When USEC closed the plant in Tennessee in 1985, only one-sixth the jobs remained at lower pay. They're still cleaning up.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
"We went from 3,000 employees down to about 500 — boom," said Jimmy Hendrix, president of the plant nuclear workers' union when operations ceased in 1985. "We've been in a cleanup mode ever since."
Because of the abrupt shutdown, uranium-enrichment machinery in the sprawling plant wasn't cleaned out. Despite continued efforts, major buildings are still unsafe for new industrial uses, said Hendrix, now a union regional representative.
There is plenty of time to decontaminate the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which won't close until at least 2010, Hendrix said. "The challenge you have in Paducah is to get those buildings clean. A customer is not going to come in if there's liability for cleanup."
Oak Ridge cleanup jobs peaked at 1,000 around 1990 and are down to 800 now. Although the Energy Department says 400 more obs have been created by converting the plant into the East Tennessee Technology Park, Hendrix questions the numbers.
"There have been some jobs created," he said. "But we went from $18- to $20-an-hour jobs down to $9 to $10 an hour."
In October, the DOE inspector general criticized the agency's own program, run since 1996 through the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee (CROET). An audit said it was hard to confirm cost savings and noted that only a small part of the 1,300-acre complex was being used.
As of late 2002, the Energy Department had paid British Nuclear Fuels $219 million to clean up three large plant buildings for reuse, but the report said reusing two of the buildings remained "highly questionable." It could verify only $4 million in cost savings out of $51 million spent with lead cleanup contractor Bechtel Jacobs since 1997.
The report said the money probably should have been spent cleaning up and tearing down the most contaminated buildings. It recommended stopping cleanup funding for buildings other than those formally owned by CROET.
Larry Clark, DOE industrialization director, said the 800 cleanup jobs exist because of the work in the three buildings, and the personnel are now highly trained. The areas will eventually be cleaned up and could attract a large employer that wants to be cost-efficient and favors a brownfield site, one that has been used for industry and then abandoned, over a new industrial park, he said.
Clark said his group gained from the report, despite not agreeing with all its conclusions, and is working to implement some of the recommendations. "They're not in the business of painting a rosy picture and finding all the positives," he said.
The audit came shortly before CROET, Bechtel Jacobs and the Energy Department received the 2003 Phoenix Award for solving environmental problems by converting the enrichment plant for other industrial use.
The technology park houses nearly 40 firms ranging from cleanup to Dienamic Tooling Systems, which makes sheet metal stamping dies for the automotive industry. The park is divided into the Heritage Center, covering 125 main buildings, and the Horizon Center, a 1,000-acre greenfield site.
Jim Campbell, president of the East Tennessee Economic Council, said the 400 new jobs are with private firms generally unrelated to the federal government.
"Almost all of them are small operations with 10 to 15 people or fewer," he said. "The underlying message is it takes a lot of work and concerted effort by a lot of groups to lead to success."
Abundant water, cheap power, rail service, highways and other factors that produced gaseous diffusion plants 50 years ago in Oak Ridge, Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, remain as recruiting tools for the outdated complexes if they can be cleaned up, Campbell said.
"The circumstances Paducah is facing are different from ours," he said. "Hopefully DOE and its contractors up there (Paducah) will do the right things in preparing those sites for brownfield uses."
Oak Ridge, a community built on technology, has growth advantages that Paducah doesn't have, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the former Y-12 weapons complex, Campbell said.
Hendrix said Paducah has powerful political clout on Capitol Hill, but has less plant land and far fewer nuclear spinoff businesses than Oak Ridge.
"The bottom line is, I don't think there will be jobs created in the long run," he said. "They're all going to be short-term jobs. After that, you'll have people taking retirement."
Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Stopped production in 1985, dropping the work force from about 3,000 to 500. Closed in 1987. More than 800 people now do cleanup work.
Since 1996, plant has been marketed as East Tennessee Technology Park. Using Energy Department funding, park has attracted some 40 tenants, creating 400 jobs.
Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant Piketon, Ohio
Stopped production in 2001. Work force has dropped from 2,000 to 1,200 to keep the plant in "cold standby." Another 300 do cleanup work.
Energy Department money has improved area industrial parks, creating 740 jobs, including 550 at one expanded local factory.