The Paducah Sun

March 16, 2000

Governors push plant conversions

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

Gov. Paul Patton has joined the governors of Ohio and Tennessee in urging President Clinton to fund the construction of facilities to recycle 14 billion pounds of uranium hexafluoride waste at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and two sister plants.

Cylinders containing the waste, stored outdoors, are among the many legacy problems at the plants. The Senate Energy Committee has scheduled a March 31 hearing on findings of the Department of Energy's recent investigation into environmental and work practices at the Paducah plant during its first 36 years of operation. U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a member of the committee, confirmed Wednesday that the hearing had been set but said details were pending.

Patton and Govs. Bob Taft of Ohio and Don Sundquist of Tennessee wrote Clinton on Friday, saying that recent delays by DOE and its "reluctance to allocate congressionally designated funds have all but stalled the process" of getting the conversion facilities built.

Taft and Sundquist told Clinton that if the inaction continues, their states will enforce agreements that can require DOE to handle the material as hazardous waste. The action would mean stipulated penalties in Tennessee, the letter said.

The letter does not discuss Kentucky's stance on pursuing the matter as an enforcement action if there are more delays. So far, Patton has opted for diplomacy and has been reluctant to consider enforcement. Neither he nor his aides commented on that issue Wednesday, although Patton said he hopes to hear from Clinton soon.

Congress set aside $373 million for the work two years ago, but the money has not been allocated to build facilities at the Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio, diffusion plants to convert the waste into something safer that might eventually be sold. The facilites would create an unspecified number of jobs to help offset some of the 850 job losses planned at the plants this year.

A gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was closed several years ago, but it and the other plants maintain about 57,000 cylinders of depleted material from uranium enrichment. Many of the cylinders have been there for decades, and some are rusting, although the plants continue to repaint them. More than 40,000 of the cylinders are at the Paducah plant.

Governors and federal lawmakers from the three states, as well as the plants' atomic workers' union, have repeatedly challenged DOE to move ahead with the conversion plan. Yet several times last year, the department delayed issuing a request for proposals from firms to build the facilities.

"DOE now says it is proposing to get the request on the street by October, but with no money to carry it out," said Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the union. "The department is speaking with a forked tongue."

Despite considerable progress toward the conversion plants, DOE's reluctance to allocate money and hire a contractor suggests that the agency is "not committed to completing and implementing this plan," the letter says.

Clinton's new budget has $24 million in cylinder money for Paducah and $27 million for Portsmouth. At Paducah, $12 million is for tank maintenance and $12 million for building the conversion plant. Miller and others have said that is far too little "earnest money" to hire a conversion contractor.

The $373 million was set aside by 1998 legislation requiring the conversion plants to be running by 2004. Although the money is in a special interest-bearing Treasury fund, it must be appropriated by February 2002 or be lost to the general fund unless the deadline is extended.