The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Monday, June 24, 2002

BREATHING ROOM
Good week for USEC workers


Last week was the best week for managers and workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant since the announcement two years ago that USEC Inc. had decided to consolidate its nuclear fuel production operations in Paducah.

In some ways, last week's news was even better because it provided more than the temporary relief that came from knowing USEC's ax would fall in Ohio instead of Kentucky.

In wrapping up an agreement with USEC designed to keep the plant running until at least 2010 and by OK'ing the company's new exclusive agency contract for Russian uranium, the Bush administration gave USEC workers and the entire community some needed breathing space.

For more than a decade now, plant employees and area residents have been suspended in a state of anxiety and uncertainty about the facility's future.

Clouds of uncertainty have gathered on the horizon, with some dissipating quickly and others lingering for long periods: The original Russian uranium deal, the privatization process, which ended government ownership of the plant and resulted in the creation of USEC; large-scale layoffs followed by rumors of the shutdown of one of the two USEC plants, the closing of the plant in Portsmouth, Ohio; USEC's financial woes and delays in negotiating a more favorable deal on the purchase of the Russian uranium; and finally the long silence of the Bush administration as it pondered its stance on the nation's nuclear fuel industry.

By no means has the uncertainty ended in less than eight years Paducah could find itself without the uranium enrichment industry that has provided thousands of good jobs in the region since the early 1950s.

But under the terms of the agreement USEC signed with the U.S. Department of Energy, the plant will run until the deadline for the company to begin operating a more efficient gas centrifuge plant in Paducah or Portsmouth.

USEC also agreed to maintain an annual production level of at least 3.5 million units of enriched uranium. This should ensure that future job cuts aren't devastating.

If USEC fails to comply with the terms of the deal, the energy department may assume control of the plant or replace the company with another contractor.

The agreement is "very positive for the Paducah plant and the workers," Leon Owens, president of the union that represents about half the workers at the plant, said.

Surely this is the first time in a while anyone associated with the plant has observed a very positive development.

USEC officials have reason to feel positive about the government's approval of the renegotiated Russian uranium pact.

By lowering the price it pays for the uranium imported from Russia, USEC should be able to stabilize its shaky financial position. The price of the enriched uranium produced by the outmoded and inefficient gaseous diffusion technology isn't competitive on the world market, but USEC can offset that by serving as the middle man for the cheaper Russian material.

It's a critical point that in this time of great concern about terrorist threats the USEC deal with Russia helps to safeguard the large stock of bomb-grade uranium produced by the military machine of the old Soviet Union.

Looking down the road to 2010, plant workers and local officials are prepared to make an all-out effort to keep the uranium enrichment industry in Paducah.

A hope is that USEC or another contractor will decide to locate gas centrifuge technology here; however, the community is also preparing to make the transition from an economy that has the nuclear fuel industry as a cornerstone to one that is more diversified.

Even in a best-case scenario, employment at the enrichment plant is going to fall sharply given that the efficient gas centrifuge technology probably will not require more than 500 workers. The gaseous diffusion plant currently has a workforce of about 1,500.

That's why it's so important for the region's economic development officials to continue work on developing a large industrial park in northern Graves County and other incentives to attract new industries.

For now, though, plant workers and people throughout the region can pause and take a deep breath while the roller-coaster ride of the past 10 years slows to a steadier pace.