U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Kentucky congressional leaders are pressing the Department of Energy to offer a plan for the future of Paducah's government-owned nuclear enrichment plant, which could cease operations and cut its workforce later this year.
McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, along with Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Ed Whitfield, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu Thursday demanding a plan for the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The lawmakers want the Obama administration to allow the Western Kentucky plant to re-enrich its leftover uranium so it can be sold on the market.
The letter says re-enrichment work at the 60-year-old plant would preserve about 1,200 jobs and raise revenue for the government.
But McConnell indicated Thursday that he feels a re-enrichment program is not in the cards for the Paducah plant, which stores 40,000 cylinders of depleted uranium.
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"The administration has been refusing to answer, although it's pretty clear what the answer is," McConnell said in a call with reporters. "We're going to give them one more time to change their minds, and after that I think people at home will have a clear indication without any ambiguity of where we're headed."
Department of Energy spokesman Damien LaVera said in a statement Thursday that the department is "continuing to assess potential options for managing our uranium inventories."
The Cold War-era plant opened in 1952 to develop enriched uranium for military reactors and to produce nuclear weapons. The plant began selling uranium for commercial reactors in the 1960s, and is now leased and operated by a private contractor, United States Enrichment Corp.
Paul Jacobson, a spokesman for USEC, said Thursday that the company has made no decision on its operations at the plant. But securing low-cost electricity is a key factor in the company's decision. Its power contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority expires in May. "A program with the government to re-enrich (depleted uranium) is one component, but we must also be able to line up sufficient low-cost power and make productive use of the remainder of the plant production capacity," Jacobson said in a statement. "As we are getting close to the May 31 date, all three components are very challenging."
McConnell questioned Chu on the matter of the future of Paducah's plant during a Senate subcommittee meeting in May.
Chu told McConnell that he was concerned about the job losses but said the plant's gaseous diffusion technology is "energy intensive, and I would rather us invest in more forward-leaning technologies."
In the letter sent to Chu on Thursday, the lawmakers said it would cost about $100 million a year to idle the plant, while re-enriching the tails would raise government revenue.
"This could be solved by a stroke of a pen, by a simple decision by the president of the United States to save 1,200 private sector jobs, and to raise literally billions of dollars for a federal government that's literally awash in debt," McConnell said.