Companies haveuntil Feb. 1 to respond to the request. A contract should be awarded in July.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
After delays of more than a year, the Department of Energy has resumed procurement to design, build and run facilities to convert about 14 billion pounds of hazardous, mildly radioactive waste at uranium enrichment plants in Paducah and southern Ohio.
On Tuesday, DOE issued a request for proposals via the Internet, keeping a promise Energy Secretary Bill Richardson made months ago to resume the process by October. Private companies must respond by Feb. 1 and the contract is expected to be awarded in July.
DOE spokeswoman Hope Williams said the chosen contractor may hasten the process, but the government's plan is to have the facilities built by February 2005, tested during the next seven months and operational that November.
That schedule conflicts with 1998 legislation led by Sen. Mitch McConnell requiring the conversion plants to be built by 2004. Richardson had promised to have them running sooner.
McConnell said that although the news "has a hint of election-eve politics," he welcomes it. Richardson is a cabinet head in the Clinton-Gore administration and once was rumored to be a potential running mate for Vice President Al Gore in his bid for the presidency.
"I am pleased Secretary Richardson finally released his proposal, and I hope this means the Department of Energy will make conversion of (the material) a top priority," McConnell said in a written statement. "Better late than never."
The facilities will convert 57,000 cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6) to a more stable form and prepare the material for disposal or potential reuse. About 47,000 of the cylinders are stored outdoors at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant which, along with its sister plant at Piketon, Ohio, is mandated to receive the facilities. The rest of the containers are at Piketon and at a closed enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
DOE delayed the proposal process several times last year, drawing heavy criticism from the international atomic workers' union, as well as federal lawmakers and governors from Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. Congress set aside $373 million in a special interest-bearing Treasury fund, but it must be appropriated by February 2002 or be lost to the general fund unless the deadline is extended.
"We are committed to dealing effectively with our depleted uranium inventory and continuing the environmental restoration of these sites," Richardson said in a news release. "The issuance of this request for proposals puts us one step closer to addressing the government's inventory of depleted uranium hexafluoride at the gaseous diffusion plant sites."
David Fuller, president of the Paducah atomic workers' union, said conversion work at Paducah will generate 75 to 100 jobs, depending on which company is hired and the technology used. The facility would help offset some of hundreds of jobs lost at the plant in the last two years because of the financial troubles of operator USEC Inc., he said.
"We consider this long overdue, but at the same time we're glad it's finally out on the street," he said of procurement. "It will provide jobs in case of more bad news from USEC and serve the community in that DOE will begin to deal with this waste."
The material is in 10- and 14-ton steel cylinders that must be regularly inspected and protected from corrosion. Fuller said some of the cylinders are nearly 50 years old and, despite considerable maintenance, are rusting, brittle and subject to leakage. The material, a by-product of enrichment work, is a granular solid that can release hazardous chemicals under certain conditions.
In July 1999, DOE issued a record of decision to proceed with the project. The selected contractor will design and build the plants, and run them for five years. The department estimates it will take as long as 25 years of plant operations to convert all the depleted uranium.
The request for proposals is available via the Internet at www.oro.doe.gov/duf6disposition/.
DOE says the work includes maintaining depleted uranium and product inventories, transporting depleted uranium from Oak Ridge to one of the conversion plants, and carrying unused converted material to a disposal site and arranging for disposal.
Despite resumed procurement, the conversion facilities could face regulatory delays along with big funding questions. Costs range from $700 million to $2.5 billion to build and operate the plants.
According to a June DOE report, there are "significant uncertainties regarding the time and cost" needed to make the material compliant with approved disposal sites if it can't be reused. More regulatory actions may be needed because disposal was not included in the 1999 record of decision, which dealt with recycling, the report said.
The report said if changes are needed to the record of decision or a related environmental impact statement, they will delay start-up.
The preferred option of converting the material into uranium dioxide is expected to cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. DOE says that is the "most promising" because of potential large-scale use in making heavy concrete components for dry, spent nuclear-fuel storage silos and to fill voids in repositories for spent-fuel assemblies.