DOE gets moving on cleanup
Drum mountain is finally gone, but federal officials can't avoid the acid-laced question posed by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell: "If there was a presidential election every year, would cleanup of the (Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant) have been completed years ago?"
Perhaps a better question is this: If the controversy over the secret handling of highly radioactive materials at the plant had exploded 12 years ago, would the massive pile of rusted drums already be a distant memory?
When the U.S. Department of Energy began planning for the cleanup of the uranium enrichment facility more than 12 years ago, George Bush was in the White House and the word "plutonium" was rarely mentioned in connection with the plant.
Over the next decade DOE spent almost $400 million on the cleanup project without removing a single barrel of waste. This was "front-end work," a DOE official explained. The radioactive and chemical waste had to be monitored, studied and categorized before it could be removed, the official said.
It took DOE 12 years to study the waste, but less than three months to complete the challenging task of safely removing 85,000 crushed drums and preparing them for shipment to a waste disposal site in Utah.
We now know for sure that the federal bureaucracy has a high gear; unfortunately, it needs a scandal — and a presidential election — to shift into action.
The cleanup advanced at a glacial pace, with at least $300 million of the taxpayers' money spent on paper-shuffling and environmental management, until revelations about the use of the site as an unregulated nuclear waste dump during the Cold War began to spill out last year.
Most of the revelations stemmed from investigations that were initiated after current and former plant workers filed a lawsuit against former plant operators alleging that the companies lied about contamination in order to earn bonuses from the federal government.
As Sen. McConnell indicated, the cleanup operation really began picking up steam as the November election came into view.
Obviously, the Clinton administration has political reasons for making sure a "mountain" of contaminated material isn't sitting at a federal nuclear facility while Vice President Al Gore pushes his environmental agenda during the presidential election campaign.
Still, plant workers and the community as a whole are happy to know that drum mountain no longer exists. The waste problem is a health threat to workers and people who live nearby; it also hurts the community's image at a time when local leaders are trying to recruit new industry to offset layoffs at the plant.
News that the cleanup finally is progressing offers hope that the area eventually will be able to put this troubling episode behind it.
Drum mountain, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The plant grounds are littered with about 59,000 tons of scrap metal, groundwater in the area is contaminated and vacant buildings represent another radioactive contamination problem.
Don Seaborg, the DOE site manager, says the agency is investigating whether another mountain of waste is buried beneath the site of drum mountain.
To make matters worse, the General Accounting Office says DOE has grossly underestimated the cost of a complete cleanup, which could exceed $3 billion.
The energy department has been notably reluctant to fulfill a congressional mandate to build facilities at the Paducah plant and its sister plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, to convert uranium hexafluoride into a safer form for disposal or reuse.
More than 47,000 cylinders containing depleted uranium hexafluoride are stored in Paducah. The conversion facilities could provide up to 200 jobs for employees of the United States Enrichment Corp. who lose their jobs as a result of company cutbacks.
If DOE doesn't begin moving on the conversion facilities soon, the money Congress set aside for the projects may be lost to the general fund. That would be a significant blow to the plant cleanup as well as another loss for workers rocked by layoffs at USEC.
It's too bad we can't hold a presidential election every year, if that's what it takes to get this gigantic mess cleaned up.