The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Transfer of DOE plant nickel possible

By Joe Walker

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Economic development leaders say they're encouraged that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is drafting a rule governing the release of lightly radioactive contaminated materials for limited industrial use.

If approved, the rule could pave the way for 9,700 tons of contaminated nickel at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to be cleaned and sold to industry. Because of safety concerns, the Department of Energy banned reusing contaminated scrap metal at its plants in 1999.

"This is the first movement on this issue since then," said John Anderson, director of the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization, a DOE-funded economic development group. "There is an opening in the dam."

The NRC regulates the Paducah plant, owned by DOE and run by USEC Inc. Although the Energy Department doesn't need NRC approval to lift the moratorium, it was imposed because of concerns from citizen groups that contaminated metal might end up in consumer products.

After a review by NRC commissioners next spring, the proposed rule is expected to be released for public comment by midsummer.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who did not tamper with the ban, resigned Monday as President George W. Bush approaches his second four-year term. "With those two things happening, the potential for getting the ban lifted is as good as it's ever been," Anderson said Wednesday at a meeting of the PACRO finance committee.

PACRO officials, wanting to create jobs by acting as agent for the nickel, say they are concerned about safety but believe the nickel can be sufficiently cleansed. Anderson said limited testing by the USEC plant lab and the Kentucky Radiation Environmental Monitoring Section indicates the nickel must be extremely clean to match the natural radiation level in six random samples of commercial nickel.

A firm called Chemical Vapor Metal Refining-USA wants eventually to build a factory at the plant to clean nickel and other scrap metal left over from decades of Cold War weapons work and sell it for limited industrial use. CVMR officials say very pure nickel is extremely expensive and in heavy demand. The value of the Paducah plant nickel is estimated at $8 million to $10 million.

Company officials said earlier this year that the factory's chances hinge on proving the nickel can be made safe and getting DOE to lift the ban.