The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Cleanup choice delays PACRO role in nickel work

The DOE has not yet lifted its ban against removing contaminated metal from the plant for recycling.

By Joe Walker

Friday, July 22, 2005

Several firms are interested in recycling contaminated scrap nickel at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant now that the Department of Energy has included recycling in its new request for bids for cleanup work.

Three companies that have approached the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization estimate the local share of sale proceeds from the nickel well above the $10 million to $12 million cited a few years ago by a Canadian recycling firm, PACRO officials say. The spot price for nickel is now about $8 an ounce and there are an estimated 9,700 tons of the scrap at the plant.

"All the people and entities involved are acting about as well as you would think they would act in the California gold rush," said Henry Hodges, chairman of the PACRO facility reuse committee.

PACRO director John Anderson said the three firms are "very credible," and he is seeking permission from DOE to correspond with them.

"We think they are subcontractors of the cleanup bidders," he said. "They have the customers and infrastructure in place to dispose of the nickel, and they've asked us to team with them."

But DOE officials have cautioned against negotiating now because PACRO, an economic development group, might get left out of the process if the winning cleanup bidder is not affiliated with any of the recycling firms, Anderson said.

Bids are due Aug. 4. The new company will replace Bechtel Jacobs on Nov. 1.

Despite the bid language, DOE continues a five-year, safety-related ban on removing contaminated scrap metal from any of its plants. Anderson said he is unsure if the department will approve talking with prospective recyclers.

The nickel has traces of low-level radiation. DOE says uranium is the main contaminant in the nickel and 33,000 tons of total scrap metal at the plant, but other minute pollutants — such as the toxic metal beryllium — could be found.

Any recycler would be required to clean the metal to a safe level and either dispose of it or resell it for industrial or commercial use. DOE wants the nickel moved no later than June 30, 2007.

The Energy Department has held fast to the ban pending a determination by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as to what is safe. On June 1, the NRC tabled publishing a proposed rule to set the cleanup level at 1 millirem per year, a measurement of radiation exposure well below that of natural radiation or levels set for safe drinking water.

DOE's scope of work calls for the new cleanup firm to "develop and evaluate alternate use of the nickel ingots (bars) and acquire competitive bids for its reuse." But the firm must have prior DOE approval for implementation and must return to the government all revenue in excess of contractor costs.

The new language and flurry of recycling interest prompted U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, to write Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman a week ago asking if DOE intends to lift the ban and when. He also asked if there would be export restrictions on selling the nickel.

If the ban is lifted, part of the sale profits should be returned to the Paducah area to improve cleanup and create jobs to help offset the planned closure of the 1,270-worker plant starting in 2010, Whitfield wrote.

Whitfield had not received an answer as of Thursday, said press secretary Jeff Miles.

Formed to offset plant job losses, PACRO wants to be an agent for nickel recycling to generate money to survive. Its funding was discontinued by DOE last year, and the organization is seeking revenue sources and other federal funding.

For five years, PACRO has been negotiating with Toronto-based Chemical Vapor Deposition Manufacturing, hoping the ban would be lifted. CVD, which has a U.S. subsidiary, recycles nickel and other metals by converting it to gas.

The company has wanted to build a recycling facility here that would create 26 to 40 jobs and, through the sale of nickel, generate up to $12 million to help create jobs for displaced plant workers. Although the nickel produced is virtually pure, the process gas is highly toxic, but CVD has an outstanding safety record, PACRO officials say.