Paducah Sun
Joe Walker
March 04, 2007

Department of Energy

The Bush administration wants to expand the use of nuclear energy through recycling while preventing the spread of materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons. U.S. fuel suppliers would operate power plants and recycling factories, while fuel users would operate only power reactors using fuel leased from and returned to suppliers.

Community leaders extol the virtues of a proposed nuclear fuel recycling plant that would create 1,000 jobs and pump about $141 million a year into the local economy, but some neighbors and opponents worry about a deadly accident waiting to happen.

Such is the diversity of views about recruiting the $14 billion factory, which would open in 2020 on 580 acres in the West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area just west of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The community is competing with 10 other cities nationwide for a project that would extract useful uranium from spent fuel rods and discard the remaining highly radioactive waste into shielded metal containers to be shipped to a repository in the desert Southwest.

The U.S. Department of Energy will hold a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Executive Inn to explain the process and receive public input. Paducah’s is among 11 such meetings in the competing cities to gather information toward an environmental impact statement to help DOE decide by June 2008 whether to build the plant and where.

Mayor Bill Paxton, co-chairman of a task force seeking the plant, calls it the biggest economic development project in the history of the state and akin to the early 1950s “boom” that resulted from the building of the gaseous diffusion plant. The recycling plant would generate 5,000 construction jobs.

Task force member Howard Pulley, who lives in Heath not far from the plant site, said the few questions he’s received relate to why the project is needed, how safety will be evaluated and what is the impact on schools, traffic and other community issues.

“The project is vitally important to the future of nuclear energy and, I think, to America’s journey toward (energy) self-sufficiency,” said Pulley, former manager of the 1,150-employee diffusion plant, which enriches uranium for use in nuclear fuel.

Recycling is part of the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to reduce nuclear waste and dependence on fossil fuels.

With public input, DOE or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will evaluate safety, Pulley said, and there should be plenty to time for the government to lessen the effects on schools and roads.

Linda Long, who remembers when the uranium plant was built, thinks the recycling factory would pose a much greater threat to her neighborhood than the uranium plant’s 55-year legacy of contamination.

“I hate to see something like this dumped on this community,” she said. “People are so eager for jobs that they don’t realize that nobody in their right mind would want to live near this thing.”

The recycling site is about a mile from Long’s home on Ogden Landing Road, immediately north of the uranium plant. She spent 10 years on the plant citizens’ advisory board, including a stint as vice chairman, and visited various other DOE sites nationwide to learn more about the nuclear industry.

While somewhat remote, the Paducah plant site has many more neighbors than places like DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, she said. The lab is among the sites vying for the recycling operation.

“Idaho National Lab is in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “It’s so isolated they have Greyhound buses to bring workers in from surrounding towns.”

Long worries about shipping fuel rods into her neighborhood and extracting the uranium for reuse in nuclear power plants.

“Why do we want people bringing those things in here and messing with them and taking them apart, because then it’s likely this area will be a nuclear dumping ground,” she said.

Dale Allen, who works with the task force, doesn’t envision a dumping ground because less than 5 percent of the rods contain highly radioactive waste materials such as plutonium. The rest is uranium that would be separated and reused, said Allen, a southern Illinois native and associate vice president
for environmental firm CH2M Hill.

“Long-lived waste products are sealed in containers and shipped to places like Yucca Mountain or other permanent storage,” he said. “Obviously if you can extract the uranium you really reduce the amount of long-term waste stored.”

The radiation-shielded steel casks are put through a battery of drops and other tests to ensure they are safe to ship, Allen said.

Environmental activist Mark Donham of Brookport, Ill., worries about the storage and shipping of the waste. He points to the ascension of Nevada’s Harry Reid to U.S. Senate majority leader. Reid, a Democrat, has long opposed locating America’s first permanent radioactive waste repository at
Yucca Mountain, Nev., and now calls the plan dead.

“Reid is fighting left and right to stop fuel rods from going to Yucca because none of the people in Vegas want it,” Donham said. “If it’s not good enough for him, why is it good enough for us?”

Donham thinks the now Democrat-controlled Congress will shelve the recycling project, and some speculate DOE will delay its mid-year 2008 target decision date until after the presidential election that November.

Although funding has been cut, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon said in January that he wants Congress to fully pay for the program.

“That action is happening up on (Capitol) Hill,” he said, “and we’re obviously going to be following it very carefully and doing our best to manage this program and others regardless of what the outcome of those deliberations might be.”

Besides the recycling plant, DOE is considering building an advanced burner-reactor that would destroy plutonium and three other similar waste materials while generating electricity. Also proposed is a facility to research spent fuel recycling processes and other advanced nuclear fuel cycles.

While trying to garner public acceptance, the task force must convince DOE that Paducah can overcome being in or near the New Madrid Fault. Federal earthquake scientists take a conservative approach, while state scientists think Paducah is north of the fault area and the risks are overstated.

“The facility can be designed to withstand potential earthquakes if they can agree on design and construction,” said Allen Burnett, a retired USEC Inc. engineer who played a key role in reinforcing the uranium plant against tremors. “Obviously it takes more to do that, and that will be one of the
things that plays into the process.”

Burnett, current chairman of the citizens’ advisory board, said the group has not taken a stance on the recycling project because its DOE-defined scope is limited to uranium plant cleanup.

Task force member Charles Martin said the type of construction and recycling technology haven’t been determined, but recycling plants historically have been massive concrete structures. The new plant will use robotics to handle nuclear materials, he said.

“It’s highly contained,” he said. “There’s almost no way a media can escape because all the air and water will be controlled.”

Martin, director of field services for USEC, doubles as chairman of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission. An avid outdoorsman, he is convinced the factory is safe enough to operate in the management area, which DOE leases to the state.

Martin said the concern from field-trial users of the management area have been about losing 580 acres should the plant be built. “Hopefully DOE would mitigate that” by finding replacement land, he said.