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The Atomic River Valley
Another thing I never knew about the Ohio River Valley
Born in the 1960s, I missed the nuclear duck-and-cover drills, where school children knelt under their desks and covered their heads. We learned that same drill for tornado sirens, not nuclear annihilation. My first memory of anything nuclear (outside of history books) was Three Mile Island in 1979, not bombs.
It wasn’t until 2023 that I learned that the Ohio River Valley had played a major role in the country’s uranium enrichment program because, once again, it was mostly over by the time I finished high school. The Atomic Energy Commission located plants, labs, and ancillary operations along a stretch of the river that was referred to as the Atomic River Valley.
Can you place the Atomic River Valley on a map? Obviously it’s somewhere along the Ohio River, but do you have any idea where exactly? When the enrichment sites were built and operated? What’s going on with the sites today?
Where’s the Atomic River Valley?
It’s roughly the area from Portsmouth, Ohio, to Paducah, Kentucky. The area was suited to uranium enrichment because of its water supply and relative safety from the range of Soviet bombs. That last advantage was short-lived, since intercontinental ballistic missiles were developed in 1958.
The commission's top choice was a site east of Louisville, which already had Rubbertown for manufacturing tire and synthetic rubber during World War II. As you might imagine, the Building Trades Council badly wanted the plant, but the strong opposition from residents and businesses prevailed.
Greater Cincinnati was the second preference, but that also fell through. Piketon, Ohio (north of Portsmouth), and Paducah, Kentucky got the gaseous diffusion plants, which required massive amounts of electrical power, and that meant hydro.
Here’s a video with history of the Portsmouth facility from its groundbreaking to its deactivation, demolition, and final remediation plans.
The Paducah plant was the last government-owned uranium enrichment facility operating in the United States. It was originally a WWII munitions plant called Kentucky Ordnance Works.
When did it all begin?
The Atomic Energy Act was passed in 1946, and the Atomic Energy Commission inherited personnel and policies from the Manhattan Project. The commission’s expansion period ran from 1947 to 1956 and its “unlimited” funding dried up during the Cold War.
What’s going on today?
The projects continue providing jobs to their local communities, but I doubt anyone feels good about the reason these jobs exist: environmental remediation in the wake of destruction. Cleanup activities at Portsmouth will continue until 2039-2043. Paducah’s remediation might last until 2065-70. Gasp!
Family history with nuclear components
My grandfather, now deceased, was exposed to a beryllium spill while working at the Air Force base in Heath, Ohio back in the late seventies. One of beryllium’s uses is nuclear weapons, but to my knowledge that wasn’t the work he did at the base. Heavy emphasis on to my knowledge. I remember family members talking about his exposure and “the cover up” but he would have been the only one who could have given me straight answers.
This raises the question of whether anyone reading this newsletter has personal or family history with the atomic programs in the Atomic River Valley. If so, would you be willing to share them with me?
Nuclear novel recommendation
A couple of summers ago I read a novel based at the Hanford lab in Washington state, The Cassandra, by Sharma Shields.
The protagonist moves from the typing pool to a plum role as one of the leading scientists’ administrative assistant, without ever knowing what exactly is underway, but feeling good about serving her country and getting on in the world.
Like the Cassandra of Greek mythology, Mildred has the gift/curse of second sight. After a prophetic vision, Mildred confronts her boss, Dr. Hall, with her foreknowledge:
After they drop the bomb, the men will look out of the windows of a plane named Mother. They’ll see the fires, the smoke. They’ll guess then what they’ve done. Some will celebrate but one of them will mourn. He will realize how those below them suffer.
At first, Mildred mistakes Dr. Hall’s awestruck, appreciative look for belief, but he then dismisses her. “I could see from his face that he’d closed his mind to me. I was a woman, unpredictable and shrill. He muttered something about me nearing my menses.”
What books do you recommend with nuclear plot lines? Have you seen the movie, Oppenheimer? Let’s keep the conversation going.
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