Friday, July 19, 2002

Uranium waste may pay off for Tristate

Conversion plants could be on the horizon

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON - An anti-terrorism spending bill agreed to by House and Senate negotiators Thursday requires the Department of Energy to build two facilities to convert uranium waste into a safer form - one in Paducah, Ky., and one in Piketon, Ohio.

        Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added the measure to a version of the bill approved by the Senate last month but House lawmakers considered removing it from the final bill.

        “There was some resistance, because the administration was not keen on the language,” Mr. McConnell said.

        Congress passed similar legislation in 1998, but the Bush administration maintained the language wasn't mandatory and that it was inclined to build one facility to save money.

        “I think it is a victory, but is a victory that should have been unnecessary,” said Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, who represents Piketon. “The intent of Congress was absolutely indisputable.”

        The new measure states that the Energy Department must award a contract for the project one month after the president signs the bill. Construction of the facilities must begin by July 31, 2004.

        “Hopefully there are no ways out of this language,” Mr. McConnell said.

        Lawmakers say they do not have a firm figure as to how much it would cost to build the two facilities but say one estimate is it could cost $400 million. The plants are expected to operate for up to 25 years.

        Supporters of the two-plant approach say it will get the toxic waste cleaned up faster than if just one plant were built. They also say it would have been expensive, and potentially hazardous, to ship all the waste to one facility.

        About 60,000 cylinders of depleted uranium are stored at Energy Department facilities in Paducah, Piketon and Oak Ridge, Tenn. Environmentalists say some of the cylinders are in poor condition and could leak.

        The hazardous waste is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process that the government used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Today, only the Paducah facility enriches uranium, and it does so for commercial purposes.

        The two plants are expected to bring a total of about 400 new jobs to Paducah and Piketon, according to lawmakers.

        Protecting jobs is key in the minds of area lawmakers, said Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican who represents Paducah

        Both Paducah and Piketon are under consideration to get a new uranium enrichment plant in the coming years.

        Mr. Whitfield said if only one site got the uranium conversion facility, there could be political pressure to put the new uranium enrichment facility at the other site.

        Both the House and Senate plan to approve the $28.9 billion compromise spending measure before leaving for their August recess, lawmakers said. The president is expected to sign it.


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