Sunday, August 18, 2002

The waiting hurts in Piketon

Workers don't know uranium plant's fate, or theirs

By Malia Rulon
The Associated Press

        PIKETON, Ohio - When the town's uranium plant was built in the 1950s, it was a bastion of technological greatness, the defender of America's nuclear power capabilities and a loud, steamy-hot factory that teemed with people.

        Greg Maynard remembers the plant flourishing 30 years later, too, when 3,200 workers produced highly enriched uranium for an arsenal of nuclear weapons and lower-grade uranium for nuclear power plants nationwide.

[photo] Marty Kelley tests materials at a lab at the Piketon Plant.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        Like many lifelong Piketon residents who work at the now nearly empty Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, his future is tied to the plant's fate. Both are uncertain.

        Mr. Maynard, 45, a Democrat, works in the shipping department. He grew up five miles away in a house whose fence bumps up against the plant's property.

        Sitting in the nearby union hall, he talks about a Republican congressman with connections to the Bush administration who might get his vote in November and about a family vacation he's not sure he'll be able to take.

        “You don't know what to do. I mean, there's so many possibilities,” he says. “Somebody should just decide what's going to happen to the Portsmouth plant and let us know.”

        The plant's operator, USEC Inc., consolidated uranium operations in Paducah, Ky., a year ago. About 530 workers lost their jobs.

        Mr. Maynard's job was on the line until recently. An agreement with the Energy Department over the purchase of nuclear fuel from old Russian warheads saved 275 of 440 transfer and shipping jobs for another 15 months.

        Some 360 workers who keep the southern Ohio plant on standby are guaranteed employment for at least two years. Environmental cleanup should employ about 400 more indefinitely.

        All of this is designed to ease the transition to what some say the plant can become again: a world-class, high-tech operation.

   The plant began production in 1954 at a cost of $1.2 billion.
   It has 109 buildings on 640 acres, which are a part of the 3,708-acre federal site in Piketon.
   Gaseous diffusion takes place in three separate mile-long, 93-acre process buildings.
   The Pike County site along the Scioto River was selected in 1952 based on its size and relatively flat terrain, the availability of large amounts of electrical power, a dependable source of water, local labor and suitable transportation routes.
   The plant initially enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, but that mission changed in the 1960s to commercial nuclear reactors.
   The plant was put on standby in 2001 when uranium enrichment operations were consolidated at Paducah, Ky.
   Employment is about 1,200. Piketon population in 2000 was 1,907.
        The most promising of several possible futures lies in the return to a technology tested briefly at the plant but abandoned nearly 20 years ago.

        USEC has pledged to build a new advanced centrifuge technology demonstration plant by 2010.

        “I think it can happen. This plant was built to be a new technology center,” U.S. Rep. Rob Portman told the crowd at a recent area Chamber of Commerce dinner in nearby Portsmouth. The Terrace Park Republican is running for re-election in a redrawn district that now includes the plant.

        Others aren't as positive.

        “I don't want to be a naysayer, but ... there just doesn't seem to be a comprehensive and well laid out plan from DOE for the workers and the plant,” said Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, who represents Piketon.

        Lawmakers had hoped the Piketon plant also would appeal to Marlow, England-based Urenco Inc., which has revived its partnership with top energy companies to build a European-style centrifuge plant in the United States.

        However, the same agreement that saved the shipping jobs bars a competitor of USEC from leasing Energy Department land. Ohio lawmakers have asked the department for a clarification.

        Meanwhile, another option has been resurrected.

        Plants at both Piketon and Paducah are to be built to convert depleted uranium into a less toxic form. The compound now is stored in 60,000 steel canisters at both sites and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

        Congress approved the use of two plants four years ago, but the Bush administration had said it was inclined to build one to save money. The new proposal was inserted into an anti-terrorism spending bill that Bush signed Friday.

        The plants are expected to operate for up to 25 years and provide about 400 jobs, lawmakers said. Constructions must begin by July 31, 2004.

        The Energy Department also has proposed spending $38 million on a government-industry project to study sites for a commercial nuclear power plant that could be built by 2010.

        If Congress approves the money, the plant could end up at Piketon, at the Savannah River weapons complex near Aiken, S.C., or at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls.

        Local union president Dan Minter is quick to point out that project is not yet funded, would pit Piketon against tough competition and would take years to complete.

        “We're certainly interested,” he said. “But it doesn't pay the bills today.”

        Mr. Minter also wonders whether USEC would be able to afford the promised centrifuge plant. Since the company was privatized in 1998, its credit rating has slid to junk-bond level and its stock price has dropped.

        Citing concerns about competition, plant general manager Patrick Musser wouldn't talk about finances or speculate on the cost of the centrifuge project.

        “The reality is when you look at something to deploy pretty soon, the centrifuge is something that you can get up and running pretty quickly,” he said. “There are a lot of financial benefits there.”

        Paul Mullens, who works on standby operations, frequently hears talk about all of these possibilities. He won't believe anything until it's delivered.

        “We've been promised a lot of things in the past,” said Mr. Mullens, a second-generation plant worker who manned the short-lived centrifuge facility in the 1980s.

        Ohio lawmakers agree.

        In a recent letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich asked for concrete details about the plans for a centrifuge, the commercial nuclear power plant and environmental cleanups.

        Mr. Maynard wants to hear the answers, too. But as he leans back in a folding chair at the union hall, he's more concerned about whether he'll have to move his family from his hometown or need to find another job.

        “That's a lot of ifs,” he says.

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