by MATT MARKGRAF –
With the passage of a bill lifting the ‘nuclear moratorium’ in Kentucky, now that Senate Bill 11 also known as the ‘Robert J. Leeper Act’ has been signed into law, there is a renewed attention on the past, present and future of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
State Senator Danny Carroll championed the bill with other west Kentucky lawmakers and is optimistic for the potential of nuclear energy in the commonwealth. Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization (PACRO) Chair and former mayor Gayle Kaler said it could attract industry to the site. Paducah resident and PDGP Community Advisory Board member Lesley Garrett is among those voicing concern about health and safety.
Many area leaders are optimistic for the potential to bring hundreds of enrichment, research and construction jobs, – a potential to resurrect the site to something akin to its heyday in the 1950s and 60s. There are also environmental and health concerns, given nuclear incidents in general and contamination issues at PGDP, including a large underground plume of technetium and trichloroethylene (TCE).
Carroll said the state is showing support for nuclear energy with the measure and predicts there could be a reactor built in the area at some point in the future. He said he understands safety concerns but feels issues will be addressed in the designs of modern and future reactors, where for instance they can shut down without water or electricity in an emergency.
The lift could mean nuclear options in other parts of the state, but given Paducah’s history and infrastructure for nuclear energy, it makes the west Kentucky river town a prime location. “We have the history because of USEC, our community and many families paid the price during the Cold War and did the work out there, dangerous work, any many are feeling the effects from that today and there have been some health concerns as a result of that… We don’t want to do anything that would put our community at risk in any way, or workers, so that is obviously something we need to consider as we move forward,” Carroll said.
Kaler said there is a misunderstanding about the moratorium lift because it doesn’t necessarily mean Paducah will get a nuclear power plant. “It just gives the opportunity at that plant site once it’s totally decommissioned and cleaned to have industries that aren’t afraid of the site, that understand nuclear energy and understand the process with the uranium enrichment that happened at that site.”
In the more immediate future, Carroll said the USEC site (United States Enrichment Corporation owned PGDP for around 20 years. In 2014, they returned the facilities to the Department of Energy Environmental Management) is an ideal location for a research facility in developing nuclear energy and associated technology.
He said there are some 40 start-up companies involved in nuclear research, including the Bill Gates-affiliated company TerraPower. This company is developing new technology called “traveling wave reactor” or (TWR) to serve as a more effective nuclear reactor, using depleted uranium – now considered ‘waste’ – as a fuel source. TerraPower’s website mentions the Paducah site in an assessment that TWR could convert depleted uranium in the United States “into enough electricity to power all U.S. households for more than 700 years.”
“That’s kind of mind boggling to think about that but I think that’s the potential that we have with nuclear energy in the future,” Carroll said. He added that there are no hard commitments from TerraPower with regards to Paducah.
Small-scale reactors are what Carroll envisions for the Paducah site. He described them as a grouping of steel containment shells as few as one and as many as 12 in a single design where they could be added or removed, offering flexibility based on power needs. He said the shells are buried and more economical to build and operate than large scale reactors like the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. A company like NuScale Power is developing these and Flour is the company’s major shareholder – who happens to be currently contracted for clean-up efforts at PGDP. Carroll said this connection could lead to a future agreement.
He said there has been some interest in bringing reactors to the state, but doing so at this time would require utility-company buy-in. “As we said during the session, it will be ‘the market will decide’ when we are ready to have nuclear reactors in our state. And I really don’t foresee that that’s going to happen until it becomes fiscally feasible to have nuclear reactors where it can compete in the cost to build and operate with coal and natural gas.”
PACRO chair Gayle Kaler has said securing a land-transfer agreement for property near the plant is a hurdle in the near-future. This was regarding a deal struck last year with the DOE and the GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment involving the sale of depleted uranium and an exploration into a possible land acquisition (which according to Powermag.com, there has been no formal agreement). Carroll said there hasn’t been recent movement on the land transfer, but “hopefully at some point something will come to fruition.” Kaler said the land transfer would be done through the U.S. Department of Interior with state approval.
GE Hitachi’s laser enrichment process could re-enrich depleted uranium on site, which Carroll said could create “a substantial number of good paying jobs.”
Even if there were significant movement today, it could still take 20 or 30 years before something was running at significant capacity, he said. Kaler gave a similar timeline.
Diversifying Kentucky’s Energy Portfolio
“I think there will come a time when our state will need nuclear energy to keep our portfolio balanced out as far as energy goes and make sure that we are able to provide inexpensive energy to attract business and industry,” Carroll said.
“We all support coal and understand coal is going to be the mainstay and we want that to happen, but we need to have a balance to include nuclear and very much green energy, too… I’m fully supportive of green energy efforts,” he said, adding that a balanced portfolio should be the focus.
Carroll made the case that there may be some companies who will want to come to Kentucky and power their facility using only green energy. “We would be foolish not to take advantage of that,” he said, adding support for solar farms in the region.
The bill lifting the moratorium initially found some pushback from the coal industry when it was introduced, but Carroll explained how nuclear might actually help the probable competition. “Since nuclear energy emits no carbon into the atmosphere, were there to be a reactor or two reactors within the state, that would free up those credits that could be utilized by the coal industry which would actually mean that they could burn more coal to supply energy needs.”
He said while the focus has always been preventing job loss in the coal industry, Kentucky needs to move into “modern times” and be competitive with other states who have more balanced energy portfolios.
Environmental and Health Concerns
The “lifting” of the moratorium is described in the Senate bill as essentially removing several requirements restricting the ability to build nuclear plants. The bill eliminates rules that the facility have a plan for disposal, that costs of waste disposal be known and that the facility have adequate capacity to contain the waste. It also describes how there would be a measure of oversight – a consultant hired by the Public Service Commission would perform duties related to certification. There is also requirement that the Energy and Environmental Cabinet review other related regulations and permitting to be presented to the Legislative Research Commission by December 1, 2017. The loosening of requirements may give one pause, particularly with regards to the management of toxic waste.
Carroll said, “Enriching uranium and running and nuclear power plant are two different things.” He noted large-scale facilities that have run safely for 40 or 50 years with spent fuel on site. He said the federal Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada could expand, allowing more spent fuel to be shipped there. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget includes a $120 million expansion of the site.
There are also other private companies in the southwest that may be opening where spent fuel could be sent.
Carroll said the fuel has been stored on-site in dry casks for many years “very successfully and very safely” and that concerns have been “blown out of proportion.” He said the waste footprint for a full-scale reactor would also be the size of a football field. Also, he noted that future technology may address some of the concern:
“We’re looking probably years down the road before we see any type of reactor in our commonwealth. It would take probably in excess of 15 years if someone started the process today. When you look at where the technology is going to be 15 years down the road, it advances every year and full scale reactors are stepping up with their safety precautions on those sites and with the new reactors, as those technologies are perfected, I think a lot of those safety concerns will be addressed and people will become more comfortable with that. I don’t think you can compare the reactor with what’s happened at the USEC site over the last 50 years or so.”
There are currently between 1,000 and 1,600 people working at the site. Finding creative ways of dealing with the contamination issues on and below the surface is part of the clean-up process. A large underground plume of technetium and trichloroethylene is in the groundwater and it often goes unseen and unnoticed. Students at University of Kentucky produced a video a few years ago detailing an effort to find solutions.
Kaler said the underground plume is not radioactive. “It’s as dangerous probably, in many ways, to the water system – to the water table out there, but it’s not radioactive,” she said.
Lesley Garrett is a Paducah resident and on the PGDP Community Advisory Board hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Her great grandfather worked for the plant in its early days. She said her family lost him to cancer four years before she was born – and that the cancer was attributed to his work at the plant. She said she joined the board to learn more about her family history. She said her great grandfather had a high level position at the plant and much of his work was classified.
Job creation is something that people look forward to, she said, understanding the need, but said there are other options. “Jobs are great and we need them but they can have negative impacts if we’re not careful.” She said she knows other people who have similar stories to her family and encourages consideration for the repercussions of what “seemingly good economic projects could lead to.”
“As far as deregulation in general goes, I get really frustrated when we take laws that we have put into effect because of what we have learned and then repeal them because they’re inconvenient,” she said.
The PGDP Community Advisory Board meets once a month and is open to the public. Garrett encourages more people to get involved to be educated about what is at the site so there is understanding rather than fear. “I’m not against nuclear completely. I’m against nuclear done irresponsibly. Education is the best way to make sure that going further – because that bill was signed into law – that we’re acting with all the information we have and the familiarity of where we’ve been and where we are going.”
Garrett said she believes geothermal and solar power are cleaner, lower risk options compared to nuclear. “If we’re talking about a nuclear reactor versus putting a solar panel on the same spot, I’m going to choose the solar panel every day.”
Some Historical Context
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is located in the 6,560 acre West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area outside of the city. According to the DOE, the plant site is 3,560 acres and 750 of those acres are behind a fenced security area. The facility is spread over 500 buildings. The plant has its own water treatment, post office and medical office. PGDP produced enriched uranium through the diffusion process from 1952 until operations ceased in 2013. At the time of closure, it was the only uranium enrichment facility in the United States.
The location has been operated by different companies over the years and has also been expanded and repurposed, beginning as a munitions factory producing explosive material like TNT. In response to the Cold War, the facility was repurposed to assist in the production of nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment. The city of Paducah saw considerable growth during the Cold War era as the site attracted thousands of workers from around region and country. The site contributed billions to the local economy and offered careers which many Paducahns, particularly of an older generation, are proud to have had (more context in a video from the UK Center for Applied Energy Research).
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the site generated hazardous and radioactive waste that also led to a contamination of the soil and water. The facility was put on the “National Priority List of Superfund Sites” and the DOE has been cleaning the location since the 1980s. They have also been overseeing screening projects related to worker health issues. (A documentary on one particular case). This is also amid a more general concern over the safety implications of nuclear energy and potential future incidents, like the Fukushima disaster in Japan.