The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

LOSING TIME

DOE still stalling cleanup work

Sunday, September 25, 2005

For the bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Energy, time is a very elastic concept.

The agency began reconsidering a ban on recycling contaminated scrap metal at nuclear facilities more than three years ago. Last month, a DOE official visiting the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant said the agency still had not established a time frame for deciding whether to lift the ban.

In the world of DOE, a time frame could last for years, perhaps even decades.

The Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization, which was created by DOE to help the region recover from job losses associated with the privatization of the uranium enrichment industry, has been counting on the recycling of radioactive nickel and other metals at the gaseous diffusion plant site to bolster its economic mission.

An American subsidiary of a Canadian company wants to build a factory to recycle radioactive nickel at the Paducah plant. The company began negotiating with PACRO officials several years ago.

A recycling operation would create at least 50 jobs and generate millions of dollars in sales. Local officials contemplating the eventual loss of 1,000 jobs when the gaseous diffusion plant shuts down understandably are eager to cultivate alternative uses for the huge DOE installation.

With USEC Inc. planning to end production at the Paducah plant by 2011, local officials' job replacement efforts are gaining urgency with each passing day. The proposed nickel recycling plant wouldn't be a major source of jobs, but it would help the community move toward a new era in nuclear-related industrial activity.

The federal energy bureaucracy is a large obstacle to the redevelopment of the gaseous diffusion plant site. Officials at DOE clearly are in no hurry to help Paducah or to remove contaminated material from the plant.

In the late 1980s, DOE began studying and categorizing contaminated waste at the plant. A decade passed before the agency removed a single barrel of waste.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and 1st District Congressman Ed Whitfield fought for five years to get DOE to comply with a congressional mandate on building a facility in Paducah to convert depleted uranium into a safer form for disposal or reuse.

The DOE ban on recycling scrap metal resulted from political jockeying by the Clinton administration to win favor with environmentalists and other Democratic Party constituencies. A trumped-up scare about contaminated metal winding up in children's braces was used to justify the ban, which had no basis in empirical data. Studies showed that the decontamination process reduced radioactivity in the recycled nickel below background radiation levels.

The president of the company interested in building a plant in Paducah says lab tests prove the company's recycling process can remove all traces of radioactive isotopes from the metal. But an unimpressed DOE is still studying the decontamination issue.

Local officials saw a light at the end of the tunnel when DOE included metal recycling in the scope of its plant cleanup work. It's a logical assumption that the agency eventually will lift the politically motivated ban, given that a Republican administration is calling the shots in the executive branch of the federal government.

But who knows how much time will pass before DOE takes action. The Paducah area is trapped in DOE's bureaucratic time zone, which is years behind even the normal pace of government work.