WASHINGTON – The federal government’s plans to bring a so-called nuclear waste recycling facility to the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon appear to be put on hold, possibly for good.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would not select a site for the planned reprocessing facility, as expected.
In a notice published July 10, the department said it had received 14,000 comments on the controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, called GNEP, a Bush administration plan to deal with the nation’s spent nuclear power plant fuel.
“As a result, DOE has eliminated the project-specific proposals for the siting, construction, and operation of a nuclear fuel recycling center, an advanced recycling center, and an advanced fuel cycle research facility,” the notice said.
Angela Hill, a spokeswoman for DOE, said the change of course doesn’t mean Piketon is off the list of 11 possible locations for the GNEP project, it just means that the list has been set aside.
“What we’re looking at is the larger, broader picture,” Hill said. “We’re not at the stage right now to pick a site.”
Supporters had touted the plan as a boon for the economically depressed Piketon region that would create thousands of jobs. Opponents claimed the proposed recycling facility was a ruse and that the government’s real intentions were to turn Piketon into a storage facility for nuclear waste.
Hill said the department plans to release its environmental impact statement for GNEP in the next month. If that report is approved, the Energy secretary would decide whether to allow spent nuclear fuel to be recycled, something that is not yet done in the U.S. After that decision, a site selection process could commence, she said.
What does that mean?
“GNEP is dead,” said Geoffrey Sea, an activist with the Southern Ohio Neighbors Group who campaigned against the project. “It’s all code language for saying that this isn’t going to happen.”
The notice came after the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development decided in June not to fund the project in next year’s budget.
In a news release, subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., characterized GNEP as being “counterproductive, poorly designed and poorly executed.”
Sea said the 5,000 Ohioans who signed the group’s petition and 300 residents who showed up at a March 2007 field hearing on the proposed facility – along with the lack of funding – helped knock the site list off the table.
His group also threatened to sue the Energy Department if the agency moved forward with plans to award grants to Piketon and two other locations so they could undergo site characteristic studies, he said.
Jim Morgan, director of nuclear operations for the Southern Ohio Nuclear Integration Cooperative, referred to as SONIC, a community group that formed to support the project, said a lot of misinformation had been spread about the plant.
“That part was disappointing,” Morgan said, adding his group collected 2,200 letters of support for the project, which were forwarded to the Energy Department.
“The biggest issue is that GNEP had lost a lot of its impetus within Congress,” he said.
Rep. Jean Schmidt, a Republican from Miami Township who had supported the proposal, was attacked for her position during the 2006 election by Democrat Victoria Wulsin, who again is challenging Schmidt in the 2nd Congressional District.
Schmidt said through a spokesman she continues to support the project.
“The congresswoman’s position has been that she will do what the local community wants her to do. If they want her to push for the consideration of this project, then she will,” Bruce Pfaff said.
“Congress has not provided much funding for this project, so she has been focusing much of her attention on making sure the cleaning continues,” he said.
Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland, who worked on issues regarding the Piketon plant in Congress when his district had included the area, said the governor wasn’t surprised at the department’s announcement.
“There was a sense of uncertainty about it for some time,” Dailey said. “The governor did support the community’s efforts to attract this project. But there were certain conditions that the community felt were necessary for the recycling plant. They were seeking a commitment that this site would not become a nuclear dumping ground.”
So what does this mean for Piketon?
Strickland would continue to advocate on behalf of the site, Dailey said.
“The governor thinks that this location and the highly-skilled work force in the area are great assets to the state,” he said.
The big unknown, however, is what the next president – whether it’s Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama – will push for with regard to the handling of spent nuclear fuel.
“They punted the ball down the field,” said Sea, who opposed the project. “This administration is not going to figure out anything and all of this is going to be left to the next administration. So, all options are open.”
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