He said he wants both plants because if Paducah got the only conversion facility, then Portsmouth might get the only centrifuge upgrade as a trade-off.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Bunning, R-Southgate, said each of the conversion plants would mean 150 to 200 jobs for 20 to 25 years. He said having facilities at Paducah and its closed sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio, would hasten cleanup of depleted uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, rather than having to transfer thousands of waste cylinders from one place to another.
There also is the political concern that if Paducah gets the only conversion plant, the new centrifuge technology will be built at Portsmouth as a trade-off, he said.
"If you're concerned about not receiving new technology, you have reason to be concerned," he told regional economic development leaders Wednesday during a visit to Paducah. "Paducah needs to receive the new technology in order to remain competitive, and I have talked to USEC (the plant operator) about that."
Bunning spoke at a finance committee meeting of the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization, known as PACRO, and met privately with managers and union leaders at the Paducah plant.
Gas centrifuge is being studied to gradually replace outdated gaseous diffusion used at Paducah's 1,500-employee enrichment plant. Bunning said centrifuge technology will employ 300 to 400 people.
Bunning said the Department of Energy has not decided where and how many centrifuge facilities to build. "They're going to have to make a decision on that very shortly, I would say by the end of this year. It all depends, in my opinion, on how USEC negotiates with the Russians on this exclusive contract for Russian uranium, and how viable USEC maintains itself." He said he met recently with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
USEC wants lower prices for the uranium it imports from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads. The cheaper prices are essential to keep the Paducah plant open by offsetting the plant's higher-priced UF6, the company says.
The Energy Department reportedly is ready to offer USEC help to keep open the Paducah plant, the nation's only enrichment facility, if USEC closes the Russian deal. In return, USEC would promise to run the plant at specified production levels, or turn it back over to the government if it failed.
"USEC as of last week was about as close to closing the deal with the Russians as they had been anytime," Bunning said. "DOE was pushing them to close so they can work out a final agreement with USEC on the enrichment plant here."
Bunning said union officials expressed concern about job losses because of the Russian deal. "You may have heard rumors that there are going to be layoffs at the Paducah plant," he said. "I know of no plans presently, but that doesn't mean there might not be."
Congress is in a "continuing fight" with the Energy Department and the Office of Management and Budget over how many conversion plants to build and where, he said. After repeated delays the past four years, DOE was ready to award a contract in January, but abruptly asked the three finalists to extend their bids through the end of February.
Bunning said he doubts a contract will be awarded by Feb. 28, adding, "I tend to think that we're getting the straight answers from OMB and we're not getting the straight answers from DOE."
Despite resistance from both agencies, he said, 1998 federal law is clear that conversion facilities be built at Paducah and Portsmouth, and be operational by 2007. Bunning said he told Abraham he would hold the Energy Department's "feet to the fire" until the work gets done.
Although the DOE budget calls for cutting Paducah plant cleanup money by about $20 million for fiscal year 2003, starting Oct. 1, Bunning said he and the rest of the Kentucky delegation will oppose that. He said the proposed cut is roughly the same as during the last year of the Clinton administration, but Congress raised it to about $90 million.
"We'll get it back up to where we're at least on what we consider a 10- to 12-year plan to do it," he said. "If we drop below $100 million (annually), were going to be stretching that cleanup out there 15 or 20 years and that's unsatisfactory."