The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, March 14, 2001

New energy czar tells delegation he knows Paducah plant's needs
Spencer Abraham meets Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Jim Bunning and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield.

By Joe Walker

New Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is well aware of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant's unique funding needs, said three federal lawmakers who met with him Tuesday to get better acquainted.

"He, of course, as the secretary of energy, is going to support the president's (budget) number for his department, which the three of us think is likely to be adequate to do the job," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville. McConnell said Abraham understands the Kentucky delegation will seek as much congressional funding as it can for Paducah plant worker-health programs and cleanup.

McConnell, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, held a brief teleconference with reporters after the meeting in Washington, D.C. All have been intensely involved in plant budgetary matters, and criticized Abraham's predecessor, Bill Richardson, when they felt funding was inadequate and projects were lagging.

The lawmakers blamed the Department of Energy last year for undue delays in building facilities at Paducah and its sister plant in Piketon, Ohio, to convert tons of hazardous production waste into safer material in hopes of developing commercial uses. Earlier this month, DOE received five bids, and plans to award a contract in August.

Asked if that project is back on track, Whitfield said he is still apprehensive. "I do intend to remain pretty vocal about it because I do think it's an important component of cleaning up the site, as well as creating jobs," he said. "All of us talked about that, and stressed its importance."

Last month, quoting unnamed government sources, The Wall Street Journal reported plans to cut DOE's fiscal 2002 budget by $1 billion. The budget includes $400 million to clean up nuclear weapons plants in Paducah and at other locations.

On Tuesday, Abraham "was receptive" to the needs of the Kentucky delegation and indicated that a final budget had not be compiled, Whitfield said. But the lawmakers anticipate some cuts because DOE's overall budget rose abnormally from $17 billion for fiscal year 2000 and $19.7 billion for 2001, he said.

"It's infrequent that you have that kind of an increase in a budget over one year," Whitfield said. "So we're optimistic, yet we are realistic and know that we have a lot of work to do. The important thing is that we establish a rapport with him, and that he is now aware specifically of some of the problems we face at Paducah."

Whitfield said Abraham was educated on issues such as Paducah plant operator USEC Inc.'s long-term contract to buy uranium blended down from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads, and how that affects USEC's business.

The meeting dealt with a worker-health program that was partially funded last year, Bunning said. He, McConnell and Whitfield led legislation to pay workers and surviving families up to $150,000 for plant-related illness or death.

"I think he really knows that we're going to insist on the workers' plan to be completed, and that we're going to insist on the continuation of the funding for the cleanup," Bunning said. "People expect that and I don't think there's any question that he got a full understanding of that at our meeting today."