The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, March 02, 2002

State suit urged for two UF6 sites

By Joe Walker

Union workers at the Paducah uranium enrichment plant want the state to go to court to force the Department of Energy to clean up almost a half-million metric tons of uranium hexafluoride waste.

"The foot-dragging on this major cleanup project is simply inexcusable," said Leon Owens, president of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Local 5-550. "From our perspective, it appears that the prospect of fines and penalties is one of the few avenues of recourse available to the state."

Owens made the comments in a Thursday letter asking Kentucky Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford to intervene. He copied the letter to Gov. Paul Patton and the Kentucky congressional delegation that pushed the 1998 federal law requiring that plants be built at Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, to convert the waste, known as depleted UF6, into a safer form.

DOE has delayed the project repeatedly during the last four years. On Thursday, it told the three finalist bidders for the two plants that it will now consider building only one, and not make a decision until at least 2003 on how many and where.

The law requires construction to begin at the two sites by Jan. 31, 2004. Each plant would create 150 to 200 jobs, largely involving blue-collar labor.

"The union is very disturbed in regard to the announcement made Thursday," Owens said in an interview. "We'll continue our legislative efforts, and hopefully the state of Kentucky will consider some formal action against DOE to pressure them to heed this law."

He asked Bickford to determine if the cylinders should be regulated as hazardous waste, requiring an enforceable plan to clean them up. Some of the Paducah plant's 37,000 cylinders of plant production byproduct have been stored since the plant started operating in the early 1950s.

Natural Resources Cabinet spokesman Mark York said he had not seen the letter, but state officials have urged DOE "at every opportunity" to address the cylinder problem. He said Bickford met recently with DOE headquarters officials about environmental issues, including the cylinders.

Kentucky has traditionally used diplomacy rather than legal action on hazardous waste issues at the plant, but York said the cabinet will explore the union's request to consider the waste material hazardous.

Owens' letter said Ohio previously concluded the waste can lawfully be considered hazardous.

The letter said the one-plant option makes little economic sense. "This is largely due to the new Department of Transportation rules that require 'overpacking' and will drive up the costs of relocating the tens of thousands of 14-ton (UF6) cylinders from Kentucky to Ohio or vice versa. The Bush administration has received an economic assessment pointing out the fallacy that a single plant would save money over the life span of this 20-year project."

Paducah has about two-thirds of all the waste cylinders. The rest are at Piketon and another closed enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn.