Plant cleanup gains momentum
The U.S. Department of Energy has taken some deserved lumps for its indifferent — and sometimes utterly negligent — performance as overseer of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. But even DOE's harshest critics, which include this editorial page, must acknowledge that over the past seven months the agency has made substantial progress in cleaning up the plant.
Obviously, the federal government has a long way to go in removing more than 40 years' worth of contamination from the plant grounds. Still, the people of the Paducah area are happy to see that DOE, with increased funding and a strong push from Congress, is capable of rapidly cleaning up some of the worst environmental hazards.
State environmental regulators also deserve credit for getting off the sidelines and putting real pressure on DOE to live up to its commitments to the state.
If Congress continues to provide funding and motivation while the state provides appropriate oversight, we believe DOE will complete the cleanup within 10-15 years.
That sounds like a long time, but consider this: DOE spent more than a decade and almost $400 million studying the contamination problem in Paducah. During that period not a single barrel of waste was removed from the site.
Since last spring the agency's contractors have leveled the infamous "drum mountain," which was made up of more than 85,000 drums of radioactive and hazardous waste.
Now DOE is moving on to an even greater environmental concern — 160 storage areas, some of which pose a small risk of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
A "criticality accident" wouldn't destroy the plant, but it could release dangerous amounts of radiation. Department of Energy officials responded somewhat casually to this threat until last year, when a special agency investigative team said eliminating the criticality risks should be given a high priority.
Next month contractors will begin cleaning up 33 high-priority sites. The entire project is expected to take five years to complete, but we hope DOE and its contractor tackle it with the same speed and determination they showed in hauling away drum mountain.
In any event, it's encouraging that the agency is trying to sustain the momentum the cleanup gained last year.
An impression is that the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet is working to sustain that momentum, too.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, state environmental regulators were less than aggressive in dealing with clear violations at the Paducah plant.
While environmental officials in Ohio and Tennessee were pressing to gain access to federal nuclear facilities in their states, Kentucky regulators were letting DOE have its way.
In the past year, Kentucky has gotten tougher with the federal government. State officials now are demanding that DOE follow through on its commitment to clean up the plant by 2010.
The state is right to aggressively enforce its environmental laws. A private industry that turned a plant site into a massive dumping ground for radioactive waste would face enormous legal and financial consequences. The federal government should not be protected from the consequences of its environmental failures.
Last year the federal government began to accept some of the consequences of those failures. Against that background, McCracken County residents have reason to believe that DOE will make even greater progress on the cleanup in 2001.