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Uranium Enrichment Plant Remediation Update (7-6-00)

There are only two uranium enrichment plants in the U.S.  Current congressional attention has focused on two aspects of the future of these sites, the environmental remediation and the potential closure.  The Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky has producing enriched uranium for U.S. nuclear power plants for nearly 50 years.  Recently, the GAO released a report outlining several serious flaws in DOE's cleanup plans for the site.   The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which leases both the Paducah plant and its sister in Piketon, Ohio, (called the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant) announced that oversupply and falling prices of uranium contributed to their announcement to close the Piketon location.  The closure raises issues of national energy security, as well as potential future funding problems for Paducah.

Most Recent Action
The removal of Drum Mountain, an 8000-ton pile of metal drums at the Paducah plant, has missed its September 1, 2000, removal deadline.  Bechtel-Jacobs, a subcontractor for the USEC, said that the project is more than 75 percent complete.  Dismantlement began earlier this summer but was delayed by machinery problems and worker scheduling.  Bechtel has begun employing more workers who were previously laid off by USEC and expects to finish before September 30, the removal date set by Congress and DOE.  The compacted drums will need to be moved off-site by November 30, 2000.  Earlier this summer, Kentucky issued DOE a clean air violation causing the agengy to install a better water misting system to control the depleted uranium dust that was becoming airborne during the removal process.

The Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy Research, Development, Production, and Regulation held a hearing to address a General Accounting Office (GAO) April 2000 report entitled "Nuclear Waste Cleanup - DOE's Paducah Plan Faces Uncertainties and Excludes Costly Cleanup Activities."  The report was commissioned after a DOE Office of Oversight (part of the Office of Environment Safety and Health) investigation revealed that previous practices at the gaseous diffusion plant may have endangered the health of employees, and that current conditions at the plant are compromising the environment.  There was general agreement between the DOE offices and the GAO that several large areas of the Paducah site are not included in the DOE's current remediation plan.  There are concerns about the availability and effectiveness of various cleanup technologies that could seriously affect the agency's ability to estimate the cost and schedule of the process. (6/27/00)

On June 21, 2000, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) announced that it is closing its Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio.  The sister plant to Paducah - two government-run products of the cold war, processing uranium for nuclear weapons and submarines - are both operating at 25% capacity.  The corporation's stock fell from $14 to less that $4.50 before the announcement.  Rep. Ted Strickland (D-OH) and other members of the Ohio congressional delegation, were angered that USEC would ignore a request by the Treasury Department fora chance to make the plant more competitve.  Strickland said that he will introduce legislation for the government to buy back the plants and continue their operation.  The USEC has been in financial difficulty ever since the government made it a private company in 1998, and there have been decreases in demand and prices for enriched uranium.  The closure will require the loss of 1,900 jobs and take place over the next five years. (6/22/00)

Background
The Gaseous Diffusion Plant at Paducah, KY has been enriching uranium for nearly 50 years.  Enrichment of uranium for nuclear reactors involves increasing the percentage of uranium-235 in the fuel from about 0.7% to as high as 5%.  In 1988, ground water near the plant was found to be radioactive, and subsequent environmental assessments by DOE found radioactive and hazardous chemical contamination of ground water, surface water, and soils both on and off the plant's campus.  Since then, DOE has spent more than $388 million to remediate the site.  The Energy Policy Act of 1992 created the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) as the first step in the privatization of government-owned enrichment facilities.  The USEC leased control of Paducah from DOE in 1996, hence the agency's current responsibility for its remediation.  The cleanup falls under the jurisdiction of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA, otherwise known as Superfund).  Paducah was put on Superfund's National Priorities List (NPL) in 1994.

As part of the 1993 United States-Russian Highly Enriched Uranium agreement, the USEC started buying highly enriched uranium (HEU) from decommissioned Russian nuclear warheads and has been selling it to U.S. power plants.  In May 1999, the company initiated a deal with Russia that would raise the price of uranium but allow the Russians to directly sell some plant fuel.   Energy Secretary Richardson objected that this would put the Russians in direct competition with U.S. enrichment plants.  In May, the Russians stopped their shipments of HEU to the USEC, raising the threat of surplus Russian weapons-grade uranium being sold on the open market.  In order to restart shipments, President Clinton issued an executive order protecting Russian HEU from any litigation threats in the U.S. (6/22/00)


          Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on Energy Research, Development, Production, and Regulation
June 27, 2000

            Hearing to receive testimony regarding the GAO's report on cleanup of nuclear and hazardous wastes at DOE's Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The Bottom Line
The Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy Research, Development, Production, and Regulation held a hearing to address a General Accounting Office (GAO) April 2000 report entitled "Nuclear Waste Cleanup - DOE's Paducah Plan Faces Uncertainties and Excludes Costly Cleanup Activities."  The report was commissioned after a DOE Office of Oversight (part of the Office of Environment Safety and Health) investigation revealed that previous plant practices may have endangered the health of employees, and that current conditions at the plant are endangering the environment.  Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) heard testimony from members of the three DOE offices involved in the cleanup, as well as a representative from the GAO.  There was general agreement that several large areas of the Paducah site are not included in the DOE's current remediation plan and that there are concerns about the availability and effectiveness of various cleanup technologies that could serious affect the agency's ability to estimate the cost and schedule of the process.

Members Present
Jim Bunning (R-KY)
Larry Craig (R-ID)

Opening Statement
Bunning remarked on the troubling nature of allegations that workers had been exposed to plutonium and low-level wastes, and that conditions at the plant pose a serious threat to the surrounding community and ecosystem. He added that the closing of the United States Enrichment Corporation's (USEC) gaseous diffusion plant in Portsmouth, Ohio leaves Paducah as the only source of domestic enriched uranium, raising national energy security concerns.  He stressed that  "all of the problems at the site" need to be addressed because "a half-solution is no solution at all."  Furthermore, Bunning firmly requested that everyone "needs to keep their eye on the ball" in order to not get sidetracked by "bureaucratic turf fights."

The Panel
Gary Jones, Associate Director, Energy, Resources and Sciences, GAO
Carolyn Huntoon, Assistant Secretary, Office of Environmental Management, DOE
David Michaels, Assistant Secretary, Office of Environment, Safety and Health, DOE
William Magwood, Director, Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, DOE

Jones summarized the GAO report, highlighting the following points:

Jones closed by saying: "The Congress and stakeholders undoubtedly have expected that when the current cleanup plan has been accomplished, the site will be clean.  It will not."  When questioned about the most serious challenges facing the cleanup project, she added that the closure of the Portsmouth plant might divert funding from Paducah in the future.  The current estimate is that the cleanup will cost $1.3 billion from FY 2000 through FY 2010, but Jones stated that remediation of the unscheduled areas along with other uncertainties could raise that figure to $3.5 billion.

Huntoon highlighted DOE's accomplishments, including the rapid installation of pump and treat wells, and the transfer of the public to municipal water lines.  She added that the removal of Drum Mountain, a 40 foot pile of 8000 tons of crushed drums that contain depleted uranium, has begun and should be completed by the end of the year.  She conceded that the DOE departments needed to integrate their efforts better but that the work was being done.

Magwood praised the GAO report for grasping the complexity of the Paducah site situation.  He claimed that DOE was working on a new plan that would better integrate the actions of the Office of Environmental Management and the Office of Nuclear Energy.  That report should be completed by the beginning of 2001.  He also testified that the Portsmouth plant might be remade into a conversion plant to transform the depleted uranium to a more stable form.  Magwood testified that he did not know if the recent practice of using Canadian converters would be able to meet future U.S. needs.

Michaels had not prepared testimony, but answered questions for DOE from Sen. Bunning regarding the previous machining of beryllium at the Paducah plant.  He stated that both present and former plant employees are aware that DOE is providing a free scanning for beryllium disease.

Sen. Bunning stated that further funding for Paducah could not be expected from supplemental appropriations bills, and that the DOE should ask for the money it needs and sell that request to Congress.  He demanded that the panel respond in writing to the 12 pages of questions he did not have time to ask.  Bunning concluded by saying that he was holding the federal government responsible for not telling the truth to the employees, or the state of Kentucky, during the last 45 years the plant was in operation.  He added "I doubt that the site will be totally cleaned up in ten years."


Sources:  General Accounting Office, Washington Post, Federation of American Scientists, EEnews and hearings

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Contributed by 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Audrey Slesinger

Posted July 6, 2000


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