PACRO is following its mission
A regional citizens group that is working to soften the economic impact of job losses at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is drawing unfair criticism from observers who don't understand the organization's mission.
Last week, a story in the Louisville newspaper implied the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization had squandered $8.4 million in federal funds because it had not succeeded in placing workers affected by the downsizing at the plant in new jobs.
The story was based on two mistaken, contradictory assumptions: 1) that PACRO is a job placement service, and 2) that its main goal is to protect jobs at the uranium enrichment plant.
If PACRO is judged by these standards, then it must be considered a failure. Since 1998 the plant's operator, the United States Enrichment Corp., has eliminated, through voluntary and involuntary reductions, more than 400 jobs. In the past year PACRO has directly created or retained 22 jobs, but none of them went to former plant workers.
It's extremely unlikely PACRO will ever be able to claim a direct, one-for-one job replacement rate for displaced USEC workers. Unfortunately, the organization's task isn't that simple.
PACRO was created to help the Paducah area adjust to the decline and eventual loss of the uranium enrichment industry, which is not only the area's largest single employer, but one of its best-paying employers.
The federal government, the owner of the nuclear facility, is providing money for PACRO to help the community absorb the job losses and make the transition to a more diversified economy.
To state the obvious, PACRO cannot move former plant employees into jobs that do not exist. The industrial sector in this region offers few jobs that are equal in pay and benefits to the jobs that are being eliminated at USEC.
Moreover, the community is facing the likelihood that the gaseous diffusion plant, with its outmoded, 50-year-old technology, will close as soon as USEC develops a more efficient enrichment process.
That means PACRO must function largely as an economic development agency. The group's natural focus is creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity so that former plant workers, their children and other residents will have a future in this area.
PACRO has pledged about $5 million for economic development initiatives that will expand industrial parks in the region and pay for the construction of buildings to lure industrial prospects.
Again, it appears that PACRO's critics are unable to grasp that the group cannot offset job losses at the enrichment plant without helping to create new industrial jobs. PACRO is using federal money to create the infrastructure needed to attract major industries to the area.
The organization is also trying to boost small business by making low-interest loans available for business ventures involving current and former plant employees and their families. It's not surprising that the loans approved so far haven't created businesses with jobs that pay enough to appeal to former plant workers. The point is, PACRO is encouraging entrepreneurship that will contribute to the long-term economic health of the region.
PACRO has budgeted more than $439,000 for retraining programs for workers whose jobs are eliminated at the gaseous diffusion plant. PACRO and USEC established a resource center in Paducah to provide career planning for displaced workers. This is direct assistance that eventually should help some former USEC employees find good jobs.
It needs emphasizing that PACRO is adhering to its mission as a "reuse" organization by making a program to recycle scrap-nickel from the plant a top priority. Community reuse organizations funded by the Department of Energy are supposed to seek new uses for nuclear facilities and their assets. The recycling of scrap-nickel at the Paducah plant could generate up to $12 million for the community.
One of the few specific criticisms leveled at PACRO by sources quoted in the Louisville story was that the group hasn't concentrated on keeping the enrichment plant open.
It's understandable that plant workers want to preserve USEC jobs. That, however, is not PACRO's purpose. The community resuse organizations were established to help the communities affected by layoffs at nuclear facilities deal with the economic problems created by the downsizing programs. Federal taxpayers aren't paying for these groups to lobby to keep the plants open.
The hard reality is that nuclear industry jobs are being axed and outdated plants are being closed. PACRO isn't trying to deny this reality — it's working to prepare the community to deal with it.