The Paducah Sun

INERTIA DOE, Heritage objections to tails plan don't hold up

Feb 15, 2012

Energy Secretary Steven Chu steadfastly refuses to commit to doing anything with the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant beyond cleaning up after enrichment operations cease there. Chu says the Department of Energy wants to "invest in more forward-leaning technologies."

Chu is referring to the less-than-groundbreaking centrifuge technology the United States Enrichment Corp. (USEC) is attempting to deploy at its facility in Ohio.

But for financial and other reasons, the fate of USEC's Ohio undertaking remains much in doubt. Whether it can ever achieve production on a commercial scale remains an open question.

So for now, Paducah remains the only full-scale domestic enrichment plant. And while its enrichment technology is less efficient, there remains an opportunity for DOE to get more productivity from its Paducah assets. It would come through re-enrichment of thousands of spent uranium tails, the waste product of diffusion, stockpiled on site. Wouldn't it make economic sense to do so?

Members of Kentucky's congressional delegation tried to force the issue with a letter to Secretary Chu asking to meet with him on the plant. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, along with Rep. Ed Whitfield, wrote: "It is likely that in May of this year, the site will be forced to cease operations if the Department does not use its existing authority to enrich the tails located on site, which will extend the life of this plant and save the 1,200 jobs directly affiliated with it. DOE has both the jurisdiction and the authority to resolve this issue."

The lawmakers call DOE's resistance "inexcusable" and "indefensible," especially with so many jobs at stake.

They contrast the relative cost of inaction with the benefits of action. Without a plan for re-enrichment, it will cost the federal government $100 million a year to safely store the depleted uranium. But, according to the Government Accounting Office, re-enriching the tails would generate a net $4 billion in revenue.

Whitfield's bill to begin re-enriching tails ran into opposition, some expected, some not. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, opposed efforts to extend the life of the plant. That was not surprising from the Left Coast congressman. But Whitfield, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power, didn't expect opposition from the powerful conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.

The foundation opposes Whitfield's bill because it doesn't include competitive bidding. The foundation stated: "Only one company meets the conditions set forth by these terms ... the former government-owned enrichment company that operates a facility in Paducah, Kentucky, that employs 1,200 and will likely shutter if it does not get this contract. Translation: This is a not-very-well-disguised attempt to give a sweetheart deal to a specific company. These used to be called earmarks."

The criteria require "A company that has experience in operating an enrichment plant under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorization and has the ability and workforce to enrich the depleted uranium that is owned by the Department of Energy."

Granted, the United States has only one facility in operation that fits that description. And as the lone commercial plant, it is a critical national security asset, both in terms of its function and the unique skills of the workers who understand how to operate it.

If re-enrichment of tails is in the best interest of DOE and the nation economically and environmentally, it is folly to refuse to proceed because no one else in the U.S. can do it.