Task force has sound strategy
If they succeed — and there are solid reasons to believe they will — the plant's troubled recent history will be remembered as the prelude to a brighter future.
A task force chaired by retired Paducah businessman Ken Wheeler traveled to Washington recently to press the case for converting the Information Age Park into a research and development center focused on energy issues and environmental cleanup.
Virtually every party with a stake in the plant's future and the Department of Energy's cleanup operation was represented in meetings with the task force.
Incoming University of Kentucky President Lee Todd and the dean of the UK College of Engineering endorsed the effort. They joined in talks that included members of the Kentucky congressional delegation, United States Enrichment Corp. chief Nick Timbers, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's staff and officials with the union that represents most workers at the gaseous diffusion plant.
Todd's participation was especially significant, given that any plan for developing the Info Park into a research center must involve a major research university. University of Louisville officials also are interested in helping the area exploit the research opportunities inherent in the uranium enrichment process and the cleanup of contamination at the plant site.
Paducah is a natural location for research and development projects related to the enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel and the disposal of wastes from that process.
The USEC plant in Paducah and the Honeywell plant in Metropolis, Ill., are the nation's only facilities for enriching uranium for use as nuclear fuel. The future of these financially troubled plants is a matter of national concern.
It should be noted that the timing of the local group's journey to Washington was excellent.
President Bush is pushing a national energy plan that calls for renewed development of nuclear power. In addition, national security officials and DOE administrators are conducting a policy review on nuclear energy.
The policy review could have tremendous implications for Paducah's role in the uranium fuel cycle. Fortunately for the region, the task force has a vision for strengthening and expanding that critical role.
Basically, the task force is working on a two-pronged strategy emphasizing research into more efficient uranium enrichment methods and the development of new cleanup technology.
If USEC is to improve its competitive position on the world market, the company must come up with a technology to replace the costly, outmoded gaseous diffusion process.
As for environmental cleanup, DOE is dealing with problems at the Paducah plant that currently have no viable solution.
These tasks could be tackled by UK and U of L researchers, working with the Paducah Community College engineering program.
The idea makes sense. For at least the next decade the federal government is going to be pouring money into the cleanup of the plant site. Why not use this project to develop innovative cleanup and recycling techniques?
This type of research would benefit the entire nation — not just western Kentucky. Wheeler made that point when he remarked, "I think we tried hard not to just sound like we were a bunch of 'poor-me's' looking for a handout. We expanded on ... turning this thing into a possible asset, instead of just being a sinkhole for funds."
Wheeler is right: this is not a defensive, please-help-us proposal. It has a positive, self-confident quality that we think bodes well for Paducah's future role in the nuclear industry.