"We shouldn't be panicked by the decision," Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said Wednesday. "We are talking about 50 jobs that won't be on line for a couple of years, and they are only temporary. We still have an opportunity to be considered for the main plant, and I'm optimistic about that."
Even if Paducah doesn't get the new production plant, Whitfield said, the region has eight to 10 years to prepare for the possible closing of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and find other economic development opportunities.
Also, the end of production at the plant will not mean the immediate loss of 1,250 jobs. If production is stopped, the plant will revert to the control of the Department of Energy, which would either put the plant on a "cold standby" status or decontaminate and decommission it.
Cold standby means a plant is maintained so that production could be resumed quickly. Decontamination and decommissioning involve removing equipment and cleaning the buildings, clearing them for other uses.
DOE spokesman Walter Perry said DOE officials "have no comment" on options for the Paducah plant.
However, if experiences at other closed enrichment plants are any indication, any decision might well require a significant work force for 20 or more years.
Production at DOE's enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., ended in 1987 but decommissioning work continues 15 years later, with a scheduled completion date of 2004. The plant still has 934 employees.
The Ohio enrichment plant was placed on standby when production ceased last year. Today, there are still more than 1,300 employees.
Also, other cleanup will continue at the Paducah site. DOE is committed to building a plant to recycle depleted uranium, employing about 150 people for at least 25 years. Furthermore, plans are evolving for a plant that would recycle thousands of tons of scrap metal, with a projected work force of 100 or more for at least 20 years.
Cleanup already under way has provided more than 750 jobs.
U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and Whitfield also questioned whether USEC can meet its timetable to have a new enrichment plant in production by the end of the decade.
"This is a company that doesn't have a good reputation," said Bunning, R-Southgate. "They have paid exorbitant bonuses to the top management, and its debt rating is awful. They probably can come up with the money to build the test plant, but they don't have the money to make the investment to build the big plant. I'm very skeptical."
The test plant will cost about $150 million, and the new production plant would cost as much as $1.5 billion.
Gov. Paul Patton said one of his major concerns from the beginning has been USEC's ability to fund construction of a production plant. He noted that financial problems and falling stock prices have plagued the company.
USEC officials said they probably will have to seek partnerships to fund the commercial production plant.
USEC also is battling with a power company consortium that wants to build a centrifuge plant near Nashville, Tenn. Louisiana Energy Services has a permit pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and hopes to have a new plant in operation in five years, ahead of USEC's schedule.
USEC is protesting the NRC application, contending there isn't sufficient demand for enriched uranium to support two plants and that allowing that plant to operate would create a national security risk because at least one of the major partners is a foreign-owned company.
Also, Whitfield noted that under USEC's agreement with DOE, the Paducah plant may not be closed until a new production plant is completed and in operation. "Unless there is a certainty of a domestic source of nuclear fuel, the Paducah plant may not be closed," he said.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was not available for comment. His press spokesman said McConnell was in federal court all day Wednesday for proceedings involving a lawsuit he filed contesting new campaign finance laws.
McConnell, R-Louisville, issued this statement: "USEC's decision to build the lead cascade in (Piketon) rather than Paducah is disappointing. We should use the next few years of operations as an opportunity to plan for the future of both the region and the workers.