New uranium enrichment facility draws flak from environmentalists

Oct. 17, 2000 (—The announcement from the U.S. Energy Secretary of a proposal to build a new uranium enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio has cheered nuclear industry workers but angered environmentalists who point to earlier reports of sickness among the workers.

The aim of the plant is said to be to ensure that the supply of raw materials required for producing nuclear energy is made reliable and cost-effective. Nearly 20 per cent of America’s energy need is met by nuclear power, which uses enriched uranium as the main raw material. Both the President and Vice President of United States have expressed their support for the proposed facility as they believed it would help reduce the nation’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.

The government’s decision was not welcomed by the environmental activists who felt that the facility posed health hazards to the public, and to the environment in general. It had been earlier reported that workers at both the sites had complained of health problems related to poisoning by arsenic, uranium dust and other toxins at these plants. The Department of Energy, which publicly acknowledged those problems had ordered an extensive inquiry into the matter.

Following increased incidence of sickness among the workers, the government extended financial compensation to the workers who developed radiation related cancers and lung disease from building nuclear weapons. From the critics’ viewpoint, the government seems to be unnecessarily subjecting its subjects to the ill effects of radiation. The fact that the government is aware of the dangers, can be assessed from the fact that the Energy Secretary applauded the compensation package along with announcing the plan to build the new facility.

At present the U.S. has two uranium enrichment facilities in the country – one at Piketon and another at Paducah in Kentucky. The Piketon plant known as the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, is slated to be shut down next summer. The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which operates this plant announced the closure decision in June this year.

The 1,200 displaced workers would be shifted over to the new Ohio facility. The workers who would otherwise have been jobless, will now take part in the DOE’s gas centrifuge project, as well as in the environmental clean up activities at the existing plant. The Portsmouth plant will be revived in the event of the country facing an acute shortage of enriched uranium.

The gas centrifuge uranium enrichment pilot plant to be used in the new plant is now under development at the Department of Energy’s national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The gas centrifuge process of enrichment increases the concentration of uranium 235, the isotope used in the production of nuclear energy.

This technology, developed in the US is more advanced than the currently used process of gaseous diffusion and uses only a fraction of the energy. A scientific director at the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington was of the opinion that the new plant was completely unnecessary as there was already an abundant supply of reactor grade uranium already on the market.

He said that oversupply was in fact the reason why the Portsmouth plant was being shut down. He also expressed his opposition to the use of gas centrifuge technology at the new facility as he believed that it would lead to proliferation of more nuclear weapons. While gas diffusion plants are bulky and easy to detect, the centrifuge is not very difficult to conceal giving it an advantage from the proliferation perspective.

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