As the heavy-duty haulers continue rolling the 14-ton cylinders along the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site, they also roll the community toward the question that never seems to go away regarding USEC in Paducah: What’s next?
The new agreements that allow USEC to re-enrich uranium locally are good for a year. The plant’s 1,200 jobs have been preserved until June 1, 2013, when the re-enrichment contract expires, according to Georgann Lookofsky, USEC spokeswoman.
The Tennessee Valley Authority and USEC agreed to extend a price agreement for power through May 31, 2013.
But even the obvious has caveats, such as those 1,200 jobs. That number will drift downward in the next year through normal attrition when the plant won’t fill vacated positions or spots opened up by retirement, said Steve Penrod, USEC vice president.
Plant management and workers are just a fraction of locals with eyes on the future of the plant. After years of campaigning by local leaders, and Kentucky’s federal delegation, to extend USEC jobs for as long as possible, what are they planning over the next 11 months?
The work for those at the local plant is basically the same, Penrod said. “If you’re a process operator, it was fairly transparent at the end of May to June 1. They didn’t see any difference in their jobs, processing wise,” Penrod said.
With re-enrichment, the difference is the product input into the enrichment process. Before June 1, various USEC customers have fed the plant natural uranium to be processed, Penrod said.
The depleted uranium in the tails cylinders is identical to the natural uranium historically used as a source material for the Paducah plant, except that is has already passed through the enrichment process once and has somewhat lower levels of the uranium isotope, U-235. That isotope is necessary to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear power plants, Lookofsky said.
It’s been well documented that 40,000 of the Department of Energy-owned cylinders sit on the local plant site. Penrod said about 15,000 qualify for re-enrichment since not all have the same value relative to the content of residual uranium.
The new agreement calls for 1,100 of the tails to be re-enriched in the next year. That kind of production calls for three re-enriched tails cylinders per day, Lookofsky said.
The resulting product involves agreements between five entities in a deal that eventually sends re-enriched uranium to TVA for use in its reactors.
Those involved are Energy Northwest, an energy supplier based in Richland, Wash., the Bonneville Power Administration, for which Energy Northwest operates a nuclear power reactor, and TVA. DOE will provide high-assay depleted uranium hexaflouride, the tails, to Energy Northwest.
Energy Northwest has contracted with USEC to re-enrich the tails into low enriched uranium, and will use a portion of the low enriched uranium for its Columbia Nuclear Generating Station. The rest goes to TVA.
As those wheels are set in motion, Penrod and USEC management in Paducah will continue to consult with Mayor Bill Paxton, Judge-Executive Van Newberry and Chad Chancellor, Paducah Economic Development director, for recruiting new industry to the site or extending USEC jobs again.
Penrod has been clear about the chances of the latter happening.
He has reiterated that the current agreement is for one more year and nothing more.
USEC’s pending plans for its American Centrifuge project in Piketon, Ohio, also continue to hang over the local plant. The centrifuge process is cheaper and more efficient than the Paducah’s plant’s process, and is one of the primary reasons the local plant’s future is in question. Penrod said 120 of the centrifuge machines are up and running in a demonstration mode to show the technology on a large scale.
Penrod said USEC is “very close to concluding” deals for private and government funding to help the project launch in earnest.
Penrod said he will also continue meeting with the task force led by Paxton and Newberry to find future uses for the site.
“We’ve invited entities into the area that have taken a look (at the plant) so we’re actively engaged in that,” Penrod said.
Back to the future
With a plant that has been humming along 15 miles west of Paducah since 1952, and with years worth of planning for its significant changes, it’s difficult to believe much can be new in the area of future site development.
But locals involved in economic development say the latest USEC agreement defines a clearer picture of future uses than the one they had.
“Within three or four months we’ll have a good inventory of the site, what buildings are usable again and what buildings would be demolished,” said Chad Chancellor, head of Paducah Economic Development.
“That’s so we can know what to pitch. We’re traveling around the country pitching Paducah as a whole. We’re not really pitching this site at this time because we don’t know enough about it.”
Chancellor said PED’s goal is within the next six months to learn which parts of the site are usable in the future.
Heavy industry is the main focus, he said. “(The site) has access to multiple power providers and multiple railroad companies and you don’t find that very much in the country,” Chancellor said. “Heavy industry is the main focus, maybe a lab of some sort also makes sense. Heavy industry makes too much sense, that’s what it’s going to attract.”
Chancellor said the key is that community leaders and economic development agencies have to have a plan in place to market the site whenever USEC closes. “When that happens we’ve got to have our ducks in a row,” he said. “We need to use the next year to make sure we do have a plan in case the worst case scenario happens.”
Some hold out hope USEC isn’t done in Paducah in a year.
No lump of coal unturned
Though Penrod is cautious in discussing any USEC operations beyond June 2013, Paxton said such discussions are coming.
“The last time I was in Senator (Mitch) McConnell’s office several months or so ago, I said, ‘You know senator, this community is going to be right back in your office trying to get this thing open another year or two,’” Paxton said.
“So I think the major thing that we’re going to try to do is to turn one year into two and three years knowing that the plant cannot stay open forever because it’s too expensive to run,” Paxton said.
Simultaneously, Paxton said community leaders will work with DOE in Paducah on how to re-industrialize the site so that as some buildings are demolished, another employer can be out there running operations.
For years McConnell and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield campaigned to keep USEC jobs going in Paducah, and Sen. Rand Paul joined in the effort after being elected in 2010.
Up to the announcement of the one-year extension, the federal delegation’s talks didn’t go beyond getting a temporary reprieve for the 1,200 local jobs.
Some of that has begun as it did with Paul’s recent visit May 30 to Paducah, which included a stop at USEC. Paul told the Paducah Sun, “We wanted to come back and talk more with the workers and management out there about innovative ideas and ways to save the plant. We were excited to be part of the solution for at least a year.”
Paul echoed Penrod’s hesitancy to talk USEC jobs beyond June 2013. “I don’t want to speak for them (USEC), but I think they feel it’s unlikely that they will get another deal like this again. But nuclear waste has been there for 50 years and something has to be done with it. We have obligations really as a country to figure out what to do with it.”
While that is sorted out, changes at the state level may have the biggest impact on future industry at the site, Paxton said.
Once again, Kentucky’s moratorium on new nuclear power facilities remains in place after local community leaders campaigned to end it.
Gov. Steve Beshear did sign House Bill 559, which clarifies that types of nuclear-based technologies that can be developed and used in Kentucky. The legislation, which Beshear ceremoniously signed in Paducah on May 31, allows nuclear-related industries in Kentucky so long as electricity generation is not the primary output.
“That bill is not what we had hoped for, but it is at least a first step,” Paxton said.
“We have entertained companies that want to build a coal-to-liquid plant out there and they want to power it by a nuclear power plant. So now we can do that when before when we were talking with them, we couldn’t do that within state law.”
Paxton would not identify the interested companies. Whatever developments arise in the next year, Paxton will look back on May of this year as a closer call than many realize.
“We pulled off a last-minute deal,” Paxton said. “I think the Secretary of Energy, Sec. (Steven) Chu, I think all of a sudden it dawned on him there wasn’t enough money on the DOE budget to clean up the place and if the plant’s not operating they’re going to have to start with the clean up while at the same time our federal delegation was hammering on everybody to keep the plant open.”
“We’d been working on this for close to three years. Everything seems to go down to the wire.”
Call Adam Shull, Journal editor, at 270-575-8653 or follow @adamshull on Twitter.