Centrifuge plan timed to help Gore
The Committee to Elect Al Gore, formerly known as the U.S. Department of Energy, is throwing a large bone to southern Ohio voters, hoping to convince them that the vice president will save the jobs of workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
This effort should not escape the attention of people who work at Paducah's uranium enrichment facility.
Last Friday Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced DOE will spend $700 million building a gas centrifuge demonstration plant in Portsmouth. The centrifuge is supposed to replace the 50-year-old gaseous diffusion process currently used to enrich uranium at United States Enrichment Corp. facilities in Paducah and Portsmouth.
In June financially troubled USEC announced that it would close the Portsmouth plant, leaving Paducah as its only enrichment facility.
Although Paducah survived the USEC cut, the DOE plan to build a gas centrifuge in Portsmouth reinforces the view that time may be running out on the Paducah plant.
Congressman Ed Whitfield, who represents Kentucky's 1st District, was understated in his assessment of the news about the centrifuge. "I can, in good conscience, say I believe this does have something to do with politics," Whitfield told the Sun. "Vice President Gore is behind in Ohio, and this is three or four weeks prior to the election."
It's obvious that Richardson's announcement had everything to do with politics.
Keep in mind that DOE has dragged its feet for two years on building recycling facilities for depleted uranium in Paducah and Portsmouth. Now, suddenly, with the election a month away, the agency has come up with $700 million to build a gas centrifuge plant in a key state in the presidential battle between Gore and George W. Bush.
The announcement that the energy department will keep most of the Portsmouth workers on "standby" while the centrifuge plant is built clearly was intended to give Gore's chances in Ohio a boost.
Over the past six months Richardson has practically turned the federal energy bureaucracy into a campaign organization for Gore.
In July he suspended sales of radioactive metals recycled from DOE facilities, citing vague health and safety concerns. The agency had previously said the recycling process removed nearly all radioactive contaminants from the metals.
Richardson's move appealed to what U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee called "key constituencies" — environmental groups and organized labor — that oppose the recycling program.
Given the political orientation of DOE, Portsmouth workers would be wise to reserve judgment on the gas centrifuge plan until after the Nov. 7 election.
The five-year timetable Richardson gave for the completion of the demonstration plant is questionable. Industry analysts have said it would take USEC and DOE at least eight years to develop and deploy the gas centrifuge technology.
Richardson's timetable may well have been designed with Gore's short-term political prospects in mind.
Even so, there's no question that Portsmouth is a logical location for the gas centrifuge. DOE built a facility for a centrifuge at Portsmouth during the 1980s, before the agency decided to pursue a laser-based process that ultimately failed to produce the expected results.
The building at Portsmouth probably represents USEC's cheapest option for deploying a more efficient alternative to gaseous diffusion. That puts the long-term future of Paducah's gaseous diffusion plant in serious doubt.
Richardson's announcement should serve as a reminder to Paducah leaders that the political math also favors Ohio. The Buckeye State has 21 electoral votes; Kentucky has eight.
Although USEC is a private company now, its partnership with DOE in developing new enrichment technology means that politics will continue to play a role in company decisions.
This should give more impetus to efforts to recruit new industries to the Paducah area. Clearly, the region can no longer depend on the federal government and its politically-motivated bureaucrats to provide jobs in the uranium enrichment industry.