclear demise.

The radioactive heaps at Paducah are mostly depleted uranium — a byproduct of uranium enrichment, and a substance that used to be considered unusable for nuclear fission, rendering it useless for both nuclear power generation and bomb making.

But science is always advancing, and one technology kingpin has an idea for Paducah — an idea that not everyone thinks is a good one.

Voice of Bill Gates — Excerpt #1: There was a concept a long time ago that you would do a different type of reactor called a “fast reactor,” that would make a bunch of another element called plutonium, and then you would pull that out, and then you would burn that. That’s called “breeding” in a fast reactor. That is bad because plutonium is nuclear weapons material. It’s messy. The processing you have to get through is not only environmentally difficultly, it’s extremely expensive.

Cunnings: The man considered by many to be supposedly a humanitarian trailblazer when it comes to combatting disease, has a plan to fast-breed the mountainous heaps of depleted uranium at Paducah into plutonium — one of the most dangerous and disease-causing substance on the face of the planet. Then in turn, this plutonium would be used to power what would be the so-called new fourth-generation nuclear power plants. Let’s listen to Gates articulate his plutonium scheme.

Voice of Bill Gates — Excerpt #2: The concept of this so-called “TerraPower reactor” is that you, in the same reactor, you both burn and breed. So, instead of making plutonium and then extracting it, we take uranium — the 99.3 percent that you normally don’t do anything with — we convert that, and we burn it.

[Editor’s Note: Bill Gates is the current Chairman of the Board of TerraPower — a Washington-based nuclear power technology company.]

Cunnings: Now get this, only 60 seconds after Gates acknowledges the tremendous problem of bringing more plutonium into this world, he turns around and makes a joke about it to a crowd filled with university students from nuclear programs — all this, only a few months after the catastrophic triple melt-through at Fukushima Daiichi.

Bill Gates — Excerpt #3: Our flame is taking the normal depleted uranium — the 99.3 percent that’s cheap as heck, and there’s a pile of it sitting in Paducah, Kentucky that’s enough to power the United States for hundreds and hundreds of years. You’re taking that and you are converting it to plutonium (humorously under his breath) — and then you’re burning that.

Cunnings: Oh yes, Mr. Gates seems to have a little love affair going on with plutonium — and the notion is that we need nuclear power to save ourselves from climate change.

Bill Gates — Excerpt #4: You could go nuts!

Wall Street Journal Interviewer Alan Murray: If everything goes perfectly?

Gates: Absolutely.

Murray: How often does everything go perfectly?

Gates: In nuclear? Ah, well, ya’ know… If you ignore… (laughter) No, no. Come on. If you ignore 1979 [Three Mile Island], and 1986 [Chernobyl], and 2011 [Fukushima], come on — we’ve had a good century (laughter). No seriously. I mean, in terms of raw figures, you know, coal mining, natural gas … More people die, I mean … It wasn’t far from here a natural gas pipe blew up and incinerated people.

Bill Gates Excerpt #5: So we can simulate Richter-10 earthquakes. We simulate 70-foot waves coming into these things. Very cool. We basically say no human should ever be required to do anything, because if you judge by Chernobyl and Fukushima, the human element is not on your side.

Bill Gates Excerpt #6: We have, you know, total fail-safe … Any reactor that a human has to do something … that’s a little scary.

Bill Gates Excerpt #7: So, you’ve got to design something that humans just don’t have to be involved in.

Bill Gates Excerpt #8: I love nuclear. It does this radiation thing that’s tricky (laughter). But they’re good solutions. You know, it was interesting; recently, in Connecticut this natural gas plant blew up 11 guys. It just blew them up.

Murray: But you are personally investing in nuclear?

Gates: Right.

Cunnings: EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry chatted with the esteemed nuclear industry expert and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen to explore whether Gates’ plan is a good idea or not.

Emerson Urry: Let’s go back to Bill Gates again, [and] the fourth generation nuclear power. I’ve heard him out there speaking about this, and essentially his ambition to, let’s say, convert Paducah, Kentucky [to plutonium]. What can you tell us about Paducah, Kentucky? We understand it went bankrupt a couple years back, and I think there is quite a bit of radioactive material still there. We’ve heard at one point in time it was also one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters from the Freon — not to mention having four allocated coal-fired power plants. What can you tell us about Paducah, Kentucky? What does the situation on the ground look like there, and how do you think they will deal with all that?

Arnie Gundersen: Paducah didn’t have centrifuges, it had gaseous diffusion, and there’s no need for the plant anymore, so the plant has to be decommissioned and destroyed. What’s happened is, the way they shut the plant down was, to be nice, sub-optimal. And what they allowed it to do was for all that uranium to cake inside the pipes. So, had they done it in a more orderly fashion, the plant could have been much cleaner when they went to shut it down — but they didn’t. So, the Paducah site is a very expensive cleanup that is going to take 20 or 30 years to decontaminate. You know, it’s like all of these bomb legacy sites — Hanford in Washington State…

Urry: … that has the plutonium leak in AY-102 correct? Which has that been ratcheted down? Have they been able to ratchet down AY-102?

Gundersen: No. Hanford is going to take 70 years and cost 110 billion dollars to clean up. So, here we are paying over half of a century for the legacy of building bombs for five years in 1940. And so, Paducah is another one of those sites. It was built to enrich uranium. Why did we do that? Because we had a bomb program. And now we’re stuck with these huge costs that are underfunded or unfunded by Congress. That plant is going to sit there for 30 years. It will create a lot of employment for a lot of people knocking it down, but it also is highly radioactive, and it’s got to be done so cautiously, and it’s a really difficult problem.

Cunnings: There’s no known disintegration of plutonium small enough that doesn’t possess the ability to cause cancer. To be clear, there is no safe amount to be exposed to whatsoever.

Plutonium, though a naturally occurring element was virtually non-existent on planet earth before the dawn of the nuclear age. Now, each of the roughly 400 uranium-powered nuclear reactors in the world create approximately 500 pounds of plutonium each year — or enough to create about 100 nuclear warheads each.

Coming from a “humanitarian” concerned with curing diseases, the notion that plutonium is the way to save ourselves from a runaway climate catastrophe seems the epitome of oxymoronic — utterly and woefully contradictory. But stay tuned for more on that topic, as in episode 14 of this series we examine whether or not we really need nuclear to solve the climate quandary.

But, in the meanwhile, let’s just say that Bill Gates’ nuclear ambitions go beyond mere ideas. He actually possesses financial holdings in one very dangerous situation indeed — a situation that is presently causing residents around St. Louis, Missouri to live under an all-out nuclear nightmare. And that scenario will be the topic of discussion in the next episode of our short series.

So please, tune in tomorrow for part three, where we explore the scary situation at hand in the Westlake Landfill in St. Louis, Missouri. Signing off for now, this is Josh Cunnings.

Voice of Paducah Plant Worker #1: And then later on, they took the Geiger counters out, and they told us, “That stuff won’t hurt you. It’s harmless. It won’t hurt you if you ate it, it wouldn’t hurt you.” I think they ought to be held accountable. And I’d like to see them be put on trial, and I hope they put them in prison, because a lot of my friends I know died from what they did.