CINCINNATI (AP) — President Barack Obama's administration said Wednesday it is making sure that work will continue to develop and test a southern Ohio plant that would enrich uranium for nuclear power plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced a new cost-sharing and cooperation deal with USEC Inc. for the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon. The department said the agreement will enable critical research to proceed. Secretary Steven Chu called it "a major milestone."
The $350 million project is meant to demonstrate that the plant's uranium enrichment technology will work on a commercial basis, reducing financial risks that have held up a $2 billion loan guarantee that the Energy Department has balked at providing Bethesda, Md.-based USEC.
The department said it will provide $88 million for this year's work that includes taking and disposing of enriched uranium byproducts called "tails." The Obama administration says it will continue to work with Congress on future appropriations. USEC is providing 20 percent of the total costs.
A Democratic congressional critic of the project called the new agreement a waste of taxpayer money. Plant backers say it's important for national security and energy supplies.
The Energy Department still isn't committed to the loan guarantee, but says the new agreement increases its project involvement. It will take ownership of centrifuges and other equipment that would be transferred back to the plant if it moved ahead for commercial use. The agreement also includes new performance measures for monitoring progress, and federal rights to technical data and intellectual property.
"Our agreements reflect the importance of the U.S. technology to our national security and will validate the readiness of the American Centrifuge technology for commercial deployment," John Welch, USEC president and CEO, said in a statement.
The announcement came one day before an Obama campaign appearance in Cleveland, while Republican challenger Mitt Romney was headed Wednesday to Ohio, a key swing state in November.
The project has bipartisan support in Ohio, where it could lead to as many as 4,000 jobs in a struggling region. The host county, Pike, has Ohio's highest unemployment rate at nearly 14 percent.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who met recently with Vice President Joe Biden about the project, praised an agreement he said in a statement adds accountability while ensuring "that the Piketon community is on a path toward continued job creation and economic growth."
Republican Sen. Rob Portman called it "a step in the right direction," while continuing to urge long-term federal commitment to the plant.
However, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., renewed his call for an investigation of the Energy Department support for the project, saying in a statement that the $88 million "is a complete and total waste of taxpayer dollars." He and Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, have written the General Accountability Office questioning the legal and policy basis for what they call a risky bailout of a questionable project.
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