The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, August 10, 2001

McConnell upbeat about U.S. uranium enrichment
As Bush and his cabinet members debate the domestic production of nuclear fuel, McConnell speculates they will support the industry.

By Bill Bartleman bbartleman@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

The future of the uranium enrichment industry in the United States is being debated at the highest levels of government, and a decision should be made by the end of September, according to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

President Bush's top cabinet members Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are debating the pros and cons of the domestic production of nuclear fuel, Kentucky's senior senator said.

McConnell said he hasn't been involved in the discussion, but he speculated the decision will be to continue to support the industry because 22 percent of the nation's electricity is produced with nuclear fuel, and because of the importance of having nuclear weapons-producing capability.

"Once that decision is made, they'll take a look at the issue of the Russian uranium," he said in reference to the debate over who should be the agent for reprocessing and selling fuel that was once used in Russia's nuclear weapons.

The issues are important to Paducah, site of the nation's only plant to enrich uranium for use as nuclear fuel. The plant is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and run by the U.S. Enrichment Corp. About 1,500 people work at the plant.

Without a domestic production facility, the United States would be dependent on other countries for nuclear fuel. McConnell said he doesn't think that is a wise idea.

The White House debate also should include discussion of options on how to keep the industry viable, such as development and implementation of new enrichment technologies, McConnell said.

The United States has a contract to buy $8 billion worth of uranium from Russia that was once used in 25,000 nuclear weapons. USEC currently holds an exclusive contract to process the Russian uranium and sell it as fuel for nuclear power generating plants.

However, the contract expires at the end of the year and the Bush administration is debating whether to renew the contract or add a second agent.

USEC says it is important it remains the sole agent in order to stay competitive in the world enrichment market. USEC also wants Russia to reduce its prices for the uranium.

McConnell would not express his view on whether the deal with USEC should be continued. "I have decided that before I pick sides, I want to hear the results of the internal review by the Bush administration," he said.

Union workers at the USEC plant soundly rejected a new contract offer because it was tied to the future of the Russian uranium deal. Union leaders say they wouldn't agree to that because it was an issue they do not control.

McConnell said he wouldn't take sides in the contract issue: "I'm not going to offer advice to either side on how to negotiate a contract."

A decision on the Russian uranium issue should be made be the end of the year, prior to the expiration of the contract with USEC, he said.

On other issues during a meeting with the Paducah Sun editorial board, McConnell said the patients' bill of rights that defines how health management organizations can operate is not as important to Americans as the issue of prescription drug benefits.

He said most of the disagreement over the patients' bill of rights has involved limiting the amount of liability HMOs have for making wrong decisions. "The debate is over how rich we want to make lawyers," he said.

McConnell said he would encourage President Bush to veto the Patients' Bill of Rights "if he doesn't feel it is in the best interest of the country." Politically, he said, Bush could survive a veto if he did a good job of explaining the veto was driven by the litigation issue, not the direct benefits to consumers.

"A prescription drug benefit is the big issue that people care about," McConnell said. "It is just as important in health care as benefits for doctors and hospitals have been in the past."

He predicted some form of benefit plan will be added to the Medicare program before the end of the year. He favors using it as leverage to do a complete reform of the Medicare system.