The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, December 07, 2001

Waste conversion rumors swirling
Rumors recently surfaced that funding the conversion of hazardous waste into safer materials is no longer a priority.

By Joe Walker

A long-awaited, job-producing project to convert about 14 billion pounds of hazardous waste at the Paducah uranium enrichment plant into safer material may face another round of federal funding scrutiny as well as environmental and safety concerns.

Rumors recently surfaced within the nuclear industry that the Office of Management and Budget, Congress' financial arm, has told the Department of Energy that the conversion project is not a funding priority. That is despite a 1998 federal law calling for the work and earmarking about $373 million.

DOE officials, who held an environmental public meeting Thursday night regarding the project, said they were not aware of OMB concerns.

"It's news to me," said Kevin Shaw, program manager for DOE's depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6) program in Washington, D.C. "I'll look into it when I get back."

The rumors reportedly have concerned some, if not all, of the three groups of firms that are finalists for the work, which would build facilities at Paducah and its closed sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, to convert the UF6 into a safer material. The Energy Department is expected to name a winner this month, perhaps within days.

Ken Wheeler, chairman of a local task force promoting the Paducah plant's resources, said the rumor persists.

"I have not talked with anybody in the administration to confirm it, but I have the same report from two or three sources," he said. "It's frankly not clear to me how that could happen when the law of the land requires the process to move forward. But I guess the OMB is entitled to express a position."

Asked about the rumor, staffers for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, were checking its validity Thursday evening, but could not immediately respond. McConnell wrote legislation for the project, which could create about 150 jobs in each community. DOE hopes some parts of the material, particularly fluorine compounds, can be used commercially to generate about $200 million in revenue during the roughly 25 years of conversion work.

If the OMB has reservations, it would not be the first time. Labor leaders, civic officials and the congressional delegation have repeatedly criticized the OMB and Energy Department for foot-dragging on the cylinder project over budgetary issues. DOE delayed bidding for more than a year before resuming the process in late 2000.

Thursday night's meeting reflected continued concerns by some plant neighbors and watchdog groups about the safety of converting the material, stored in nearly 60,000 cylinders, some of which are rusty and have leaked. About two-thirds are at the Paducah plant, and the rest are at the Ohio plant and another closed enrichment facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Some spoke out about the potential for chemical or radiation releases from the cylinders in the event of a large plane crash.

"I live right there by the plant, and I was watching TV and saw what happened there in New York," said Ray English, part of a citizens' group worried about the cylinders. "I was sitting there waiting to hear the big boom at the plant."

DOE officials responded the material in the cylinders is too mildly radioactive for a nuclear criticality accident, but is a chemical threat because it emits hydrofluoric acid when it mixes with moisture in the air.

Gene Hoffman, a retired DOE metals expert from Oak Ridge, asked Shaw to include a large aircraft crash scenario in an environmental impact study for the cylinder project. He said previous studies have only addressed the crash of a small, private plane. Although the risk of a large plane crash is low, it would seriously threaten workers and the public if it happened, Hoffman said.

"My point is, if you don't ever consider it, how can you mitigate the damage?" he said.

Chamber of commerce, economic development and county government officials endorsed the conversion project because of its economic potential and the public safety risk of continuing to store the cylinders. Shaw said the 12-foot-long steel canisters cover about 42 acres at the three sites and, containing dense uranium, have a total weight about a tenth as much as the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

DOE’s preferred option of converting the material into uranium dioxide is expected to cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion and create several hundred construction jobs. Construction must start by Jan. 31, 2004.

The environmental study will assess worker and public health and environmental impacts of the conversion project. It also will gauge the facilities’ construction and effect on local employment, income, population, housing and public services.

A draft environmental impact statement is expected to be issued in June, followed by a 45-day public comment period.

A final statement, preceding a record of decision, is slated for January 2003.