The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, June 14, 2002

Action needed on uranium waste

A report from a federal health agency underscores the need for congressional action on a plan to build facilities at uranium enrichment plants in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio, to recycle more than 14 billion pounds of uranium waste.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the Paducah enrichment plant does not currently pose a health threat to people who live nearby.

However, the federal health specialists did point out that significant health and environmental problems could result from the release of depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is stored in more than 40,000 cylinders at the plant site.

The uranium waste is mildly radioactive and potentially toxic when exposed to air. Over a period of 50 years, the federal government has stored about 60,000 cylinders of UF6 at nuclear facilities in Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Federal health officials are concerned that one or more of the cylinders could rupture as a result of fire, a transportation accident or severe weather.

Perhaps it should also be noted that, in post-Sept. 11 America, the storage of any radioactive material is problematic, given the interest terrorists have shown in spreading radioactivity in U.S. population centers.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted that while accidents involving UF6 are "unlikely, they must be recognized as possible."

Simple prudence should compel the federal government to treat these cylinders as a potential health and environmental hazard.

The uranium waste has been accumulating at the plants for 50 years, and some of the cylinders are rusting and in poor condition. Removing the cylinders from their storage areas and transporting them by public highway to a new disposal area is not an appealing option.

Even so, elements of the federal bureaucracy have shown virtually no interest in efforts to convert the uranium waste into a safer form for disposal or reuse.

Four years ago Congress mandated the construction of uranium conversion facilities in Paducah and Portsmouth, but the plants are still stalled on the drawing boards of the bureaucracy.

At first energy department officials dragged their feet on the UF6 recycling project. Then, when DOE finally appeared ready to award a construction contract, the White House Office of Management and Budget intervened. Apparently, OMB officials think two conversion plants aren't needed, so they're pushing for the construction of one facility.

It's instructive to observe the contrast between the aggressiveness frequently displayed by federal officials when they're holding an industry accountable for an environmental problem and the inaction and indifference that have characterized the federal response to an environmental hazard the government itself created.

Almost certainly, it's just a question of time before the rusting cylinders become an environmental problem. And, if the government tries to move tons of waste from Paducah or Portsmouth and transport it to a single conversion site, the risk of an accident will substantially increase.

Still, there's no guarantee the UF6 will be safely disposed of or recycled.

It's encouraging that the Senate has included in a spending bill a provision written by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell that would force DOE to award construction contracts for the two conversion facilities.

However, prospects for House approval of a new mandate on the conversion plants are uncertain. Moreover, as McConnell has pointed out, there's no guarantee that President Bush will sign the supplemental appropriations bill that contains the provision on the Paducah and Portsmouth facilities.

People in the Paducah area tend to think of the uranium conversion project as an economic opportunity that will help the community mitigate the impact of job losses at the uranium enrichment plant.

But the federal health report is an indirect reminder that it's more than that it's the only plan in the works to remove a significant environmental and health hazard from communities that faithfully supported the nation's nuclear defense industry.