The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Sunday, December 07, 2003

DOE challenged to spend more on actual cleanup
A congressional hearing in Paducah brings criticism of delays at the Paducah plant from Sen. Jim Bunning and others.

By Bill Bartleman
JIMMY NESBITT/The Sun Hearing in Paducah: U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning listens to a panel of DOE officials at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Saturday at the Paducah Information Age Resource Center.

Saying that Congress is growing impatient with the slow progress of cleaning up the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning challenged the U.S. Department of Energy to spend more money on the actual cleanup and less on administrative and waste management costs.

In each of the last two years, Congress has allocated more than $100 million for cleanup-related activities.

"We want every penny we give you to be spent cleaning up the mess out there, and you better be darn sure you're not spending it on things like litigation and fines," Bunning told DOE officials at a congressional hearing held in Paducah on Saturday. "We want to see significant progress over the next three years."

Bunning scheduled the meeting of the Subcommittee on Energy of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to hear testimony on cleanup and federal compensation programs for sick workers. He was the only senator present, but said the testimony will be shared with other senators as they consider future legislation.

Since the cleanup began in 1988, DOE has spent $823 million at the Paducah plant, of which $298 million, or 36 percent, has been used on waste and contamination removal, according to a study by the General Accounting Office.

The study also found that $372 million has been used for administrative costs, such as security, general maintenance, litigation and construction, and $153 million to study the extent of contamination and determine how it should be removed.

Bunning also expressed displeasure that the timetable for doing the cleanup work continues to change. In 2000, DOE signed an agreement saying the major work would be completed by 2010 and cost $1.3 billion. Last summer, DOE revised the schedule, saying the work won't be complete until 2019 and will cost an additional $2 billion.

William E. Murphie, manager of DOE's Paducah-Portsmouth Project Office, said the timetable changed because the amount of work changed under a cleanup agreement with the Kentucky Cabinet for Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.

Although Murphie said the new schedule is realistic and can be met, doubts were raised by Robin Nazzaro, director of natural resources and the environment for the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"We think that competition date is soft and that there are significant challenges to meeting it," she said. The biggest challenge is delays caused by disputes with state and federal regulators on the scope of the cleanup and timetables for doing the work. Although DOE and the state in September signed a new cleanup agreement, she said many details of how the cleanup will be accomplished need to be resolved.

Nazzaro and others who testified noted that it took from June 2001 to April 2003 to reach the new agreement, during which time very little cleanup was done. "Given the parties' past difficulties in resolving disputes over cleanup scope and time frames, and the number of decisions that remain to be made, it is unclear whether DOE will be successful" in meeting the cleanup deadline, she said.

She also noted that even if the current 2019 deadline is met, there is significant additional cleanup work to do. The next phase will be decontaminating buildings and equipment that for 50 years have been used to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel. That work can't begin until after USEC Inc. ends production at the plant, which is expected in 2012 when a new plant will open using a more efficient enrichment process.

USEC is expected to announce as early as next week whether the new plant will be built in Paducah or Portsmouth, Ohio. USEC has indicated that the Ohio site has the advantage because of an existing building and other factors.

The GAO study found that total cleanup of the Paducah site will cost an additional $13 billion and would take until 2070 to complete.

Hank List, secretary of the state Natural Resources Cabinet, said the big problem has been communication with DOE officials. "It has been nonexistent," he said.

List said significant progress was made in cleanup work in 2000 and 2001 when DOE, the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency had a "Core Team" that worked closely together on cleanup issues. He said team members from each agency had authority to quickly resolve disputes.

However, List said that in early 2002, DOE withdrew from participating, which caused delays. He urged Bunning to use his influence to force DOE to once again participate in the Core Team concept.

Finally, Ken Wheeler, chairman of the Paducah Economic Development Council, told Bunning that although the cleanup work provides more than 600 jobs, the work needs to be completed as quickly as possible.

Wheeler said that with the likelihood of USEC picking Ohio as the site for the new enrichment plant and the Paducah plant closing, the community has launched an aggressive economic development effort that includes development of a 2,500-acre regional industrial park.

"In order to be successful in our efforts, we need to shed the national image that Paducah has of being a contaminated community," said Wheeler, noting that the contamination at the plant was recently featured in the National Geographic magazine.

"We're tired of being displayed as a centerfold for nuclear waste sites. We need the plant cleaned up so that this community can move on to other things."