The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

SLOW PROGRESS

DOE has long way to go on cleanup

Thursday, December 08, 2005

It´s too soon to say the U.S. Department of Energy has turned the corner in its massive effort to clean up the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. But after years of barely detectable movement on the cleanup, the agency seems to be making noteworthy progress in removing contaminated material from the site.

The Sun reported earlier this week that state environmental regulators are pleased with the pace of the cleanup since DOE officials signed an agreement with the state in 2003 to speed up the notoriously slow process.

Seven years ago, local officials and Kentucky´s congressional delegation were exasperated by DOE´s apparent inability to clean up even a tiny portion of the contamination at the plant. The agency began work at the site in the late 1980s but did not remove a single barrel of waste until 1999.

Over the past six years, the federal cleanup operation has moved in fits and starts, beginning with the removal of “drum mountain,’ a towering pile of crushed 55-gallon drums. The cleanup seems to have gained momentum since the state imposed timetables in the 2003 cleanup agreement.

“There´s a lot of work to be done yet, but a couple of years down the road I believe the state is satisfied with the progress,’ Tony Hatton, assistant director of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management, told the Sun. “They´ve completed some fairly significant projects.’

Contractors working for DOE cleaned up a contaminated drainage ditch, removing 3,000 tons of tainted soil. In a notable achievement for the DOE cleanup, which has often bogged down in government paperwork and bureaucratic indecision, the work on the drainage ditch was completed five months ahead of schedule.

State officials say DOE contractors have “drastically increased’ the removal of waste and contaminated scrap metal. That´s good news, but DOE has a veritable mountain of scrap to dispose of — 53,000 metric tons, according to estimates released a year ago.

Thousands of cylinders containing depleted uranium hexafluoride remain on the site. Fortunately, DOE, after years of delay, responded to a congressional mandate to build facilities in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio, to convert the material in the cylinders to a safer form for disposal or reuse. The conversion plants should begin operating in 2007.

Even with the recent progress, DOE may not be able to meet its timetables for cleaning up the plant. The cleanup will take at least 14 more years and additional work probably will be needed after that to make the site suitable for reuse.

The 2003 agreement gave the state a legal club to use in holding DOE to its cleanup commitments. State officials need to keep up the pressure on DOE, in order to make sure that the cleanup doesn´t begin to lag again.

Tennessee and Ohio have used lawsuits to hold DOE´s feet to the fire on cleanup projects. Kentucky shouldn´t hesitate to take DOE to court, if the agency doesn´t follow through on its obligations to Paducah.

In one important area, DOE officials still are failing to deliver on their promise to help western Kentucky recover from the loss of jobs in the uranium enrichment industry.

A politically motivated ban on the recycling of scrap metal at nuclear facilities remains in place five years after it was imposed by Bill Clinton´s energy secretary.

The recycling of slightly contaminated nickel and other metals was opposed by two key Democratic Party constituencies, environmentalists and organized labor. If DOE lifts the ban, companies will compete to build a recycling facility at the gaseous diffusion plant that would create about 50 jobs and generate at least $8 million for the community.

State officials have reason to be satisfied with the progress of the cleanup over the past two years, especially considering the glacial pace of the DOE operation in the 1990s. However, there is a long, long way to go before the federal government fully cleans up the mess it made in Paducah during the Cold War era.