Metropolis plant needs federal aid
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said he was protecting "U.S. energy security" by sending more than $600 million to Portsmouth, Ohio, to build a new uranium enrichment plant. Perhaps it's not surprising, given his record on other national security issues, that he managed to completely ignore a far more pressing threat to the domestic supply of nuclear fuel.
The Honeywell plant in Metropolis, Ill., is the only facility in the nation that converts natural uranium to uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, the feed material used by United States Enrichment Corp. plants in Paducah and Portsmouth.
Somehow it seems to have escaped the attention of Secretary Richardson that the Honeywell plant, rocked by a steep decline in the price of UF6 — a decline caused mainly by the Clinton administration's agreement to buy uranium from Russia — is on the verge of shutting down its conversion operation.
The loss of Honeywell's conversion services would leave the United States without a domestic source of UF6. Clearly, this would jeopardize "energy security" by making the nation dependent on foreign nuclear fuel.
And, surely, it is a bigger worry than the loss of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. In June, USEC announced that it would close the Ohio facility, leaving Paducah as the lone enrichment plant.
But when planned upgrades are completed, the Paducah plant will provide all the production capacity the financially struggling USEC needs.
Richardson's decision to use DOE funds to deploy gas centrifuge technology at Portsmouth was good news for Ohio workers — and good news for Vice President Al Gore, too.
Gore is battling to keep George W. Bush from winning Ohio in the upcoming election. It helps the Gore campaign to have an energy secretary who is able to equate national security with protecting some 1,400 jobs in a key swing state.
Still, that leaves disaster looming in Metropolis. Apparently, Richardson is not convinced that "U.S. energy security" is riding on Honeywell's ability to stay in the conversion business.
The jobs of about 250 Honeywell workers and the economic stability of Massac County also are at stake.
As a result of the uranium glut caused by USEC imports from Russia, the price of converting a kilogram of UF6 has fallen from $5.50 to $2.50 in just two years. Honeywell has cut its workforce by 50 employees and reduced production by more than 25 percent, but its conversion operation is still on the ropes.
As U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell put it in a letter he wrote to Richardson recently, "time is running out" on the Metropolis plant. Yet the Clinton administration has remained silent on what plans, if any, it has for saving the facility.
"Am I to infer, by the absence of a proposal in your ... announcement, that this administration does not support an assistance program to protect the remaining U.S. uranium converter?" McConnell wrote.
The plight of the Honeywell plant has been apparent for some time. Last spring company officials told a congressional committee that the conversion business was in dire straits.
Maybe Richardson's view of the Metropolis plant and its problems was obstructed by Ohio and its 21 electoral votes. But with Illinois Gov. George Ryan, U.S. Rep. David Phelps, a Democrat whose district includes Metropolis, and Sen. McConnell all pressing for federal aid to the conversion plant, the energy secretary can't simply ignore the issue.
A hope is that Richardson and congressional leaders can agree very soon on a plan to shore up the conversion plant. As a union leader who represents atomic workers in Metropolis noted, next year it may be too late to save this vital part of the U.S. nuclear fuel processing industry.