Originally created 01/26/00

Future uncertain for nation's uranium plants



WASHINGTON -- The company that owns and operates the nation's only two uranium enrichment plants is considering cutting jobs and closing one of the facilities, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Falling prices for enriched uranium, used to fuel nuclear power plants, and increased production costs prompted directors of U.S. Enrichment Corp. to discuss cost-cutting options at a meeting Tuesday at an undisclosed Washington-area location.

Issues on the table included possible layoffs or the eventual closing of a gaseous diffusion plant, either in Paducah, Ky., or in Portsmouth, Ohio, USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said.

"Neither of those decisions have been made as of yet," she said, adding the directors plan to meet again next week.

Bethesda, Md.-based USEC was a government entity created to enrich uranium for commercial nuclear plants. It was privatized in 1998 to better compete in a global market.

USEC officials say while the company is profitable, it is losing money on a contract to sell enriched uranium from Russia to utility companies worldwide. The deal was set up by the U.S. government to keep Soviet-era warhead uranium away from rogue nations and terrorists.

USEC asked the federal government in December to compensate the company for up to $200 million lost on the Russian deal, but the government declined.

"Our industry is paying for world peace," said Dan Minter, president of the Piketon, Ohio, chapter of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents Portsmouth plant workers.

USEC employs about 2,100 people in Portsmouth and 1,700 in Paducah. The company laid off 250 workers at each plant last year. Any additional layoffs also would be divided between the two plants, Stuckle said.

Minter said employees did not know the board was considering layoffs or a plant closing. He said the union is adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"We don't want to plan for the funerals until we have to," he said.

Richard Miller, a Washington policy analyst for the workers' union, said the layoffs or a plant closure would be devastating to both communities.

"It may be time for the government to reevaluate whether it should buy USEC back," Miller said.

The House Commerce Committee has been investigating a variety of issues stemming from the privatization of USEC. Chairman J. Thomas Bliley Jr., R-Va., has said he would schedule hearings early this year, but no date has been set.