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Virtual Museum Captures Ohio Plant History: Web-based Project Preserves Plant’s Uranium Enrichment Legacy

May 21, 2012 - 12:00pm

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An online museum on the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant went live earlier this year.

An online museum on the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant went live earlier this year.

PIKETON, Ohio – Do you wonder what the interior of a uranium enrichment plant looks like without ever stepping foot in the facility?

Now, the public can view photos, watch interviews with current and former workers who share historical accounts and browse old newsletters on the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant from as far back as the early 1950s with the touch of a computer keyboard or screen.

DOE launched the website, www.portsvirtualmuseum.org, this year. Already, it has generated more than 36,000 page views and 3,000 people from 22 countries have visited the website.

DOE established the website to preserve the rich history of its southern Ohio plant built between 1952 and 1956 to support the nation’s nuclear weapons program. The website is maintained by DOE contractor Fluor-B&W Portsmouth LLC.

“The plant played an important role in supporting our nation’s defense through the Cold War as well as the development of nuclear energy,” said Dr. Vince Adams, DOE Site Director. “I am proud of its history and the virtual museum allows everyone to step inside and learn more about this engineering and scientific marvel.”

The facility was the last of three gaseous diffusion plants built in the United States by DOE’s predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The Portsmouth plant ended production of enriched uranium in May 2001, and preparations to decontaminate and decommission (D&D) the facility are under way. The other two plants were built in Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Paducah, Ky. The Oak Ridge facility is currently being dismantled and Paducah’s is still operational.

A special feature on the website is a 26-minute documentary, “The Portsmouth Story,” produced by AEC. The feature contains footage of the plant being built on the 3,777-acre federal property.

At the time of the Ohio plant's construction, the facility's three uranium enrichment process buildings were among the largest in the world, encompassing more than 10 million square feet on 90 acres. Altogether, those three buildings are comparable in size to three Yankee Stadiums and a football field. More than 100,000 tons of structural steel were used to construct the Ohio buildings, and the facility used more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity daily during full operation. That was enough power to service New York City at that time.

The plant’s initial mission was to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear-weaponsgrade material at the height of the Cold War. In the 1960s, its mission shifted to production of lower enriched uranium for U.S. Naval nuclear submarine reactors and commercial nuclear power plants.

After enriched uranium production ended at the plant, it was placed in a cold standby mode for potential restart. However, in 2005, DOE transitioned the plant into cold shutdown to deactivate equipment and prepare for eventual dismantlement. In 2010, DOE awarded a $2.1 billion contract to Fluor-B&W to conduct the D&D activities.

Workers under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have demolished some small support facilities at the site. Fluor-B&W is preparing to demolish several additional support buildings, including the plant’s primary administration building, former cafeteria and medical facility, all built in the early 1950s.

“Some of the buildings are starting to disappear from the landscape,” Adams said. “This website will preserve much of the history and be an educational source for many years into the future.” In addition to the newsletters, videos, exterior and interior building images and photos of workers, the virtual museum includes a general plant history and other documentation. Photos, videotaped interviews and other information related to the more than 130 buildings that comprise the plant will be added to the website on an ongoing basis.

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