PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway threatened Friday to sue the U.S. Department of Energy if its cleanup of a uranium enrichment plant falls behind schedule, keeping up pressure from state leaders to hasten the work and find a new operator for the Cold War-era facility that's being shut down.
Conway also said the department gave its commitment to request an additional $35 million in the next fiscal year for cleanup at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which has supplied enriched uranium to nuclear powers plants.
USEC Inc., which leases the plant from DOE, said in May it planned to cease production and lay off most of the plant's approximately 1,100 workers. The average salary for plant workers, including benefits, is $125,000. The mass layoffs will cause ripple effects throughout the regional economy in far western Kentucky.
State leaders are urging DOE to keep to a strict cleanup schedule and to expedite efforts to find a new operator in hopes of preserving jobs at the plant.
Conway said he warned top DOE officials recently that he is prepared to go to court if the agency falls behind in the cleanup.
"If the federal government does not live up to its legal obligation to clean up the site at Paducah or they don't meet the milestones, I intend ... to take whatever action is necessary — be it shaming them, arbitrating, filing a lawsuit or whatever to make them live up to their legal and their moral obligation here," he said.
Conway also said he received an "ironclad assurance" from Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman that the Paducah plant will not become a dumping ground for nuclear material from other states if a containment facility is built on site to secure contaminated waste generated at the Kentucky facility.
Currently, DOE has $142 million in the budget for cleanup at the plant, situated 10 miles outside Paducah, Conway said. He said DOE indicated it will seek to raise that to $177 million in the next fiscal year. Conway said it will be a multi-billion-dollar cleanup.
"That is significant money," he said of DOE's additional request. "But it is nowhere near what is going to be necessary to get this job done."
Conway, a Democrat in his second term as attorney general, is considering a run for governor in 2015.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he discussed the plight of the Paducah plant workers in a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden this week.
"I shared that one of our top priorities is to create a successful, productive and safe future for that facility and its 1,100 employees," Beshear said. Biden was receptive and indicted he would talk to DOE about it, Beshear added.
Some of the state's top political leaders also have met with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz about the Paducah plant.
U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, all Kentucky Republicans, also have been pushing DOE on the cleanup and search for a new operator.
McConnell, the Senate's top-ranking Republican, has pressed DOE to ensure that any work to re-enrich depleted uranium material at the plant remains at the Paducah facility. McConnell planned to meet with local officials about the plant during a visit to the area Saturday.
Following a pair of meetings in which McConnell, Paul and Whitfield pressed the case to Moniz, DOE "expedited its plan to review private sector proposals to re-use the facility's material and agreed to favor those planning to keep redevelopment in Paducah," said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
Union leaders also are making the case for the plant with DOE officials.
Jim Key is a vice president of the United Steelworkers Local 550, which represents about 580 USEC workers at the Paducah plant. He said union leaders are pressing DOE for a "decontamination and decommissioning" project to retain the workforce. That work would remove equipment inside processing buildings.
The goal is to provide work until a new operator can be found or new nuclear-related work can be secured, he said.
Another option is to transfer government-owned land at the site that wasn't part of the enrichment work to other federal agencies to bring new manufacturing work, Key said.
The Paducah 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 has been operated since the late 1990s by Bethesda, Md.,-based USEC.