DOE must complete cleanup
It makes sense for local economic development officials to pursue the possibility of eventually turning the land occupied by the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant into an industrial site.
With the enrichment plant scheduled to close early in the next decade, the community needs to have a plan for keeping the huge tract economically viable.
Moreover, the federal government, which built the nuclear facility and presided over the contamination of the soil and the groundwater in the area, needs to commit itself to thoroughly cleaning the site so that it doesn't become a permanent wasteland.
The process of decommissioning a federal nuclear facility should have the ultimate goal of making the affected communities whole again.
If the land occupied by the plant and hundreds of acres surrounding it are left idle following the departure of the USEC Inc., the plant's operator, and the completion of the federal cleanup, scheduled for 2019, western Kentucky and southern Illinois will suffer irreparable economic damage.
Officials with the Purchase Area Community Reuse Organization are hoping to turn the loss of the enrichment plant into a long-range opportunity for the region. Unfortunately, most of their hopes rest on two institutions with questionable records of reliability: Congress and the U.S. Department of Energy.
PACRO is seeking $18 million from Congress for several tasks related to economic development, including marketing the regional industrial park in northern Graves County and planning for the reuse of the enrichment plant site.
Most of the money would go toward the purchase of private land near the plant that has been devalued by contamination or the threat of groundwater pollution. The acquisition of the land would be the first step in preparing to offer the land surrounding the plant — and eventually the plant site itself — for industrial development.
John Anderson, the director of PACRO, emphasizes that redeveloping the land is a long-term goal. "A lot of things have to fall into place to make this possible," he told the Sun.
Anderson's cautionary words should be underlined. Unquestionably, local officials face a long, uphill struggle to salvage the contaminated land.
The difficulty of that task is evident from the lengthy battle the state and the Kentucky congressional delegation have waged to get DOE moving on the plant cleanup.
Since 1998, DOE has spent more than $820 million on the cleanup, but only a small portion of the contamination has been removed. Agency officials put a $3 billion pricetag on an agreement they signed with the state that sets a 2019 deadline for completing the major part of the cleanup.
Paducah competes for federal funding with dozens of other nuclear installations. The amount of money available for the cleanups waxes and wanes according to the priorities of the occupant of the White House and the severity of the budgetary problems facing Congress.
State and local officials know they face a challenge in keeping the current cleanup plan on track. If history is any guide, DOE will not fulfill its cleanup obligations in the time allotted.
In any event, the cleanup will have to continue for a number of years beyond the 2019 deadline to make the site suitable again for industrial development.
It's not even clear that PACRO will survive long enough to have a significant role in preparing for the redevelopment of the plant site.
The group was established as part of a federal effort to help communities affected by the downsizing of the nuclear industry. But DOE doesn't plan to continue funding the program, and it's doubtful that Congress will step in to save it.
Despite these obstacles, local leaders, the congressional delegation and state officials must continue to aggressively push the cleanup.
The federal government's commitment to the Paducah area shouldn't end with an incomplete cleanup of the plant. State officials can drive that point home by pursuing legal action, if necessary, to expand the cleanup.
Other states that hosted nuclear installations, including neighboring Tennessee and Ohio, have used lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits to hold DOE accountable for its failures.
The only way to fully repair the damage caused by the nuclear contamination is to reclaim the contaminated land for the community.