McConnell asks DOE to keep using 60 year old enrichment plant to save jobs

On May 18, 2011, Senator Mitch McConnell exercised the privilege of being the senate minority leader to visit the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Water while the committee was holding a hearing on the fiscal year 2012 budget for the Department of Energy. He asked Secretary Chu a number of pointed questions about a proposed project to “re-enrich” some of the depleted uranium tails stored at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. According to Senator McConnell, the project would generate revenue for the government and would save 1200 jobs in his home state. He also claimed that Kentucky is not only a “coal state” but also a “nuclear state.”

There are several problems with his assumptions and his proposed solution.

The Paducah facility has been enriching uranium for 60 years using gaseous diffusion, a technology that was developed during WWII. That technology is reliable and effective, but it consumes approximately 20 times as much electricity for each separative work unit (SWU) of output when compared to modern centrifuges. For about 50 years, the US owned and operated two large gaseous diffusion facilities, but the other US gaseous diffusion plant in Portsmouth, Ohio was shut down almost exactly a decade ago.

France hosts the only other operating gaseous diffusion plant in the world, but the replacement for that facility – Georges Besse II, is nearly complete. When it reaches its full capacity, it will consume about 55 MW of electricity to produce as much enriched uranium as the current gaseous diffusion plant does using 2700 MW of electricity. The gaseous diffusion facility will be shut down due to obsolescence.

A new enrichment plant was recently started up in Eunice, New Mexico using centrifuge technology imported from Europe. Two additional enrichment plants are being planned, one called Eagle Rock in Idaho and one on the site of the decommissioned Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The Eagle Rock facility will use the same centrifuge technology as the Georges Besse II plant, while the one at the Portsmouth site in Piketon, Ohio is planning to use the improved American Centrifuge.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, GE-Hitachi is developing an even less energy intensive enrichment method using lasers that has demonstrated strong potential. An engineering demonstration program is underway and GEH has submitted a license application for a commercial facility.

In other words, the writing has been on the wall for the Paducah plant for a number of years. It uses energy intensive, obsolete technology. Its replacement are well underway and it is no longer needed.

Senator McConnell also does not understand that admittedly confusing nature of the uranium industry. Unlike most fuels, uranium is thinly traded and not listed on any widely available commercial exchanges. There are a small number of customers and suppliers that negotiate each deal. In most cases, the customers have the ability to be patient and wait for better prices. Since February 2011, uranium prices as reported by the UxC consulting firm have fallen from $75 to $55 per pound as some purchasers delay decisions and as some customers have permanently left the market.

Because of the fragile nature of the market, any new supplies can have a dramatic effect on prices and can cause previously profitable mining operations to suddenly face a situation where the market price is lower than their production cost. The operators would be forced to curtail production and lay off workers since they cannot afford to sell at a loss and most have little excess capital after several years of investment to expand their capacity. Since about 2000, US uranium mining has been slowly recovering from a decade long period when uranium prices were so low that all US production ceased.

The Department of Energy has a vast inventory of material that could have the effect of completely shutting down the market. In order to preserve indigenous capability, it has made agreements with domestic suppliers to be careful about releasing its inventory into the market. That agreement is not just for the benefit of the domestic industry – the revenue that the DOE can obtain is also badly affected if the price per unit sold falls precipitously.

The bottom line is that using an old, obsolete, energy intensive facility like Paducah to re-enrich currently stored tails to be immediately marketed for revenue is a bad business decision. It would be a “make-work” effort that may delay the loss of a few existing plant operator jobs in one location while destroying uranium mining jobs in multiple, less politically connected locations. It would increase energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to a shutdown decision since the Paducah plant is in an area where nearly all of the electricity is produced by burning coal.

If Senator McConnell really wanted to consider his home to be a “nuclear state” and wanted to contribute to creating excellent jobs with multi-generational career potential, he has a better option. He should work with his home state legislators to lift the state’s 27 year old moratorium on building new nuclear power plants. Bills aimed at doing exactly that have been proposed since at least 2009, but the moratorium remains in effect after this year’s attempt stalled in the Kentucky House Tourism Development and Energy Committee.

Each new nuclear energy facility construction project would create 4,000-5,000 jobs during the construction phase and 500-700 permanent operation, maintenance, engineering and security jobs after the construction is complete. Those jobs would last for another sixty years and be far more useful for his state than attempting to extend the life of an obsolete facility that produces enrichment services at a cost that cannot compete without government assistance.

That would be the kind of far seeing leadership that Americans need from their elected representatives.

(1987 articles)

Pro-nuclear advocate with small nuclear plant operating and design experience. Former submarine Engineer Officer. Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast.

15 Responses to McConnell asks DOE to keep using 60 year old enrichment plant to save jobs
  1. Jeff S
    May 24, 2011 | 8:46 AM


    Interesting article. I’m glad to see that a “coal state” Senator also considers his state a “nuclear state”. For a coal state senator, that’s a very progressive view of things. I don’t want discourage him from that view of things.

    I do think Rod lays out a very compelling argument that the Paducah plant is obsolete. Perhaps Sen. McConnell could try to lobby for the Paducah Plant to be replaced with another American Centrifuge, as is happening at the Portsmouth site (well, technically Piketon, but I suppose nobody outside Ohio could find Piketon on a map; *grin*).

    I have another suggestion for Mr. McConnell on how the Paducah site could potentially be leveraged as a continuing economic engine in the future: As a regional nuclear fuel depot.

    Here’s what I mean: The DOE had a project for about 20 years, which ended in the 1990s, called the “Integral Fast Reactor”, which is a type of very advanced, safe “fast breeder reactor”, which could turn all of our current spent nuclear fuel, and all those many, many tons of depleted uranium tailings they have in storage in KY already, into fuel, extracting something on the order of 100-200 times more energy out of the Uranium than we currently do.

    By some estimates, we may have as much as 20,000 or 30,000 thousand years’ supply of energy for our nation, just in the spent fuel and DU tailings we have in storage in the U.S. A large portion of that is *already* stored at the DOE Paducah site, I believe.

    KY is very well positioned, geographically, to have that Paducah site become a regional storage facility for spent fuel and tailings, to secure, maintain, and sell the fuel to many states in the Midwest, East Coast, and Gulf states. I just glanced at a map, and it seems to me that KY is within reasonable shipping distance of states from New York to Louisianna, and from South Carolina to Wisconsin.

    Now, I have to admit that proposing a fuel depot for a type of reactor which is not currently in use, and which does not appear to have momentum in the market, at the moment, is a bit of a gamble. But, as an influential Senator, Mr. McConnell could help to get the IFR project finished.

    GE-Hitachi has picked up a lot of the design ideas and technology from the DOE IFR program, and is trying to finish it as the PRISM Reactor and Advanced Recycling Center. I strongly encourage Mr. McConnell to become of a champion of the PRISM technology – it would be good for the U.S., and long term, would be good for Kentucky, as KY could become the Saudi Arabia of U.S. states – and not just for a hundred or two hundred years as is the case for the actual Saudi Arabia, but for millennia.

  2. Joel Riddle
    May 24, 2011 | 9:40 AM

    Rod, I believe that all of the gaseous diffusion plants in America have always been powered by TVA. This appears to be true from this site:

    It was certainly true for K-25, being in Oak Ridge.

    There is a bit of irony in the fact that reduced Uranium enrichment needs (Cold War ending primarily), and thus shutdowns of the gaseous diffusion plants, resulted in a reduction in TVA’s electrical demand. The shutdowns of these gaseous diffusion plants has thus played a very non-trivial role in reducing TVA’s needs for power. Per USEC’s site, Paducah’s peak demand is 3.04 GW, or almost a whole Browns Ferry, while the peak for Portsmouth was 2.1 GW, nearly a whole Sequoyah. I would guess that K-25′s power demands were in the same ballpark.

    Less need for power greatly reduced TVA’s nuclear ambitions from their height of 17 Units initially planned, to the point where only 6 Units have been completed at this point, with the 7th to come online in late 2012 or early 2013.

    Electricity demand growth is key for getting new nuclear plants built.

  3. donb
    May 24, 2011 | 10:25 AM

    Joel Riddle wrote:
    Electricity demand growth is key for getting new nuclear plants built.

    Not necessarily. There is plenty of fossil-fueled power generation that can and should be replaced by nuclear. For base-load generation alone, we could double our current level of nuclear power generation and still not displace all the coal-fired power generation.

    And if we doubled our nuclear power generation with new light water reactors, we would nearly double the need for enriched uranium. At that point, a good case could be made for building an enrichment plant using new technology in Paducah.

    • Joel Riddle
      May 24, 2011 | 11:22 AM

      OK, so adequate electricity demand is key.

      If electricity growth in America had consistently been around 2% over the past 5 years, there would be more ongoing new build projects at the moment.

      Also, there are some coal plants that should be shut down long before some others. TVA is shutting down 18 of its older coal-fired units first (not all the same size), and is only planning to need to add about 2350-ish MW of new nuclear capacity by roughly 2020.

      With the Urenco plant that was recently completed in New Mexico, the Eagle Rock facility in Idaho, the USEC American Centrifuge plant that is proposed, and the possibility of a GE-Hitachi laser enrichment facility, I don’t see inadequate enrichment/SWU supply being much of a concern anytime soon.

  4. David Walters
    May 24, 2011 | 10:56 AM

    Rod, excellent analysis and perspective.

    I think the Senator is trying to have it both ways (actually is trying to have it both ways, not ‘buts’ about it). His view of nuclear really is for someone else’s state to host it and leave his Ky. coal mines run by non-union operators alone.

    This Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is a lighting rod for Helen Caldicott. She brings it up constantly to show how “inefficient” nuclear is…that in fact they had to build TWO coal plants nearby Paducah to provide electricity.

    Of course the French version of gaseous diffusion is powered by nuclear but she conveniently leaves that out.

    These old plants have got to go:

    1. We need a national plan to replace such plants.
    2. We need a national plan to replace coal with atomic fission.
    3. We need a major effort to develop reprocessing.

    Rant end.

  5. katana0182 (Dave)
    May 24, 2011 | 11:21 AM

    I second @David Walters comment. By running these obsolescent gaseous diffusion energy hogs, anti-nuclear “researchers” (Storm van Leeuwen, Sovacool, etc.) can inflate the carbon content of nuclear fuel, inflate the environmental impact of nuclear power, and also make claims that technologies to replace gaseous diffusion are “vaporware”.

    Time to move nuclear fuel production into the 21st century.

    • Rod Adams
      May 24, 2011 | 5:49 PM

      Dave – welcome. Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this your first comment on the new Atomic Insights? I’ve missed your insights and wisdom.

  6. Mike Himes
    May 24, 2011 | 11:47 AM

    Give the Senator a break. He is obviously responding to his constituents on jobs. He, as an elected official, is not required to be savy about all the issues you expand upon. This government is not based upon savy but greed. Had Rod been available at this hearing and had a voice in the proceedings or had he made this all more clear to Dr. Chu, technology might have been addressed.

    Our government is not run by business men but in many cases old people who have been politicians their entire career. To assume technology and business savy rules in Washington D.C., is to believe the “Spin” brokers. The system is disfunctional because we as voters and rate payers do not demand a higher degree of savy in matters that deal with the nuts and bolts issues facing us today. That is the problem with trying to guide public sentiment to impliment change. The public has lost their voice and when their spokesmen, like the Senator, makes a point it is not informed. The least we could do is get rid of department heads that do not respond to nut and bolt issues. Look at Dr. Chu’s record and see how many times he bows to political and corporation pressure when he should view new technology first.

    In Russia it is the “Five year Promise” and here it is “The promise of ther Future” which gets extended with each new administration. Disneyland D.C. puts us all in harms way!

  7. Robert Hargraves
    May 25, 2011 | 1:57 AM

    One way to wean Kentucky and West Virginia from coal is to provide new, high tech jobs, such as those from a centrifuge enrichment plant, to be located there.

  8. Robert Hargraves
    May 25, 2011 | 2:00 AM

    Regarding the New Mexico enrichment plant, it is being built by URENCO. This is the outfit that let A.Q. Kahn steal the technology for Pakistan. To avoid this in the future, Urenco promises to “black box” the technology to be installed in New Mexico, so that US people will not learn about its inner workings.

    Are we locking the wrong barn door after the horse escaped?

    • ddpalmer
      May 25, 2011 | 9:02 AM

      The US people already have the technology, bought and paid for with tax dollars since the mid-70s. The US taxpayer spent over $2 billion building an advanced centrifuge enrichment facility in Piketon in the early 80′s, only to have the unions force its shutdown because it would have displaced so many jobs.

      Now USEC is using the same buildings and slightly advanced centrifuges (mostly newer materials and better computer controls, again with the US taxpayer footing the bill for a private enteprise) with strong union backing (since the gaseous diffusion enrichment union jobs are already gone) in their ‘new’ American Centrifuge project.

  9. Brad
    July 5, 2011 | 2:02 PM

    I think a major point that all of you are missing is that PGDP is the ONLY running uranium enrichment plant in the U.S. They make around 11.5 million SWU a year that helps America not rely solely on foreign enriched uranium. Do we really want to shut down this proven and running plant and rely on foreign countries until these unproven plants start enriching? I don’t.

    While I agree that eventually PGDP needs to be shut down, we need a viable replacement first and that does not exist. So until that does exist I agree with the senator that we should keep this plant running (i.e. approving tails re-feed) to ensure we are not reliant on other countries for fuel to our nuclear reactors.

    • ddpalmer
      July 6, 2011 | 8:14 AM

      Brad did you read Rod’s story?

      There is an operating enrichment facility in New Mexico using centrifuges and consuming considerably less power per SWU than PGDP.

      Also enriching new uranium ore is less energy intensive then re-feeding tails material no matter what process is used. So if it is important to keep the PGDP running than wouldn’t it make more sense to run new uranium feed at lower energy cost? Oh, unless it is just a plan to start another government funded project that can be continued (for political reasons) after the PGDP is replaced by the 3 other enrichment facilities already built or being built in the US.

      • Brad
        July 7, 2011 | 11:32 AM

        I guess I overlooked the URENCO plant being “operational” since they produced less than 2% of what PGDP did in 2010.

        Plus the NRC thinks the URENCO plant “does not appear to understand or maintain the approved margin of subcriticality for safety, including programmatic commitments to technical practices, assurance of subcriticality needs to be improved.”

        • Rod Adams
          July 7, 2011 | 8:38 PM

          The URENCO facility did not even start operations until halfway through 2010. Not surprisingly, it is slowly building up its capacity and testing along the way with full capacity not due to be achieved until 2013.

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