Clinton focuses on Chernobyl cleanup
A note we received via e-mail from an employee at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant raised an interesting question about the Clinton administration's eagerness to help with the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine.
The plant worker was curious about the $78 million the president recently pledged to spend on the reconstruction of a structure that surrounds a ruined reactor at Chernobyl. The reactor exploded in 1986, releasing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Clinton also promised to spend $2 million to improve safety at other nuclear power plants in the Ukraine.
Specifically, the United States Enrichment Corp. employee wondered how long that $80 million would keep his job going if it was used to offset USEC's financial losses from the Russian uranium deal negotiated by the Clinton administration.
We can't answer that question, but the stinging implication it carries — that the president is more interested in helping Ukrainians contain the radioactive contamination that occurred under the old Soviet regime than he is in dealing with the problems the federal government's nuclear program created in Paducah — cannot be ignored or dismissed.
Clinton stood at the side of Ukraine's president, Leonid D. Kuchma, as Kuchma announced plans to close Chernobyl. Calling it a "hopeful moment," the president committed the United States to funding more safety projects at the plant.
A guess is that the USEC employee who is worried about his job would like to see the president come to Paducah and, with Gov. Paul Patton standing by his side, pledge to do everything possible to clean up the uranium enrichment plant site and help plant workers affected by USEC's financial problems.
Obviously, the environmental problems at the Paducah plant aren't nearly as severe as those caused by the explosion at Chernobyl. From that standpoint, the president has reason to help the Ukrainians.
Still, the contamination in Paducah is an American problem, not a European problem. It was caused by the federal government, which kept plant workers in the dark for years while it used the uranium enrichment plant as an unlicensed dump for radioactive materials.
President Clinton's first priority in nuclear safety should be dealing with the contamination — and the possible casualties — stemming from America's Cold War nuclear program. Let the European community handle its own nuclear problems — at least until the U.S. government comes to grips with the problems in Paducah, Portsmouth, Ohio, Hanford, Wash., etc.
Sadly, the president does appear more interested in being seen as the savior of Chernobyl than as the champion of U.S. citizens whose communities have suffered as a result of the government's recklessness and neglect.
An administration official said that, over the past five years, Clinton has committed to spending about $300 million to help Chernobyl.
Meanwhile, here in Paducah, the federal Department of Energy continues to break promises, fudge plant cleanup estimates and deny responsibility for workers whose jobs are eliminated in USEC cutbacks.
Last month the General Accounting Office issued a report that said DOE underestimated the cost of cleaning up the plant by at least $2.8 billion. The GAO's findings reinforced the conclusions of a fact-finding team appointed by Gov. Patton.
Clinton administration officials have shown at best limited interest in the plight of USEC workers affected by the company's plan to cut 621 jobs at its plants in Paducah and Portsmouth. The administration's agreement to buy Russian uranium put USEC in a hole, but Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has dismissed suggestions that DOE funds be used to cover early retirement incentives for USEC workers.
In our view, Gov. Patton should demand to know why the administration is bragging about how much of the taxpayers' money it's spending to protect Ukrainians when it appears unwilling or unable to fulfill its major obligations in Paducah.
That $80 million wouldn't add a great deal to the plant cleanup, but it would certainly help displaced workers in Paducah and Portsmouth as well as retired workers suffering from health problems.
Ironically, Clinton is using the money to purchase an environmental legacy. The president needs to be reminded by the governor and other Kentucky officials that if he doesn't move more aggressively to help Paducah, part of his environmental legacy will be found here, in the leaking drums and contaminated soil and water at the gaseous diffusion plant.