Foot-dragging threatens project
Bureaucratic foot-dragging looms as an increasingly serious threat to the future of a key portion of the federal cleanup operation at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
A report issued in June by the U.S. Department of Energy describes the various regulatory and funding hurdles facing a project designed to convert depleted uranium hexafluoride into a safer form for disposal or reuse.
In 1998 Congress set aside $373 million to fund the construction of conversion plants in Paducah and Portsmouth. Since then, DOE officials have repeatedly delayed the project by refusing to commit the funding needed to get it off the ground.
The result is that, with a deadline for appropriating the $373 million looming in early 2002, DOE still is studying the conversion plants and pondering the environmental problems the conversion process may pose.
If the money isn't appropriated by February 2002, and the appropriation deadline isn't extended, the money for the plants must be transferred to the general fund.
More than 47,000 cylinders of depleted uranium are stacked on the grounds of the Paducah plant, and another 10,000 cylinders are stored at the Portsmouth plant and a DOE facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The federal government has promised either to recycle the waste or to safely dispose of it. But earlier this year, the glacial progress of the conversion plan drew fire from Gov. Paul Patton and the governors of Ohio and Tennessee. The governors wrote a letter to President Clinton complaining that DOE officials had failed to allocate adequate funds for the conversion plants.
This is a jobs issue as well as an environmental concern. The conversion plants are expected to provide up to 200 jobs. Presumably, many of those jobs would go to USEC workers affected by layoffs in Paducah and the scheduled closing of the Portsmouth plant.
But DOE officials are moving as slowly on the conversion plants as they did on the cleanup in Paducah. Recall that it took a decade of environmental studies and paper-shuffling before the agency actually began removing contaminated material from the plant site.
In fairness DOE does face legitimate environmental problems in disposing of waste that contains traces of highly radioactive plutonium and other contaminants. And the agency must be prepared to jump through a variety of regulatory hoops when it ships the converted waste to disposal sites.
The total cost of converting the uranium for disposal or reuse — estimated at more than $1 billion — is no small matter, either.
Nevertheless, DOE is responsible for disposing of the waste, and Congress has ordered the agency to begin that work within four years. If the foot-dragging doesn't end soon, the federal government will betray yet another of its commitments to the communities that supplied the labor for the Cold War.