Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield says a bill to allow re-enrichment of uranium at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has reached a stalemate in Washington.
The plant in Paducah is operated by the United States Enrichment Corporation and produces low-enriched uranium for use in commercial nuclear power plants across the country. The bill would allow the plant to re-enrich leftover uranium—called “tails”—and sell it to generate power. Both Whitfield and the Government Accountability Office estimate the re-enrichment could net more than $4 billion for the federal government.
But the legislation is stalled in Congress, facing bipartisan opposition. Whitfield argues that the project is a win-win —it will generate money and retain 1,200 jobs for the area. He says the Department of Energy could act on its own, but isn’t.
“That’s why it’s so puzzling and so frustrating because you produce the money for the government, you save the government significant money and you expedite environmental cleanup and you save 1200 jobs,” Whitfield said. “We’re stymied in Washington because the Obama Administration is still opposed to it, Secretary Chu is still opposed to it, the Democratic leadership in the House is still opposed to it. And then we have a lot of conservative people in the Congress who don’t want to spend any money.”
The conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation came out against the bill because it’s worded to disqualify competitive bidding for the uranium.
The DOE didn’t return a request for comment, but in a recent report, the Government Accountability Office said it believed the DOE could re-enrich the tails on its own, but probably couldn’t sell them as-is. The GAO also noted that in 2008 it recommended Congress clarify the DOE’s authority to manage the tails, but Congress hadn’t acted on that.
Another wrinkle is a federal grant that went to develop centrifuge technology at a closed enrichment plant in Portsmouth, Ohio. Ohio House Republicans supported Whitfield’s bill until their plant got money for research and they lost interest in re-enriching the spent uranium.
Whitfield says the new technology is a long way away from being viable, so his bill and the Paducah plant are still relevant.
“But the centrifuge technology is not there so they’re interested in maintaining the plant in Paducah and continuing to enrich uranium,” he said.
Assuming it’s profitable for the company.
The Paducah plant’s utility contract expires in May, and they’re trying to negotiate a new one. But a United States Enrichment Corporation spokesman said without cheaper power and the ability to re-enrich the uranium tails, it might not be economical for USEC to keep the plant running past the spring.