DOE needs motivation on cleanup
Glaciers can carve out vast landscapes in the time it takes the Department of Energy to clean up contamination at a single nuclear facility. More than a decade has passed since DOE began working on the cleanup at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, yet the agency is still years away from completing the project.
During the 1990s DOE spent $400 million in Paducah without cleaning up any of the contamination. U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning says the agency has spent 75 percent of its cleanup funding on managing the waste — studying it, categorizing it and containing it.
The people of Paducah are eager to see DOE move beyond passive waste management to aggressive waste removal, but the agency's bureaucracy appears determined to set its own stately cleanup pace.
Local officials cheered when Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield succeeded in getting a provision into anti-terrorism legislation requiring DOE to award contracts for the construction of uranium waste conversion facilities in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio.
An assumption was that at last DOE would respond to the 1998 congressional mandate to build the conversion plants, which are needed to convert the contents of 54,000 cylinders of uranium hexafluoride into a safer form for disposal or reuse.
More than 37,000 rusting cylinders of uranium hexafluoride are stored on the grounds of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. A recycling facility would eliminate this environmental hazard and create jobs for workers displaced by the downsizing of the uranium enrichment operation.
Despite the new legislation, the bureaucrats at DOE have continued to drag their feet on the conversion plants. Two weeks ago the agency missed a deadline for approving the start of the preliminary design phase of the projects. If the delay is prolonged, contractors could miss the congressional deadline for beginning construction of the plants.
Local economic development officials were encouraged when the energy department established an office in Lexington several months ago.
The hope was that removing the Paducah and Portsmouth cleanups from the control of DOE officials in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and shifting oversight to a Kentucky office would result in better cooperation between the agency and state environmental officials in Frankfort. Again, the goal was to add some momentum to the cleanup.
So far, local leaders can find no evidence of additional progress on the Paducah cleanup. And if there's improved cooperation between DOE and Kentucky regulators, it hasn't taken the form of a final, detailed agreement on a cleanup plan for the Paducah plant.
The absence of a cleanup agreement caused the House of Representatives to delete $26 million from a bill that provides funding for the Paducah cleanup program. House leaders hinted the cleanup funds could disappear if the state and DOE can't agree on a plan.
Gov. Paul Patton has repeatedly threatened to sue DOE if the agency continues to lag behind on its schedule for cleaning up the Paducah site. In our view, the time has come for the state to go to court to force the agency to follow through on its cleanup commitments.
Officials in Ohio and Tennessee haven't hesitated to take legal action against DOE; Kentucky should follow their example.
Sen. McConnell and Congressman Whitfield have worked diligently to secure cleanup funding, but DOE bureaucrats continue to resist pressure from Congress to move forward on the conversion plants.
McConnell and Whitfield should apply more pressure on the Bush administration and its appointee, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. President Bush must ultimately be held accountable for the failure of the agency to heed congressional mandates and make more effective use of taxpayer dollars in the Paducah cleanup.
It's past time for this nonsense to end. Our elected representatives should take whatever action is needed to compel the federal government to finally clean up the environmental mess it made in Paducah.