Area must prepare for plant closing
The news that the United States Enrichment Corp. plans to deploy a more advanced technology for enriching uranium in Portsmouth, Ohio, provides a clear warning to the Paducah area to prepare for the eventual loss of the gaseous diffusion plant.
Nothing is certain about the future of USEC's gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah and Portsmouth, but the financially struggling company must cut costs and improve its ability to compete in the world market for reactor fuel. It's possible that, as early as next week, USEC's board will vote to close one of the enrichment plants.
Here's the scenario that seems to be shaping up: USEC closes the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and keeps the more efficient Paducah facility running. The company is in the process of upgrading the Paducah plant so that it can produce reactor-grade uranium. It's unlikely that USEC would make this investment unless the company was planning to keep the Paducah plant in operation for at least a few more years.
However, the long-term outlook for the Paducah facility isn't promising. The Sun reported last week that USEC is developing gas centrifuge technology to replace the 50-year-old gaseous diffusion process.
In the 1980s, the federal government spent almost $2 billion in an abortive attempt to deploy the centrifuge technology at Portsmouth. Since the building that was to house the centrifuge is still standing, USEC could save a substantial amount of money by locating a new gas centrifuge there.
Once the centrifuge plant began operating — analysts say it would take six-to-eight years to put the technology in place — the gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah would no longer be needed.
It should be emphasized that while this is the most likely scenario, it is not set in stone. We can't say with certainty what USEC officials have in mind. And, in any event, conditions could change and produce an entirely different outcome.
Even so, prudence dictates that the Paducah community begin planning now for a future that does not include the gaseous diffusion plant and its 1,500 jobs. We still hope to keep the plant, but we must face some hard facts.
First of all, it's very unlikely that political pressure will lead to a reversal of the privatization of USEC and the long-term survival of both gaseous diffusion plants.
The unions representing plant workers and the members of the Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio congressional delegations are pushing for a re-examination of the privatization process. Illinois is affected because the Honeywell plant in Metropolis produces feed material for the Paducah and Portsmouth enrichment facilities.
We see no evidence that delegations from the 47 other states are interested in tapping the federal budget to maintain jobs in Paducah and Portsmouth. It's understandable that the unions and some members of the three states' congressional delegations have targeted privatization, but it's worth remembering that the process had broad, bipartisan support, largely because the government-owned U.S. enrichment industry was rapidly falling behind in the competitive world market.
Former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, the father of the privatization effort, told the Sun in a 1998 interview that the U.S. enrichment industry's share of the world nuclear fuel market tumbled from 100 percent in the early 1970s to about 40 percent in the early 1990s. "It would have withered on the vine," he said.
Congress may step in and rescue the plants for national security reasons if it appears that USEC is going out of business. But that is the option of last resort. A review of the basic political facts tells us that Congress is not inclined to put the federal government back in the uranium enrichment business.
In terms of the future of the Paducah plant, it may not matter whether the government regains control of the enrichment industry. Gaseous diffusion is an expensive, outmoded technology. The operator of the plants, regardless of whether it's USEC or the Department of Energy, is going to have to develop new technology to replace gaseous diffusion. That points to the closing of both plants and the use of an updated facility to produce enriched uranium at a more competitive cost.
If Paducah eventually loses the gaseous diffusion plant, it will be a hard but not necessarily devastating blow to the area's economy. Keep in mind that McCracken County and surrounding counties already have absorbed the loss of hundreds of jobs at the plant.
The cleanup of the environmental mess left at the plant by the DOE will take years, and the jobs it provides will lessen the impact of a shutdown. For the sake of the environment and plant workers who may lose their jobs, community leaders must continue to push for a complete cleanup.
Job re-training programs should continue to be a high priority for local leaders. But with the plant's future in serious doubt, the top priority must be attracting new businesses and cultivating existing ones.
The federal government was a major employer in McCracken County for many years. But what the government gives it can also take away. This area cannot base its future on a single industry that is subject to the ever-changing winds of national politics.