Piketon plant on ‘standby’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 7, 2000


Saturday, October 07, 2000

U.S. energy officials tagged Piketon’s atomic plant this week for use in an emerging uranium enrichment project – halting the plant’s impending closure and saving more than 1,000 jobs.

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Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Friday that developing centrifuge technology to enrich uranium will keep the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant on "standby," keep about 1,900 well-paid employees working, and protect U.S. energy supplies and national security.

”I’m here to say you have job security and the nation will continue to have energy security,” Richardson said to the applause of several hundred workers at the Piketon plant. ”You were there for us when we won the Cold War, now we’re going to pay you back.”

The decision also means a reprieve for area counties, which were facing the economic problem of thousands of employees on the unemployment lines next summer.

"Remember, in a labor force area, anytime someone loses a position, everyone’s affected," said Pat Clonch, executive director of the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce.

Spending levels of families decrease, which affects sales in the region. Many more unemployed looking for jobs means increased competition among the underemployed. In short, it hurts the economy, Mrs. Clonch said.

"So it’s great this happened," she said. "And not just because the closure would’ve had an adverse affect on this county but the people who would have lost jobs have a valuable place to stay."

And when they retire, there will be places for other people to work.

About 1,400 of the Piketon plant’s 1,900 workers were told four months ago that they would be laid off within a year as production ended. The rest of the work force would be phased out by 2006.

Under the plan developed by the Department of Energy, gas centrifuge technology will be used to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.

The decision came at least in part because the United States supplies other countries with such fuel, said U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, who aggressively opposed the Piketon plant owner’s, the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, shutdown decision earlier this year.

Maintaining a reliable supply of fuel keeps other countries from pursuing enrichment and plutonium technology, which in turn boosts national security, Strickland said.

"The positive thing for us is that they’re focused on the new centrifuge technology, which ensures jobs in the future," he said.

Strickland said he and other members of Congress remain concerned with USEC, which should never have had to make plans for Piketon’s closure.

"I’m still concerned with the wellbeing of that company but I like the DOE moving forward with this technology and if USEC folds, at least that technology will protect workers," he said. "And we expect those who work there will still be able to be employed."

USEC is a private company in charge of the government’s nuclear fuel production. It said Friday it was negotiating to acquire the rights to the classified centrifuge technology.

Morris Brown, general manager of the Piketon plant, said that planned layoffs would be offset by the need for workers to keep the plant on standby, prepare for the centrifuge operations or clean up Cold War-era contamination.

The Energy Department said its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee will manage the centrifuge project and develop the technology, which could take five years. A building at Piketon would be refurbished to house the demonstration project within a year of its development.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.