Plutonium is a radioactive metal that is usually formed during nuclear reactions in the process of weapons testing or nuclear reactor accidents. It is typically found as microscopic particles in the environment.
Plutonium is especially poisonous when particles are inhaled because it emits damaging alpha particles. The alpha particles can kill lung cells and can also affect the liver, bones, and spleen. A long-term consequence of plutonium inhalation would be lung cancer.
Even plutonium that is ingested and not inhaled could be absorbed into the body to release harmful alpha radiation.
Despite the hazards of dealing with plutonium, it has been found in two different sites in Kentucky. The sites are the:
- Maxey Flats radioactive waste disposal site (Fleming County)
- Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (McCracken County)
The Maxey Flats disposal site (1963 - 1977) was used as a waste site for low-level nuclear waste. The plutonium was considered special nuclear material and was stored in deep concrete wells at the site.
Unfortunately, radioactive leakage was detected and it was thought that the plutonium had leaked underground through the water beyond the boundaries of the waste disposal site.
At the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (1952 - 2013), it was revealed that thousands of workers were exposed to plutonium. The plant produced enriched uranium and the workers unknowingly inhaled plutonium-laced dust during experiments to recycle nuclear reactor fuel.
Today, both the Maxey Flats waste disposal site and the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant are permanently closed due to radiation waste, leakage problems, and security issues. The federal government is working on cleaning up the waste at the sites.