The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Sunday, July 16, 2000
Paducah, Kentucky

Richardson panders to activist groups

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's recent announcement that the Department of Energy is suspending sales of radioactive metals for recycling appears to have more to do with election-year politics than concern for public safety.

The people of Paducah have learned from experience that Richardson rarely makes a move that isn't politically motivated. Politics almost certainly played a role in the decision on the salvage operation, which DOE and Vice President Al Gore once touted as an environmentally safe and taxpayer-friendly program.

There's no evidence the program is unsafe, but the mere thought of the government working with private industry to turn radioactive metals into consumer products drives environmental activists up the wall. The union that represents atomic plant workers doesn't like the program, either. The recycling program is jointly operated by a British company, the federal government and the state of Tennessee,

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, whose district includes the recycling facility at Oak Ridge, told the Associated Press Richardson was pandering to "key constituencies."

Pandering seems to be part of Richardson's job description. When the energy secretary is in Paducah, he expresses great concern and regret over the government's use of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site as a dumping ground for radioactive materials. He also promises that he will ensure the mess is cleaned up in a timely manner.

However, Richardson's tune seems to change once he returns to Washington and faces its legions of lobbyists and activists. Cleanup operations that would benefit Paducah, such as the recycling of depleted uranium, are placed on the back burner. The energy department becomes the mouthpiece of the environmental lobby, which has assumed a dominant position in the Clinton-Gore administration.

The problem for Paducah and other cities where DOE sites are located is that anti-nuclear activists not only don't like radioactive waste, they apparently don't want it cleaned up, either. New technologies designed to render radioactive materials safe for disposal or recycling have come under attack from environmental groups. Richardson and DOE have dutifully bowed to the critics, leaving the plant sites with limited options for dealing with contaminated scrap metal, rusting drums and depleted uranium.

In the past DOE officials have said the recycling technology developed by the British company removes nearly all radioactive contaminants from the metals. Environmental groups insist the technology is largely untested. With the presidential election less than four months away, the agency suddenly has changed course and sided with the environmentalists.

Richardson said he was calling a halt to the sale of the metals "to ensure American consumers that scrap metal released from Energy Department facilities for recycling contains no detectable contamination from departmental activities."

A great deal of scientific evidence indicates that low levels of radiation aren't harmful. Richardson's standard of "no detectable contamination" appears to go beyond what is necessary to protect the public.

In any event, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is working on minimum allowable contamination levels for recycled materials. Why should DOE invent its own standard when another federal agency is studying the issue and trying to come up with scientifically-based standards?

We don't object to the federal government developing safety standards for recycled radioactive metals. But the standards should be based on science, not a political agenda.

By most accounts, the recycling program and Vortec, a process that converts contaminated materials into a glass-like substance for safe disposal, are promising technologies that could help mitigate the contamination at the Paducah plant.

Unfortunately, Secretary Richardson is ready to abandon these technologies to appease political pressure groups. Richardson is good at pandering, but he's incapable of honestly seeking solutions to the problems the energy department inflicted on Paducah and other communities.