By Geoffrey Sea
High drama hits the world of the former U.S. Enrichment Corporation as a shareholder rebellion drubs the company stock price, restructuring and bankruptcy rumors swirl, safety issues delay USEC’s departure from Kentucky, a “left-right” anti-USEC coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations emerges and charges of USEC’s direct involvement in illegality proliferate.
USEC used to be a world giant in the supply of nuclear fuel. Once wielding monopoly power over the domestic supply and international pricing of enriched uranium, its motto touts “A Global Energy Company,” even as USEC struggles with the expense of closing its last production facility in the non-metropolis of Paducah, Kentucky. (Metropolis is over the river in Illinois.)
But in a spectacular sell-off signaling bizarre irregularities in the way the company has been managed and subsidized, USEC Inc.’s stock price has tumbled in a pattern known to market analysts as a “falling knife.” On the Friday after July 4, normally a sleepy trading day, the rush to sell USEC stock caused $2 gaps between ask and bid prices, ending with a 40 percent drop in value for the day. After double-digit percentage share-price declines at enormous volume on July 3, July 5 and July 8, (thirty times average volume on July 8), the total market valuation of the company is now about $16 million, ranking it as Lilliputian.
USEC’s bonds, which come due for payment in 2014, if not sooner, fell to about twenty cents on the dollar. The company’s common shareholders, including many past and current employees, have lost 99 percent of value since 2007, 80 percent of value since the start of 2013 and 67 percent of value since June 24, when the Paducah City Council and the McCracken County Fiscal Court met in joint session to cope with USEC’s abandonment of that community.
And let’s not forget that with its nose-thumbing at the Commonwealth of Kentucky, USEC may lose the lifeline shilling services of that state’s powerful congressional delegation, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, presidential contender Rand Paul, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, and Energy and Commerce Chairman Ed Whitfield.
The hot betting at Kentucky tracks this season is on whether McConnell, Paul, Rogers and Whitfield will shun their former corporate sponsor in deference to western Kentucky voters before the 2014 appropriations cycle is complete.
USEC’s flirtation with a non-nuclear Apocalypse has profound implications for the safe completion of power-down at Paducah, for the long-term cleanup of the contaminated sites that USEC will leave behind, for the well-being of a region that came to depend on the company’s draw of unproductive federal spending, and for the viability of the U.S. nuclear industry as a whole.
The cliff-diving exhibition of USEC stock is pushed by fears of an impending bankruptcy filing or a stock-diluting debt-for-equity swap, two de-listing warnings from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), shock and horror over a reverse stock split at a monstrous ratio of 25-to-1 and growing realization that USEC stands as much chance of swinging a needed federal loan guarantee as George Zimmerman does of being voted Mister American Suave.
Even Frank Lewis of Ohio's Portsmouth Daily Times, who would report a nuclear disaster as a good-news opportunity for USEC, wrote last week that in announcing new loan guarantees, the Department of Energy is sullenly silent about USEC. No shit, Sherlock, the company is going broke.
At the pre-reverse split valuation rates in effect until July 1, USEC stock is now selling for thirteen cents per share. You can’t buy a doughnut-hole for that, but if you could, it might have more spin and enrichment potential than a USEC uranium centrifuge.
Yet even after the panicked sell-off of USEC stock, on the evening of July 10, the inestimable members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by the very same characters who lambasted the Obama administration for its risky loan guarantee to the Solyndra Corporation, voted by nearly a three-to-one margin to make another $48 million of federal funds available to the USEC “centrifuge” venture in Ohio, at risk levels that would make a Carnival Cruise through the Bay of Beirut look like a safe bet by comparison.
So what is going on here?
The Un-American Centrifuge Plant
Created first as a government corporation in response to a mismanagement scandal at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in the 1990s, USEC was privatized in 1998. The USEC Privatization Act, premised on delusional Thatcherite ideology, placed two solemn obligations on the respective parties in the split: The Department of Energy, though continuing to own the land and facilities with which USEC operates, had to stay out of the business of uranium enrichment; USEC, while free to conduct its business as a private corporation, had to use its free access to public land and resources to develop advanced uranium enrichment technology and improve the U.S. position in the global enrichment marketplace.
Now those statutory goals can only bring a ROFLMAO reaction. USEC has become a wholly-dependent ward of the Department of Energy, which effectively makes all the big “business” decisions that concern enrichment, and USEC has defaulted on any credible effort to deploy a domestic advanced enrichment technology. Yet the Privatization Act remains on the books, its provisions violated cavalierly but with no efforts at repeal, like metropolitan municipal laws about donkey carts and Sunday dancing.
The basic and shocking truth about USEC, which now ought to be celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of its privatization, is that the company, ballyhooed as “vital for national security” by members of Congress and local chambers of commerce, doesn’t produce anything anymore and it never will. It enriches no uranium, its government-granted sweetheart deal to market Russian warhead uranium expires at the end of this year, and its “American Centrifuge” project (ACP) at Piketon, Ohio, has become a parody of patriotism, so outpaced by Russian, European, Australian and Iranian competitors that the company can’t whip up enough whirl on a centrifuge machine to spin a cotton candy cone for the USEC anniversary.
ACP was scandalously licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for construction and operation in 2007, and $520 million of bonds were issued to finance that construction, all premised on plant completion between 2011 and 2013. Now past the projected commercial opening date, not only has construction of a full-scale plant not neared completion, it hasn’t really been started, and estimated completion costs are now about twice what they were in 2007.
A supervisor on the project told me that most of the initial expenditure, affording USEC a hefty tax write-off it’s already taken, went to replace the roofs on the pre-existing buildings, apparently to ready those buildings for some use other than a centrifuge plant. That actually makes sense because USEC has never demonstrated possession of a commercially-competitive centrifuge technology ready for deployment, and has resisted that eight-year overdue demonstration like the legendary Count Dracula avoiding a mirror. And for precisely the same reason: If USEC were forced to complete a demonstration, it would only reflect the vacuity of the project. Imaginary monsters cast no reflection.
A so-called “Research, Development and Demonstration” (RD&D) projects, now being “completed” at Piketon with 80 percent federal funding, is only more smoke and mirrors, minus the mirrors, because the program involves no actual research, development, or demonstration of commercial viability. If completed, the project will only demonstrate that USEC centrifuges can spin without exploding, like a toaster demonstration that shows glowing coils but fails to produce any toast.
Despite public funding, no governmental process is contemplated for gathering or disseminating data on the commercial worthiness of USEC’s centrifuges, because that answer is already widely known: The technology at issue is forty years old and out of date, a fact confirmed by an active proposal from GE-Hitachi to use their molecular laser enrichment technology to extract usable uranium from USEC’s own old waste product at the Paducah site, a proposal that has brought no counter-offer from USEC. The real purpose of the “RD&D” project at Piketon is only to extend out the schedule of USEC’s galactically-embarrassing inevitable collapse.
This is no NIMBY attitude, though the centrifuge project is literally in my backyard. (My property has a one-mile long fence line with the USEC-leased portion of the DOE reservation). I’m the one who’s been telling anti-nuclear activists for nine years to stop directing their attacks at a centrifuge plant, because no centrifuge plant will ever happen here. I’d call the American Centrifuge Plant a pipe dream, if its pipes had any more reality than Bush’s “aluminum tubes.”
That other intended use of the so-called “centrifuge” buildings at Piketon became clear from the outset in 2007, when the Bush DOE, led by an assistant secretary who had formerly been Chief Operating Officer of USEC, pushed to make Piketon a storage center for the nation’s languishing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel. USEC had purchased the leading American spent fuel storage company, and used its DOE-lease and NRC-license as Piketon place-holders, waiting to ditch its unviable centrifuge project for a far more lucrative federal contract warehousing nuclear waste. USEC had been given virtually unregulated and unconstitutional control of the federal sites at Piketon and Paducah, on the single condition that the company proclaims, with no means for verification, that it is developing an “advanced” uranium enrichment technology at those sites. Had John McCain won the 2008 election, USEC might have cashed in big by turning Piketon into the world’s largest nuclear dump.
That was not to be, however, and now USEC is stuck having to continually say it will build an enrichment plant that the company never had the technology, financing, or motivation to build. Politicians and the media have a hard time comprehending it, but the ACP project was never more than a false front, a mechanism for wrangling government bailout after government bailout, while the rock-red company waited for a Republican administration that would approve its audacious waste storage plans.
That was Plan A for the Piketon A-Plant, until the company just ran out of steam. False-front hi-tech deceptions can get expensive. ACP taxpayer funding was utilized as a bridge to USEC’s intended diversification, which is exactly the strategy that its 2002 team of new “strategic advisors” recommended. That team included Iraq War architect Richard Perle and a physics professor whose only claim to fame was in pushing centralized storage solutions for spent nuclear fuel. His name was Ernest Moniz.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), whose old congressional district included Piketon, has invited the new Secretary of Energy to come and visit “the American Centrifuge Plant.” That’s a laugh, intended only so Republicans can berate the Obama Administration when Moniz, like his predecessors, fails to appear. If the former USEC “strategic advisor” and nuclear expert did come for a whizz-bang tour of the big empty buildings, he could be held criminally liable for the fraud. You can hear a swirling sound in those cavernous buildings, erected by the federal government at an alleged cost of $2 billion, but it’s the sound of U.S. Treasury bills going cyclonically down the drain. No one has actually added up the total amount of federal dollars wasted in subsidies, gifts and graft to USEC, but the Government Accountability Office is reportedly working on the task.
USEC has certainly achieved some record-setting milestones. The $5 billion price tag on a completed commercial centrifuge plant (an estimate USEC has not bothered to update) would be approximately 350 times the total current market value of the entire company. It’s like a kite-flying club saying that it will build a B-2 bomber. The annual salary of CEO John Welch is about a third of the total value of his company, a rate of compensation justified only by his ability to keep a straight face when saying that he expects the government to give him a $2 billion loan guarantee. Say “Solyndra” a hundred times slowly after setting off a stink-bomb to get some sense of the magnitude of the incipient scandal when USEC finally bites the dust.
But no, that really isn’t fair to Solyndra. Solyndra may have been a case of the government picking winners and losers unwisely. USEC is a case of the government picking a loser intentionally over and over again, only because the privatized cash recipient has strategically and falsely promised jobs in the states and districts of powerful Members of Congress.
Once described in the Financial Times of London as “the trust fund baby of the American nuclear industry,” USEC has squandered every sequential $50-million allowance check from the feds on posh executive salaries and luxurious lobbying. Therefore, the allegedly-private company still needs a couple of billions from the government, just to make ends meat and ward off investment-fraud litigation. The company’s loan guarantee application, repeatedly submitted in the run-up to key elections, has already been twice denied because “USEC had nothing, absolutely nothing,” in the words of a former aide to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Even if USEC got that federal loan by some underworld device, criminal or demonic, it would need to raise at least an additional $3 billion to complete a new production plant, which Welch says, still straight-faced and with no supporting evidence, could come from a Japanese international bank. I suppose that would be in gratitude for USEC’s supply of nuclear fuel to the three reactors at Fukushima that melted down and are still leaking. Those silly Japanese and their short memories and spare cash.
Recent developments at Piketon and Paducah make no sense at all without understanding that the working national plan for how to deal with the outmoded gaseous diffusion plants and their massively contaminated sites has been to convert both into “national sacrifice” waste repositories. But you won’t find that plan in any Federal Register notices or Environmental Impact Reports. Rather, it’s the subtext of a hundred different records of decision and formal notifications. The new way to evade those nuisance environmental compliance requirements is for federal agencies and funded corporations to simply not announce what they intend to do.
Exploiting exclusive lease provisions arising from the USEC Privatization Act, aided by exceptionally lousy government negotiating under the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations, the anticipated waste enterprises at Piketon and Paducah were to be operated at a profit by USEC and its subsidiaries as they “diversified” away from the overly-competitive enrichment business back toward lucrative federal contract work. In accord with this master plan, a “Uranium Center of Excellence” or UCE was established at Piketon in the early 2000s, which collected uranium scrap waste from all over the country, including large shipments from the “cleanup” projects at Paducah, KY; Fernald, OH; and Hanford, WA.
The “excellence” of this facility was that the radioactive garbage was green-washed as “recyclable,” and Ohio voters were also duped by the promise that it would bring hundreds of jobs, when the final tally was only two full-time inventory managers. I suppose that if spent fuel storage had been added, it would have been called the Center for Real Awesomeness with Plutonium.
But when the spent fuel storage plan was ditched quietly by the Obama Administration as an impediment to future electoral success in the Buckeye State, the Uranium Center of Excellence stuck out like a radioactive thumb. Many of the same contractors who had been paid to haul the excellent garbage in were then paid a second time to haul the excellent garbage out in a less-than-excellent shell game that meant lucre for an elite group of crappy corporations. Some of the uranium that had been trucked from Paducah to Piketon has been trucked back to Paducah, just as that facility was being readied for closure and alleged “cleanup.” The mother-lode of excellent uranium trash has been moved en masse to a new UCE at Oak Ridge, TN, which curiously seems to have not much going on in the way of human activity.
USEC had intended to be the chief beneficiary of all this excellent wastefulness, but found itself sidelined by dual rulings of the DOE General Counsel that barred the company from bidding on Piketon or Paducah cleanup contracts due to unspecified conflicts of interest. (Why the text of those rulings remains undisclosed is clear: The conflicts of interest that legally impede USEC involvement in cleanup also apply to Babcock and Wilcox, the lead strategic investor in USEC, and to Fluor Corporation, which signed a one-billion-dollar manufacturing contract with USEC for ACP in 2008. However, Fluor and B&W jointly were granted the principal $2.2 billion cleanup contract at Piketon in 2009, which USEC had hoped to acquire.)
Barred from major cleanup contracts and unable to swap its centrifuge lemon for a lucrative waste storage project, USEC found itself cock-blocked at the very sites it was supposed to control by virtue and vice of the USEC Privatization Act. The company then resorted to an extortion caper as its business plan. The Piketon gaseous diffusion plant had been closed in 2001, but Paducah remained in operation, losing money for USEC every day it did so, not counting the patronage payoffs to USEC provided by the Kentucky congressional delegation. (USEC made what little profit it did off the sale of Russian uranium, offsetting Paducah losses.)
That left USEC with a single card to play, and the company played it. Leveraging its precarious financial situation, USEC threatened the Department of Energy with a sudden shutoff of power at Paducah at the end of May, on strict interpretation of the clause in the Privatization Act that limits USEC responsibilities to the business of enrichment, ignoring a lease provision that requires return of the facility to DOE “in safe condition.” That was intended to wrangle additional subsidies from DOE or get the government to bend on the conflict-of-interest exclusion from “cleanup.” Instead, the explicit extortion drove home USEC’s conflict of interest, angered the new Secretary of Energy, and erased years of community relations work. USEC was telling the people of the Paducah area that the company was willing to place their lives and health in immediate jeopardy in order to make an immediate extra buck and temporarily keep itself out of bankruptcy.
What USEC probably wasn’t counting on was that current and former USEC employees, who include many Paducah area residents and account for a large percentage of investors clinging to USEC common shares, would dump the stock in defiance. And that’s what apparently happened around Independence Day, giving new meaning to the holiday in the context of the end of dependence of the Paducah community on its old gaseous diffusion plant and the company that ran it into the ground.
The grotesqueness of USEC’s financial mismanagement has led to ideas among the company’s own current and former employees that they could do a better job of running the enterprise and preserving jobs. Groups of employees at both Piketon and Paducah have schemed about USEC takeover or replacement, likewise running into the hurdles of the company’s staggering debts and its statutory authority—amending or repealing the USEC Privatization Act in this Congressional gridlock would be tantamount to a Texas secession. Everybody knows it ought to happen, but don’t hold your breath. I asked one such schemer, off the record, why he thought his group would have a leg up over current USEC management and he said: “We wouldn’t be a billion dollars in debt or pay our CEO six million dollars.” He has a point.
USEC stock has nose-dived before, especially when the company’s “Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation” technology was revealed in 1999 to be vaporously fraudulent and inexcusably wordy. (“We will see Elvis before we see AVLIS” became a common saying in the USEC-dependent communities). However, the most recent plunge puts USEC stock into territory of dire consequence for the company’s survival.
The 25-to-1 reverse stock split accomplished on July 1 was intended resolutely to cure USEC’s stock price deficiency, which was cause for a de-listing warning from NYSE in May of 2012, after the company’s share price fell below the one dollar mark for thirty days. By multiplying stock value by a whopping twenty-five, USEC wanted to extinguish any chance of falling back again into deficiency. But by July 8, only four trading days after the reverse split, USEC stock already hit a low of $2.60, raising the definite specter that it will soon be back in deficiency territory.
Any reverse stock split is widely regarded by investors as a prelude to bankruptcy. The size of this one resulted in some really funny glitches on market websites unprepared for such a radical revaluation. GoogleFinance gave up and reported the July 1 market move for USEC as a flat-line at zero, while YahooFinance took an opposite approach, neglecting to apply the split ratio of 25, showing the stock value as rising more than 2100 percent on the day when the adjusted value in fact had fallen. Investors were none too pleased when receiving brokerage bills for the mandatory swap.
Meanwhile, USEC received a second de-listing warning from NYSE in April of 2013, after market capitalization fell below the required minimum of $50 million. The reverse stock split was expected to worsen that problem by taking some toll on equity value, but USEC hoped to rectify that problem by soon employing a debt-for-equity swap that would involve an issuance of many new common shares. That solution, however, exacerbates two other problems in the manner common to sinking companies.
With common shares already trading at such low value, their dilution by a large amount of newly-issued stock would reduce share value to near zero. And to implement a near-term debt-for-equity swap effectively would undo the reverse stock split just employed—a one-two punch clearly aimed at squeezing common shareholders just to pay for extended executive salaries prior to liquidation. Since publicly-traded companies are, by law, supposed to act for the benefit of their shareholders, such transparent abuse of them would likely raise SEC violation issues and serve as a basis for a new round of shareholder litigation.
Moreover, the magnitude of the Independence Day plunge brought USEC’s market capitalization below yet another de-listing threshold. On July 8, the market cap fell to just $14 million, a level which, if sustained, would bring immediate de-listing from the stock exchange, with no allowance for time to cure the deficiency by a corporate restructuring. Since July 8, the market cap has been hovering close to the $15 million threshold. If USEC were to be de-listed from NYSE, the company’s bonds would become immediately due for payment, and that would necessitate a swift filing for bankruptcy.
If the last three paragraphs were gobbledygook to you, here’s a kind of Idiot’s Guide to USEC: USEC has virtually no sellable assets (its facilities, equipment, and uranium inventories are almost all owned or subject to seizure by the government); USEC has no business plan (its enrichment business and Russian-uranium marketing venture are rapidly winding down and its diversification dreams never materialized); USEC has no reason for existing (it survives as a statutory creation of the Privatization Act but it fulfills no mission for the nation beyond the orderly decommissioning of its projects); USEC’s equity value is on a glide-path to worthlessness; USEC continues to accrue debt at an alarming rate.
Judging by recent votes, the entire Congressional leadership, led by Ohio’s least-favored son John Boehner, and solid majorities in both houses of Congress, believe the above attributes make USEC an excellent candidate for billions of dollars in new federal loan guarantees. Idiot’s guides are way above the heads of most members of Congress.
On July 10, the House of Representatives voted by solid majorities to defeat two proposed amendments that would have killed future funding for USEC’s Piketon charade. The amendments were sponsored by conservative Republican Michael Burgess of Texas, and co-sponsored by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who will have the odd distinction of voting again on the same appropriations measure after he is sworn in as a U.S. Senator on July 16. (USEC, however, may not survive out of bankruptcy until the time the Senate votes.)
Reflecting the spectrum-spanning diversity of USEC fed-uppedness in the House, a “left-right” DC coalition of five conservative economic groups (including the National Taxpayers Union and the National Enterprise Institute) and four progressive environmental groups (including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth) issued a letter supporting the Burgess-Markey amendments.
Calling upon Congress to “Stop USEC Giveaways,” that letter stresses the crash of six USEC demonstration centrifuges in June of 2011, and the legal incorrectness of “national security” justifications for continuing USEC bailout. (USEC’s congressional defenders, like freshman Congressman Brad Wenstrup from Portman’s old district in Ohio, repeatedly claim (as seen in the below video) that USEC’s future centrifuge facility is needed to make tritium for nuclear weapons. That argument is patently false—TVA’s nuclear reactors that produce tritium as a by-product have received and may receive uranium fuel from non-USEC sources, including down-blended U.S. stockpile material or URENCO’s centrifuge plant in New Mexico. Ohio is not more “domestic” than New Mexico, except in the minds of John Boehner’s minions.)
How soon will the end come for USEC Inc.?
On July 29, USEC is scheduled to report its second quarter losses, including the large yet-undisclosed cash hemorrhage caused by DOE’s insistence that USEC pay for the power-down procedure at Paducah, rather than simply turn out the lights and leave. The first round of substantial Paducah layoffs will occur around A-Bomb day, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, on Aug. 6. Look for the financial bombshell before or during that week, signaled also by cash-strapped USEC’s hiring of a prominent lobbying firm last week to negotiate terms of the company’s dissolution (or as they prefer to put it, “restructuring”) on Capitol Hill.
According to Politico Morning Energy on July 3, USEC has hired Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies (COPS) to lobby on issues related to closure of the Paducah plant, following a little PR snafu when the governor and attorney general of Kentucky announced they may initiate lawsuits to compel safe shutdown and cleanup of the closing plant. But the admittedly-impoverished USEC doesn’t really need high-priced help running away from responsibilities at Paducah. The company’s predicament is far more dire than that. In actuality, COPS is being employed to consort with the robbers in Congress (hat tip to Senator Portman) to craft a last taxpayer-funded going-away gift for USEC Inc.
Many other indicators also point to some form of USEC liquidation in coming months. According to financial experts who prefer to remain anonymous, USEC has arranged its subsidiary structure in order to fend off potential litigation by various claimants, in anticipation of bankruptcy proceedings. Last year, President Obama signed an executive order aimed at protecting Russian uranium in USEC’s possession from potential seizure by a bankruptcy court in case of the kind of rapid unraveling now underway.
Rumors are rampant in Piketon and Paducah about how remaining USEC projects will be divvied up in the assumed liquidation. Five months remain of the Megatons to Megawatts program with Russia, but USEC’s role in that was never more than one of an easily replaceable reseller. It is widely speculated that Babcock & Wilcox, a USEC “strategic partner,” has been prepped to take over USEC’s role in the Piketon centrifuge RD&D project, but following USEC’s collapse, that project would lose its potential commercial application, and along with that it’s reason for existence. The last thing that DOE wants is to be back in the saddle running a centrifuge project at Piketon, Ohio. It’s been thrown from that horse too many times.
The only big outstanding questions are how the completion of power-down procedures at Paducah will be paid for, and how the massive “centrifuge” buildings at Piketon with new USEC roofs will be disposed of. Dennis Carr, now the project manager of Fluor-B&W’s cleanup venture at Piketon, told me in 2010 that he had already made plans to demolish those buildings and include the debris in a 100-acre on-site waste cell. That’s how foregone the conclusion of a USEC liquidation has been.
Payment for these ignominious ends of the USEC empire is further complicated by the fact that in recent years, DOE has assumed liability for some USEC decommissioning responsibilities, allowing USEC to cash in posted surety bonds, thus postponing bankruptcy a little longer. The extent to which DOE has subsidized USEC in this manner, nullifying the Privatization Act with dubious legal authority and adding substantially to taxpayer liabilities, is a subject of ongoing investigation. DOE is mum on such questions. “National security,” the Fifth Amendment, and all that.
Legal matters too remain outstanding. For at least four years, USEC has been shipping contaminated process equipment – converters, compressors, and motors—salvaged from the defunct gaseous diffusion plant at Piketon to the Paducah site, where the material has been stored inside the process buildings of that plant. These shipments were made under the rubric that USEC needed “spare parts” at Paducah. But why so many “spare parts” were required at a plant being prepped for closure, and high contamination levels on the shipped equipment (both radioactivity and toxic chemicals) raise substantial questions about what USEC intended to accomplish, how much USEC’s partners Fluor and B&W gained by the acceleration of Piketon cleanup, and whether the shipments were the quid pro quo for extra-legal DOE payments to USEC.
I’ll give the last word to a long-time commenter on USEC investor message boards, who posted the following message on July 8:
“Cannot believe an energy company with a monopoly market died. Oh well see you all. USEC is "dead to me." Anybody working at this company best get resume updated.”
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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