The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, January 22, 2002

End the delays
It's time for action on recycling

What is it going to take to persuade the federal government to build conversion plants for radioactive waste it generated for nearly 50 years in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio? An act of Congress?

No, wait a minute Congress passed legislation four years ago requiring the government to do just that. So why are the people of this community and the people of Portsmouth still waiting for the promised jobs and relief from the hazards associated with the storage of the mildly contaminated uranium waste?

The U.S. Department of Energy was set last week to announce that a contractor had been selected for the projects, which involve converting billions of pounds of depleted uranium hexafluoride into safer form for disposal or commercial reuse.

More than 40,000 canisters of depleted uranium are stored on the grounds of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. At least 20,000 more are stored at the closed uranium enrichment plants in Portsmouth and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield led the fight in Congress for the conversion legislation.

The purpose of the proposed plants is to eliminate the safety and environmental risks of storing the materials, to create jobs for workers whose jobs were eliminated as a result of the privatization of the enrichment industry and to open up economic development opportunities related to the commercial reuse of the depleted uranium.

Clearly these objectives are worthy of federal funding, especially considering the federal government's role in creating the environmental problems in Paducah and Portsmouth.

Nevertheless, supporters of the project, including community leaders in Paducah, have been repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to move the conversion plants through the labyrinthine federal bureaucracy.

When DOE was under the leadership of Clinton administration appointee Bill Richardson, administrators in that agency stubbornly resisted taking action on the congressionally mandated conversion facilities.

But now that DOE answers to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who was appointed by President Bush, the agency has given its blessing to the conversion projects.

With the DOE hurdle cleared, conversion supporters were poised last week to celebrate the selection of a contractor and what appeared to be the inevitable beginning of construction.

Then, literally at the last minute, someone in the federal bureaucracy, playing the comic-strip Lucy to the conversion backers' Charlie Brown, snatched the "football" away again, leaving the communities to wonder when, if ever, the promised facilities will be built.

The culprit this time apparently is the Office of Management and Budget and its director, Mitch Daniels.

According to reports, Daniels isn't happy with the cost of the conversion plants and is looking for a cheaper waste-disposal alternative.

We don't believe he'll find it at least not in the next 25 years. In all likelihood it will take that long for the government to fend off lawsuits stemming from a renewed attempt to use the Yucca Mountain, Nev., site as a burial ground for nuclear waste.

The conversion plants offer a timely and proven method for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste. Conversion facilities already are in operation in Europe. It's past time for this country to begin recycling the waste by-products of nuclear plants.

Recycling is the only way for the government to change low-level nuclear waste from an environmental negative into an economic plus.

Thousands of new jobs could be created if researchers find safe commercial uses for the recycled waste. Conversely, the possibility of productive innovation will be lost if Bush administration budget crunchers succeed in killing the conversion projects.

A hope is that Sen. McConnell will be able to use his considerable influence in Washington to finally free the conversion plants from the clutches of the federal bureaucracy.

These plants make good economic and environmental sense. And, in a crucial congressional election year, they make sense politically too.

In any event, the people of Paducah and Portsmouth have waited long enough to see the results of this "act of Congress."