Gore plays to Ohio audience
It was certainly fitting that Vice President Al Gore decided to meet with representatives of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant while he was on the campaign trail in Ohio. The plan by the United States Enrichment Corp. to close the Portsmouth facility presents a serious political challenge for Gore in Ohio, a state rich in electoral votes that traditionally is a major battleground in presidential elections.
Congressman Ted Strickland and representatives of the Portsmouth workers met with Gore while he was making a campaign appearance in Columbus. Strickland and officials with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which also represents hundreds of workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, are pressing the Clinton administration and Congress to intervene and stop the closing of the Portsmouth enrichment plant.
Not surprisingly, Gore played to his select audience by asking the Treasury Department to look into the plant closing. A union leader said Gore also expressed outrage over USEC's announcement that it plans to stop production in Portsmouth next year.
So, the vice president is outraged — and probably shocked, too — by the developments at USEC. It's worth wondering, however, where the vice president has been for the past six months. Is it possible he didn't know that USEC was in deep financial trouble, and that USEC officials were openly discussing the possibility of closing one of the two enrichment plants?
Where was Gore when USEC's credit rating was downgraded earlier this year — one of several "significant events" that would justify a plant closure under USEC's agreement with the Treasury Department?
For that matter, where was Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has been prominently mentioned as a possible running mate for Gore?
With the USEC board poised to shut down one of the plants, Richardson wrote a letter to USEC's chief executive officer, Nick Timbers, complaining that Timbers had "in no way provided a justification for early plant closure."
The belated letter didn't stop USEC from proceeding with the announcement of the planned shutdown of the Portsmouth plant. But we suspect the real point of Richardson's missive was to distance the Clinton administration from the loss of about 1,900 jobs in a state the vice president hopes to carry in November.
Gore was more than happy to continue that distancing process by telling the Portsmouth people he had asked the Treasury Department to scrutinize USEC's decision to shut down the plant.
It's interesting to recall that the Clinton administration supported the privatization of USEC. The privatization enabled the company to make a purely business decision on the future of the Paducah and Portsmouth plants.
That's the key reason why former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford pushed to privatize the nation's uranium enrichment industry — to give it the ability to compete as a business in the world market.
It also should be remembered that Vice President Gore was an enthusiastic supporter of the "swords-to-plowshares" agreement that committed the United States to buying huge quantities of weapons-grade uranium from Russia. The Russian deal, which forced USEC to buy uranium at above-market prices, has been very damaging to the company's bottom line.
Of course, the vice president didn't know that the uranium enrichment industry would become an issue in the 2000 presidential campaign. Now, with his own political interests threatened, he's whistling a different tune on USEC.
Political posturing isn't going to help the workers in Portsmouth. Their jobs are targeted for elimination because USEC made a necessary decision — with both of its enrichment plants operating at 25 percent of capacity — to cut costs by consolidating its operations.
Workers at the gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah eventually may suffer the same fate if, as some analysts predict, USEC develops gas centrifuge technology and locates it in Portsmouth.
From a practical standpoint, Vice President Gore and Secretary Richardson can help displaced workers in Portsmouth and Paducah by supporting funding for the cleanup of the two plants and the construction of uranium recycling facilities.
This may not play as well politically as expressing outrage at USEC and demanding investigations of the plant closure, but the cleanup and recycling projects could create more than 600 jobs for USEC workers. In the long run, that would be worth far more to the workers than the vice president's outrage.