The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky


Energy agency should help recovery

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Local officials need help from the federal government in turning the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site into an economic asset for the region.

The plant was the linchpin of the local economy for more than 50 years, but it´s rapidly approaching a projected closing date in 2010. When USEC Inc., the plant´s operator, consolidates its operations in Portsmouth, Ohio, hundreds of workers will lose their jobs and McCracken County will be left with an idled federal installation occupying several thousand acres along the Ohio River.

With that in mind, Judge-Executive Danny Orazine and other local leaders are pressing the Department of Energy to give the community more options for offsetting the effects of the plant shutdown on the area´s economy. The federal agency has done little to help the community prepare for the job losses, other than temporarily funding a local organization that was set up to deal with the economic problems caused by the downsizing of uranium enrichment operations.

During a hearing held recently in Paducah by First District Congressman Ed Whitfield, McCracken County officials pointed out that the county has never received fee-in-lieu of property tax payments from USEC. Twenty other DOE facilities have fee-in-lieu arrangements with local governments, county Administrator Steve Doolittle said.

Fee-in-lieu payments would provide a small funding boost for county services — a purpose that certainly appears consistent with DOE´s pledge to help communities affected by nuclear-related job losses.

In other areas, the energy department can do a great deal more to ease the post-USEC transition. Orazine said that DOE has continued to fund industrial redevelopment in Oak Ridge, Tenn., long after a gaseous diffusion plant there closed. Based on that precedent, city and county officials have legitimate expectations that the agency will take an active role in finding new uses for the property in western McCracken County.

With one edict, DOE could give this area an opportunity to turn an environmental liability into a significant economic development asset.

Thousands of tons of scrap metal at the site could be recycled for commercial use, but DOE has imposed a ban on recycling at nuclear installations. The ban supposedly was prompted by health concerns about using the recycled metal in consumer products. However, the recycling process would reduce radiation in the metal to below background levels.

Several companies have expressed interest in removing low-level radiation from about 9,700 tons of nickel at the Paducah plant and then selling the valuable metal to industrial users. A nickel recycling facility would aid the plant cleanup and create about 50 jobs.

Displaced USEC employees could find work at a recycling plant. Recycling also would have broader benefits, if some of the profits from the sale of the nickel were channeled into economic development programs. Local officials have estimated that the recycling project could generate up to $12 million for the community.

Noting that proceeds from the recycling would jump-start local initiatives designed to offset USEC job losses, Orazine, Whitfield and Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton are pushing the slow-moving DOE bureaucracy to lift the six-year-old ban. The lifting of the ban would be a critical step in the community´s recovery from job losses at the uranium enrichment plant.

Looking ahead, the federal government should play a substantial role in redeveloping the plant site. But DOE officials can render an immediate service to the community simply by getting out of the way of the private sector and allowing the recycling project to move forward.