Revell / Dispatch photos
At the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, spotter Robert Valandingham, atop truck, helps load containers of low-level radioactive scrap metal. The waste is being shipped to Utah for disposal.
By Jonathan Riskind
Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON -- When southern Ohio economic-development czar Gregory Simonton gazes over the vast 3,700-acre site of the shuttered Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, he sees massive buildings that could be sold or leased to private businesses and vacant land ripe for construction.
But first the contaminated byproducts of the Cold War must be mopped up at the uranium-enrichment plant in Piketon, about 60 miles south of Columbus. Once a key part of the nation's atomic-bomb program, the plant last month stopped producing commercial material for nuclear fuel.
The total cost of cleaning up Piketon isn't cheap -- an estimated $749.1 million -- and that figure could go up, according to recently released U.S. Department of Energy figures.
But President Bush's proposed 2002 budget would cut money for nuclear cleanup sites nationwide to about $5.9 billion from about $6.3 billion this year. That has outraged Simonton and nuclear-cleanup advocates in Ohio and around the country who say more, not less, money is needed to make inroads into paying an estimated $300 billion Cold War contamination bill.
"The administration has recommended a step back . . . after a decade of real progress," said Robert Schaefer, a spokesman for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Seattle and in the nation's capital.
The advocates are worried that after several years of building up the Ohio and national cleanup budget -- which still hasn't reached levels they consider adequate -- this marks the start of a backslide that could delay for years the decontamination and reuse of nuclear sites.
Energy Department officials acknowledge that cleaning up dozens of nuclear sites, large and small, will take hundreds of billions of dollars and decades of time. The locations range from Piketon to the Battelle Columbus nuclear research lab in West Jefferson, Ohio, to the Hanford nuclear reactor in Washington state and the plutonium-polluted Savannah River site in South Carolina.
But the administration wants to assess how much progress has been made and whether the job can be done more efficiently before deciding whether to increase spending, officials say.
"The entire (department) budget in environmental management is subject to an ongoing, comprehensive policy and project review initiated by Secretary (of Energy Spencer) Abraham," said Ken Morgan, a spokesman for the agency's Ohio office. The department "will continue to work with our regulators and the governor's office to ensure that cleanup activities continue and that the health and safety of our workers and the public is not compromised, period."
On Friday afternoon, the Bush administration announced that it was proposing adding $180 million nationwide to this year's cleanup budget as part of a $6.5 billion 2001 supplemental budget request it is sending to Congress.
Piketon fared relatively well in next year's budget, considering that some Ohio sites received deep cutbacks. Still, the approximately $76 million allocated for cleanup at Piketon was the same as current funding, not allowing an expansion of the cleanup now that the plant has ceased operations.
On the positive side, $125 million is proposed to keep the plant on standby, saving for at least 18 months many of the 1,700 jobs there. More standby money has been promised, but not committed, for as long as 31/2 more years.
Containers of radioactive scrap metal await removal from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.
Still, Simonton is concerned about whether enough money will be committed in future years not just for cleanup efforts but also to make good on previous federal promises to build a recycling plant to dispose of thousands of cylinders of depleted uranium stored on site. The full cost of getting rid of those cylinders, which could run into the billions, isn't included in the Piketon cleanup price tag.
"Everything's a holding pattern," Simonton said of attempts to plan the long-term redevelopment of the site and figure out how many cleanup and recycling jobs will be there in years to come.
"There's one promise now, and two years from now you could have a whole different set of circumstances. This year-to-year process is to say the least frustrating and also disheartening."
The picture is bleaker at other Ohio nuclear sites.
The Fernald site near Cincinnati, a former uranium-metal production facility, saw its funding held to about $290 million when it had been expected to reach $330 million next year to help meet a 2006 cleanup goal.
The Mound site in Miamisburg, which was a key producer of nuclear-weapons components, suffers a cut of at least $20 million in the Bush budget, to about $76 million, including about $5 million for security and other noncleanup needs.
Sharon Cowdrey, a member of a Miamisburg citizens' advisory group that oversees the Mound cleanup, said about $92 million a year is required to decontaminate the site by 2006, the target date. Cowdrey worries that the site, on top of a hill, could leak dangerous radioactive waste into the community's groundwater before too long if cleanup isn't completed.
"Everything on that hill has to migrate down," Cowdrey said. "There is no way the community wants to be strapped" with the cleanup taking longer than expected.
Included in Friday's announcement is $21 million more this year for Fernald and Mound, although it wasn't clear how much is intended for each site. And the attempt to add more money to this year's cleanup pot doesn't mean the administration is seeking to increase its 2002 request.
The concerns of local officials and people such as Simonton and Cowdrey is shared by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which helps oversee federal cleanup efforts on some of the state's nuclear sites.
Graham Mitchell, chief of the OEPA's office of federal facilities oversight, said the Bush budget is "shortsighted" in not recognizing the risks and costs of delaying the closure of contaminated Cold War sites.
Contamination might migrate off some sites, Mitchell said, and the longer cleanup takes, the more it will cost taxpayers.
"We need to make sure the new administration understands that commitments have been made," he said. "There is the potential here to solve real environmental problems and get these sites off the federal government's books and actually save money in the long run."
The Energy Department is wise to review how nuclear-cleanup money is being spent, said Kate Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank that conducts research on environmental issues.
Probst notes that about $50 billion already has been spent on cleanup since 1989. She worries that too much emphasis has been placed on cleanup as an economic-development initiative to replace jobs lost when the nuclear plants shut down -- and not enough on cleaning up the most important sites first and all sites efficiently.
"There could be more scrutiny of where all the money is going and are we getting the most out of it," Probst said. "It's a lot of money, and a lot of people out there think that money could be better spent. I can't say whether (this year's) cuts are good or bad, but doing things better is important."
Still, if lawmakers such as Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, have their way, the cleanup money will be substantially increased for 2002 even as that re-examination goes forward. The Piketon plant is in Strickland's district.
Members of Congress will try to increase cleanup funding in 2002 by as much as $1 billion, though that will butt heads with many other initiatives in a year when Bush is trying to hold down domestic spending.
It's important for the federal government to keep funding promises at places such as the Mound and Fernald sites and to step up efforts at the Piketon plant, DeWine said.
"It's a responsibility of the federal government," he said. "The federal government created the problem, and we need to live up to our responsibilities."
Joseph Gantos, manager for decontamination and decommissioning for Battelle Memorial Institute, agrees. Money for cleanup of Battelle's West Jefferson lab, a Cold War nuclear-research site, was slashed in the Bush budget to $10 million from $16.1 million.
If that figure holds and does not increase significantly in future years, the West Jefferson site wouldn't be completed until 2015, Gantos said. Battelle pledges to spend its own money, if necessary, to ensure contamination doesn't endanger the environment or surrounding community.
But since the work was done on behalf of national security, the federal government should make good on promises to restore the site for both environmental and economic-development reasons, Gantos said.
"We want our facilities back so we can put them back into business use," he said. "It would be good for the community to have another business thriving."