Richardson ignores Paducah area
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was so concerned about the condition of the U.S. uranium enrichment industry and the fate of workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant that he ordered more than 600 million federal dollars spent on a demonstration project in the Ohio city.
But it's worth wondering why he isn't similarly concerned about the United States Enrichment Corp. facility in Paducah, which may be put out of business by the new technology in Portsmouth, and a struggling plant in Metropolis, Ill., that plays a critical role in the processing of nuclear fuel.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell raised this issue in a letter he wrote to Richardson last week. McConnell was responding to Richardson's recent announcement that the Department of Energy will take $630 million of the $725 million that was set aside when USEC Inc., the operator of the two enrichment plants, was privatized in a stock sale, and use it to build a gas centrifuge plant in Portsmouth.
Richardson said DOE was acting to bolster the competitiveness of the U.S. enrichment industry, and to help Portsmouth workers by keeping the Ohio plant on "standby" while the demonstration project is completed.
In June USEC announced that, as a cost-cutting measure, it would close the Portsmouth plant.
A different take on the energy secretary's announcement on the gas centrifuge project is that it was intended to improve Al Gore's chances of winning Ohio's 21 electoral votes in the Nov. 7 election.
Certainly, it's hard to square his concern for the future of Portsmouth with a broad interest in keeping the U.S. uranium enrichment industry viable.
Sen. McConnell notes in his letter that the Honeywell plant in Metropolis, which converts natural uranium into uranium hexafluoride, is on the verge of closing.
If the Honeywell plant is shut down, the nation will be left without a supplier of feed material for the enrichment process.
Yet, as McConnell points out, Richardson doesn't propose any assistance for the conversion plant, which is suffering from the market glut created by uranium USEC is importing from Russia
Richardson doesn't show a great deal of interest in the plight of USEC workers in Paducah, either.
As a result of USEC downsizing, more than 400 jobs have been eliminated in Paducah.
The remaining jobs at the plant clearly are threatened by Richardson's decision to deploy the more efficient gas centrifuge technology in Portsmouth.
McConnell observes that Richardson hasn't made it clear whether a centrifuge will be located in Paducah. The senator asks him to go on the record as "supporting future deployment of the centrifuge plant at Paducah as well as Portsmouth."
Portsmouth has the obvious advantage of having a facility ready to house the centrifuge technology, as well as the political clout associated with Ohio's key role in deciding the outcome of the presidential election.
This helps explain why Richardson feels free to drag his feet on helping Paducah with relatively small measures such as allocating adequate funds to clean up the contaminated plant site and to build a facility to convert depleted uranium into a safer form.
The conversion facility would provide around 100 jobs for displaced USEC workers and eliminate more than 40,000 cylinders of uranium waste that currently are stored on the plant grounds.
But DOE has failed to move the project forward, despite pressure from McConnell and other members of the Kentucky congressional delegation.
In essence, McConnell's letter asks that Richardson do something for the enrichment industry besides lavish funding on a technology that is still under development.
If nothing else, Richardson's response to that request will show the extent to which the nation's energy policy decisions are driven by purely political considerations.