The political odyssey of the uranium waste recycling facilities Congress approved six years ago finally is nearing an end.
Next Tuesday the Department of Energy is scheduled to break ground for a factory that will convert depleted uranium hexafluoride stored at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant into a safer form for disposal or reuse. DOE officials will beat a congressional deadline for starting construction on the conversion plants — another facility will be built at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio — by four days.
The groundbreaking represents a small but significant victory in the long struggle to ensure the federal government cleans up the nuclear mess it made in Paducah and Portsmouth.
Most of the credit for the breakthrough on the Paducah conversion plant should go to Sen. Mitch McConnell, 1st District Congressman Ed Whitfield and Sen. Jim Bunning.
Congress mandated the construction of the conversion plants in 1998. However, it soon became clear that DOE had little interest in following through on the congressional mandate.
Officials in the White House Office of Management and Budget were not enthusiastic about the idea, either. The conversion plants were delayed for a time because OMB bean counters wanted DOE to build one facility instead of two.
McConnell and other members of the Kentucky congressional delegation continued to push federal officials to begin construction on the Paducah and Portsmouth plants. In 2002, supporters of the conversion plants attached an amendment to an anti-terrorism bill that gave DOE 30 days to award a contract for the projects.
The amendment finally put the projects in motion, but it took two more years for DOE to prepare to break ground. With luck — and continued prodding from McConnell, Whitfield and Bunning — the Paducah conversion plant should be completed in two years.
In announcing the groundbreaking, Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow acknowledged that the conversion plants are needed to carry out the federal government's commitment to "clean up the waste from decades of weapons production activities."
Although the Paducah plant has not been involved in enriching uranium for nuclear weapons in years, the legacy of the Cold War era remains at the site in the form of contaminated scrap metal, polluted groundwater and about 38,000 rusting cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride.
The Paducah conversion plant will eliminate a serious environmental problem and create about 150 jobs.
It's hard to overemphasize the importance of keeping manufacturing jobs in western Kentucky. Over the past five years, the region has lost more than 4,000 industrial jobs. By 2011, USEC Inc. will close the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and take hundreds of high-paying jobs to a new enrichment plant in Portsmouth.
The environmental cleanup at the gaseous diffusion plant is a major source of jobs for this region's workers. After the conversion plant begins operating, a total of more than 700 people will be employed in cleaning the site.
Local leaders would prefer not to rely on environmental cleanup operations to provide jobs, but this is a classic lemons/lemonade situation. For the sake of the environment and displaced workers, let's hope the groundbreaking for the conversion plant signals the beginning of a new, more active phase of the federal cleanup.