By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said two guarantees are that the Department of Energy will fulfill the congressional mandate to build a new plant to recycle more than 36,000 containers of depleted uranium hexafluoride, the byproduct of uranium enrichment, and to continue a cleanup of the contamination that already has cost $500 million.
The new plant will create about 150 permanent jobs when it is completed in four or five years, whereas the cleanup that is costing $100 million a year is already providing hundreds of jobs.
Abraham was the keynote speaker and, like others, said the workers at the Paducah plant served on the "front line" of the nation's defense by producing fuel for nuclear weapons that kept peace during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies.
The plant's mission now is to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. The uranium enrichment operation was privatized and is now operated by USEC Inc.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Gov. Paul Patton and others used the 50th anniversary celebration of the plant not only to remember the past, but to encourage USEC to pick Paducah as the site of the next generation enrichment facility.
"There isn't a community in America that would be a better place for that plant to be located," McConnell said, directing his remarks to William "Nick" Timbers, president and chief executive officer of USEC.
Patton took the first step in the effort to attract that plant when he presented Timbers with documents outlining a multimillion-dollar incentive package for a pilot plant to test and refine the gas centrifuge technology, which will replace the gaseous diffusion process that was created in the 1940s.
Patton met with Timbers for about 30 minutes to outline the package, which has not been made public. Paducah is competing with Piketon, Ohio, for the plant.
The community that gets the pilot plant will have an advantage in about five years when a decision is made on where to build the permanent plant, which will cost about $1.5 billion. When that plant is completed by the end of 2011, the Paducah plant will be closed.
"We presented a package that is fair to USEC, but also is reasonable and fair to the taxpayers of Kentucky," Patton said. "Mr. Timbers seemed pleased with what we had to offer.
"I think if it comes down to our package and Ohio's package being equal in terms of economics, Paducah has the edge because of the strong work force here and the strong leadership in the community," Patton said.
Ohio's economic development officials are scheduled to present their package to USEC today. Timbers declined comment because he didn't want to make it appear that one community has an advantage over the other. He has said that he and his advisers will review the packages and make a decision by late November based on what is financially best for the company.
Patton, in his formal remarks at a reception marking the anniversary of the plant, said Kentucky will do all it can to keep USEC operating in Kentucky.
Directing his remarks to Timbers, Patton said, "We will do all we can to convince you, your advisers and your board of directors that you will not find a better community in America that has been and will continue to be supportive of the atomic energy industry."
Leon Owens, president of the plant's energy workers' union, said the workers at the plant are committed to doing all they can to attract the new plant.
He said workers have met the past challenges and changes at the plant and are prepared to meet future challenges that would come with the new plant.
U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield praised current and former workers for the dedication that in some cases resulted in illnesses caused by exposure to radioactive materials and other toxic chemicals.
Whitfield was instrumental in helping to persuade the U.S. House of Representatives to approve a compensation program that pays workers who became ill $150,000.
Abraham said that since the program began more than a year ago, 300 former workers and their families have shared $4.5 million in benefits. He called those workers heroes and promised that DOE would continue to improve the program to allow for quick claims.
Abraham strayed from his prepared remarks to praise the current and former workers.
"The success of America's national security and energy security over the past 50 years in no small way was accomplished by the work done here on the front lines," he said. "The entire nation owes its gratitude to these people."