Monday, May 28, 2001

Appalachian town braces for uranium plant closing

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

        PIKETON, Ohio — In the coming months, hundreds ofworkers at one of the nation's last two uranium-enrichment plants are to be laid off from some of the best-paying jobs in an Appalachian region long plagued by unemployment.

        It will be the second time Marybeth Hamel has been laid off in a decade at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, built by the government in the 1950s to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and submarines.

        This time, Ms. Hamel, 35, isn't waiting for another job to open up. She already has been accepted into a nursing program in Nashville, Tenn.

        She expects to be laid off this summer and will start school in September after selling her house and moving with her 14-year-old daughter from the place they have always called home.

        “The first time I was laid off, I had Tums on my desk and Zantac,” Ms. Hamel said. “This time, I look at it as a temporary transition.”

        U.S. Enrichment Corp. says it can no longer afford to operate the plant because of a glutted world market for uranium available for nuclear plant fuel. The former government-run entity — which became a private company in 1998 — stopped production at the plant on May 11.

        Beginning on June 1, about 375 of the plant's 1,700 employees — who have average annual wages of $40,000 with $20,000 worth of benefits — will be laid off in phases through October. At its peak in the 1980s, the plant employed 3,200 workers.

        The region, with rolling green hills and sweeping views of the Ohio River to the south, historically has the state's highest unemployment. Pike County, home to the plant, had a 6.9 percent unemployment rate in April, compared with the 3.9 percent statewide rate.


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