DOE finally takes action
A hope is that the government finally is prepared to accept its responsibility for this important part of the cleanup of the uranium enrichment plants. Until recently, the overall cleanup in Paducah, the most contaminated of the two sites, had proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace.
With the awarding of the contract for the construction of the conversion facilities, Paducah residents have reason to believe the Department of Energy is making real progress in eliminating this environmental mess.
Last month, when President Bush signed an anti-terrorism bill that included a provision ordering DOE to award a contract for the conversion projects within 30 days, Sen. Mitch McConnell remarked, "It has been a long, hard fight, but now we can finally focus on the real issue — cleaning up this hazardous waste."
The awarding of the contract is an important milestone, but experience has taught Paducah residents that very little about the plant cleanup can be considered certain until the actual work begins.
McConnell, using his clout as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, played a key role in ensuring the contract was finally awarded.
Legislation approved by Congress in 1998 set aside $373 million for uranium waste conversion plants in Paducah and Portsmouth.
The purpose of the plants is to convert uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, to a safer form for disposal or reuse. These facilities also are intended to provide jobs to mitigate the impact of layoffs associated with the privatization of the uranium enrichment industry.
McConnell and 1st District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield have engaged in a long-running battle with the DOE bureaucracy over the conversion plants. The awarding of the contract ensures the engineering work on the project will be completed, but the fight over funding is likely to continue next year.
Given the Kentucky congressional delegation's commitment to the project, it's possible the recycling of more than 37,000 cylinders of uranium waste could begin well before the end of the current decade.
Many of the cylinders are rusted and leaking, making them vulnerable to fire. In addition to removing an environmental problem, the recycling project will eliminate a serious public safety hazard.
The beneficial economic effects of the conversion project should not be underestimated.
Hundreds of jobs have been lost in Paducah and Portsmouth since the privatization. Despite the cutbacks at the USEC plant, the Paducah economy is still sound; however, it's difficult for a community to replace manufacturing and technical jobs of this quality.
The construction phase of the conversion project will create at least 400 jobs, and each conversion plant will employ about 150 permanent workers.
It's also possible the project will generate spin-off work in the commercial reuse of depleted uranium.
Local leaders, Gov. Patton and the congressional delegation are working hard to bring new uranium enrichment technology to Paducah. That effort is critical for the local economy; even so, the plant cleanup and the conversion work could end up creating more jobs than a new generation enrichment facility.
This should give local leaders and the congressional delegation an additional incentive to stay the course in the ongoing battle to ensure the federal government cleans up the mess it made here.