Rep. Whitfield says it is even possible to get added funding during Congress' action. It is not known what any cut would affect.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
"This is just a proposed plan, and Congress does not always accept that," he said. "In fact, last year it wasn't accepted, and we will have hope that maybe we could get some additional funding out of this."
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced Monday that DOE's $21.9 billion budget proposal to Congress is $570 million higher than for the current fiscal year, ending Oct. 1. The proposal includes $6.7 billion for environmental cleanup nationwide. Of that, $800 million is being set aside for "expedited cleanup" of sites that pose greatest public risk.
Whitfield said Paducah's share of the base amount is $73.5 million, down from $93.4 million this fiscal year. It was uncertain how the cut — similar to those at closed enrichment plants at Piketon, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn. — would affect jobs and cleanup schedules.
"It depends on where they take the $20 million," said Phil Potter, Washington-based policy analyst for Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International, which represents nearly half the Paducah plant's 1,500 workers. "But it's difficult to cut $20 million out of the programs and it not affect some jobs."
Another question mark is whether Paducah will qualify for some of the $800 million. DOE says sites that get the funding must reach agreements for faster schedules that show "measurable gains and accountability."
The Paducah plant is competing with nuclear weapons sites — such as Rocky Flats near Denver and Savannah River in South Carolina — that are among the nation's most contaminated, he said.
"Some people could argue that Rocky Flats and Savannah River have even more serious environmental problems than Paducah," Whitfield said, adding that Paducah has a good chance because of its history and because Congress will scrutinize the list.
Potter said he thinks Paducah will qualify because of its longtime problems, notably contaminated groundwater, scrap piles and nearly 40,000 cylinders of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) waste.
Whitfield said part of the "good news" is that the DOE budget increases from $16.4 million to $19.7 million the amount spent on cylinders. That includes $10 million toward building a facility to convert the hazardous material into something safer that might be used commercially.
The budget also raises from $2.4 million to $6.8 million the funding for Paducah plant security. DOE's total budget request of $21.9 billion includes $8 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an increase of $433 million. Of the increase, $358 million is for nationwide activities in response to the Sept. 11 terrorism.
The job-producing cylinder project has been repeatedly delayed since Congress mandated it in 1998, setting aside $373 million for the work. Last month, the Energy Department asked the three finalists to extend bids until the end of February. Whitfield repeated Monday that he thinks there is resistance by some in DOE and the Office of Management and Budget toward the project.
"It's our understanding that the companies submitting the bids have been led to believe that during the next 30 days, something is going to happen," he said. "I hope that's the case, and we're going to do everything we can to be sure that's the case, but I wouldn't take it to the bank yet."
Abraham said at a Washington news conference that his department is working with OMB on the cylinder project, as well as one to have a "competitive domestic uranium enrichment capacity." The Paducah plant is the nation's only enrichment facility, and DOE and Paducah plant operator USEC have been squabbling over the details of a plan to keep it running.
"We're in the process of trying to accomplish both those objectives," Abraham said without indicating when either issue would be resolved.
He said the changes in environmental spending stem from a "top-to-bottom" review of a plan calling for spending $300 billion over the next 70 years to clean up all DOE facilities.
Although $300 billion may be realistic, Abraham said, "70 years isn't something I can live with and it shouldn't be something that the people of the communities that have environmentally contaminated sites should have to live with."
He said the review showed that as much as two-thirds of annual environmental spending was going to maintenance and overhead costs at DOE facilities, instead of cleanup. "Our preference is to clean things up."