The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

2001 closure surprised Piketon community
Officials there see Paducah's shutdown as less abrupt because cleanup jobs will be available.

By Joe Walker

Dan Minter graduated from high school in the early 1980s, when the Department of Energy was developing new technology to enrich uranium near Piketon, Ohio, a town of 1,700 in the Appalachian foothills.

He remembers community elation over preserving $40,000-a-year jobs through the gas centrifuge process and bitter disappointment when the government abandoned it in 1985 as too costly.

Minter went on to work at the 1950s-era Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, just outside Piketon, that centrifuge was supposed to replace. He saw employment peak in the 1980s at 3,200, and was president of the nuclear workers' union when the plant closed in 2001 as USEC Inc. merged operations with Paducah. Ironically, USEC returned to gas centrifuge a process used for three decades in Europe as the technology of the future.

"Since about 1998, we had had an operating plan that required both (Piketon and Paducah) plants until at least 2005," Minter said, referring to a commitment by USEC President and Chief Executive Office William "Nick" Timbers.

But in a nuclear disarmament deal, USEC began importing enough cheap enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union to displace one of the plants, Minter said. "That's when the apple cart got turned over."

The mothballed centrifuge buildings are chiefly why USEC has chosen Piketon for a 500-job gas centrifuge plant to replace the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant by about 2010. Compared with Piketon's fast-track closing, Paducah has more time, a stronger economy and a better chance to replace the 1,270 enrichment jobs with other work, notably in environmental cleanup, Minter said.

"Paducah's situation won't be as abrupt, whereas with us it was almost turning the switch off," he said. "Paducah's environmental challenges appear to be greater than ours. That makes cleanup more lengthy and costly, which you would think would mean more employment needs."

Employment dropped from 1,700 to 1,200 when the Piketon plant closed in 2001. The 1,200 remain to keep the factory in what the government calls "cold standby." Three hundred others work for cleanup contractors, about the same number as when the plant closed, Minter said.

He thinks that when the Paducah plant closes, it will be put on standby as the only backup plant to centrifuge, and the Piketon diffusion plant will be taken out of service. That would preserve more Paducah jobs than if the Paducah plant were shut down, he said.

Through the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative (SODI), community leaders hired a marketing firm to help displaced Piketon workers find jobs. Coordinator Jennifer Chandler said SODI has used more than $14 million in Energy Department and USEC money to leverage $2.3 million more in government funding.

The money has created 740 jobs paying $5 to $6 an hour less than those at the Piketon plant, she said. Some former plant workers got management jobs with other companies. Despite the efforts, Pike County unemployment hovers around 9 percent, twice the state average.

"Closure is a tough thing," Chandler said. "It's going to be difficult, but the Paducah plant will be operating until the end of the decade. You'll have a lot more time than we did."

SODI invested money in a four-county area in buildings, industrial parks and a small-business revolving loan fund. About 100 new jobs are entrepreneurial, and 640 are industrial. Mill's Pride, a cabinet maker, generated 550 of the industrial jobs by expanding in a Pike County industrial park. Ninety jobs sprang from a foreign-trade zone in a greenfield site in nearby Ross County, Chandler said.

"It's hard to estimate how many lost jobs were replaced," said Minter, SODI vice president. "We have a poverty rate of 26 percent, and our household income is less than $25,000 a year. A lot of folks have to drive 60 to 100 miles to find income that's even remotely equivalent."

An Ohio State University study determined that for every 10 lost enrichment jobs, 11 other jobs dried up in places such as convenience stores, car lots and medical offices, he said.

Minter said the Paducah plant has plenty of buildings, scrap metal and "a city worth of professionals" to market, not to mention work done by the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization to help industrial parks.

"I would only argue that you can never plan too soon," he said. "We thought we had until 2005 before any decision to shut down our plant would ever take place."