The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

Gaining speed
DOE finally takes action

The U.S. Department of Energy is working much faster these days on the cleanup of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

It took nearly 12 years for the agency and its contractors to remove the first barrel of contaminated waste from the site. But once that crucial milestone was passed, the agency leveled the infamous "drum mountain" in just one summer.

Plant workers and the Paducah community now are hoping DOE shows similar speed in building facilities to convert mildly radioactive waste to a safer form.

After dragging their feet on the congressionally mandated project for almost two years, DOE officials announced Tuesday that they are seeking proposals for conversion facilities at the uranium enrichment plants in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio.

More than 47,000 cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6) are stored on the grounds of the Paducah plant.

Several months ago, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell pointedly asked, "If there was a presidential election every year, would cleanup of the (plant) have been completed years ago?"

Cynicism born of experience tells us "yes." Once the plant and its environmental problems became a high-profile political issue, the long-delayed cleanup was finally set in motion.

It's quite likely that the announcement that the United States Enrichment Corp. was shutting down the Portsmouth enrichment plant a move that will result in the loss of 1,400 jobs coupled with the exceptionally tight presidential election race, gave the Clinton administration the motivation it needed to begin seeking proposals for the conversion facilities.

It's expected that the conversion plants will create about 200 jobs for displaced USEC workers.

Regardless of the political implications of the decision, we're happy to see DOE commit itself to cleaning up the uranium waste.

Kentucky's congressional delegation and the governors of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee all pressed for action on the project, knowing that it was needed both to offset some of the USEC layoffs and to eliminate an environmental hazard at the plants.

The conversion plants obviously won't come close to providing enough jobs to take care of all the displaced USEC workers. However, they will create work that will last for at least two decades.

Moreover, DOE officials have said that long-term use of the material from the cylinders could eventually create hundreds of jobs.

The Paducah area also needs the infusion of jobs that a construction project of this size will provide.

It's obvious that the conversion facilities are needed to eliminate the safety and environmental threat posed by the open-air storage of the rusting, brittle cylinders.

Although the material contained in the cylinders isn't highly radioactive, a leak could result in the release of hazardous chemicals. Also, there is a remote but worrisome possibility of a fire involving the stored cylinders.

In short, the conversion facility represents an integral part of the long-term cleanup of the plant. A hope is that even after Election Day passes, DOE will continue to press for completion of the project.