The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, June 29, 2001

DOE review a boost for plants
The review will define long-term nuclear energy policy for the USEC and Honeywell plants, including plans for a research park.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Paducah and Metropolis, Ill., which now provide the sole work for two major parts of the domestic nuclear fuel cycle, are at the core of a major national policy review on nuclear energy.

Spurred by Kentucky's Capitol Hill delegation, the review by the Department of Energy and National Security Council is key to the economic viability of the Paducah area, said Ken Wheeler, chairman of a task force wanting to transform the Information Age Park into a national laboratory for energy-related research and development.

"The purpose of the review is to define a long-term uranium fuel cycle policy for the country that surely doesn't exist now," said Wheeler, a retired Paducah businessman. "That entails a terrifically broad scope of things that have to be considered."

Atop the list is survival of the Honeywell specialty chemicals plant at Metropolis and the USEC uranium enrichment plant west of Paducah, collectively employing more than 1,800 people. Honeywell supplies raw product to USEC, which enriches uranium hexafluoride (UF6) used in 103 nuclear power plants that supply 22 percent of the nation's electricity.

The Metropolis and Paducah plants are the only facilities in the United States that perform their respective steps in the nuclear fuel cycle. Their future is jeopardized by a glutted uranium market and low prices.

"The fact that our delegation has seen fit to raise the question and DOE has acknowledged they need to do this (policy review) is very encouraging," Wheeler said. "I think what this policy will stimulate — not from the standpoint of building new nuclear power plants — is a decision on what plants are to remain."

Wheeler and four other members of the task force held a series of high-level meetings Wednesday in Washington. Joining them were University of Kentucky President-elect Dr. Lee Todd and Tom Lester, dean of the UK College of Engineering. Todd flew from the West Coast to be involved.

"Having Dr. Todd there was a terrific asset for us," Wheeler said. "It added a lot of credibility. It certainly meant a great deal more than just coming from us."

Todd wants the university to establish a major presence in western Kentucky in research and development. On June 1, Lester wrote retiring Paducah Community College President Dr. Len O’Hara — a longtime advocate of the research park idea — saying UK would help the PCC College of Engineering regarding environmental cleanup and advanced uses of discarded resources at the USEC plant.

Other task force members in Washington were Firstar Regional President Bill Jones, Paxton Media Chairman Fred Paxton, local neurosurgeon Dr. Bob Meriwether and Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce President Elaine Spalding. Meriwether, a UK graduate, is on the university's board of trustees.

The group held a joint meeting with Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, 1st District Rep. Ed Whitfield, and their staffs. McConnell and Whitfield said they spend more time on production, environmental and worker-health issues at the uranium plant than anything else, Wheeler said.

Separate discussions were held with 5th District Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky; USEC Chief Executive Officer William "Nick" Timbers and his staff; Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's staff; and officials of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International.

The USEC-run plant is owned by the Energy Department, which oversees massive cleanup work. The energy workers union represents more than half the plant's 1,500 employees.

The task force was formed to give the community a unified voice toward converting the information park into a national research and development complex focused on energy and environmental cleanup, keying on plant resources. Research by task force member Stuart Gilbert, president of the Greater Paducah Economic Development Council, suggests that a laboratory and other plant-related endeavors are worth nearly $7 billion to the local economy.

UK, the Energy Department and USEC are among the businesses and institutions that have expressed interest in the park’s resource center, which Gilbert’s council wants to sell for $3.5 million.

Wheeler said the Washington meetings established it is "mutually beneficial" for the government and community to make better use of plant resources. All the people who met with the task force complimented the concert local support for the plant, he said.

"I think we tried hard not to just sound like we were a bunch of 'poor-me's' looking for a handout," Wheeler said. "We expanded on ... turning this thing into a possible asset, instead of just being a sinkhole for funds."

The task force wants the park and engineering school to have an major role in developing technology to replace outdated gaseous diffusion, clean up the plant, and recycle and commercialize depleted UF6, metal and other waste.