The Political Hypocrisy of Uranium Enrichment

Sara Barczak, SACE’s High Risk Energy Director, contributed to this post.

Kentucky’s U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, along with U.S. Representative Ed Whitefield, have created a Rube Goldberg machine. Here is how it works: first you tell the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to provide power to a 60-year old nuclear enrichment facility, then you tell the Department of Energy to give uranium byproducts in the form of depleted uranium to Energy Northwest so that Energy Northwest can contract with the enrichment facility for processing. Then you tell the enrichment company to process those byproducts at a much higher cost than necessary before Energy Northwest will use the fuel in their reactors and sell the remainder to TVA. Follow that?

In the end, what you get is expensive and dangerous nuclear power fueled by dirty coal, with a significant environmental and economic footprint and some political points for–you guessed it–those aforementioned politicians from Kentucky.

The machine is as complicated and convoluted as it sounds, but here are some highlights.

Uranium tails are a byproduct of enriching uranium. The tails are essentially a waste, but with enough energy they can be re-enriched into Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). LEU can fuel certain types of nuclear reactors.

USEC, Inc. operates a gaseous diffusion facility in Paducah, Kentucky, which has been enriching uranium for 60 years and now has a vast supply of uranium tail waste. It might at first seem like a good idea for the Paducah plant to re-enrich these tailings to LEU, but after 60 years this antiquated facility is ready to shut down. USEC, Inc.’s own President and CEO has said of this plant: “…it’s 60-year old technology is at a competitive disadvantage…because of the large amount of electricity Paducah requires.” (Learn more about the nuclear fuel chain in Appendix C of SACE’s Code Red Alert report).

Unwilling to admit that some technologies are just too old to make economic sense, U.S. Senators Paul and McConnell and U.S. Rep. Whitfield wanted to find a way to keep USEC operating in Paducah, Kentucky despite its age and inefficiency. Under their plan TVA will provide electricity to USEC for uranium tail re-enrichment and both TVA and Energy Northwest will use the LEU in their reactors.

Advocates tout nuclear power as “clean-air, carbon-free electricity” but the agreement arranged by these Kentucky lawmakers suggests otherwise. According to the World Nuclear Association, USEC’s  Paducah technology requires about 2,400 kilowatt hours of electricity per Separative Work Unit (SWU: a measure of the work expended to enrich uranium). The agreement between Energy Northwest and USEC, Inc., which should require re-enrichment for only one year, calls for 4.4 million SWU. Thus, the process would require 10,600 gigawatt hours of electricity. To put this number in perspective, with the average Kentucky household using 15,096 kWh of electricity annually, the energy required to power the Paducah facility is the equivalent of powering over 700,000 homes.

TVA’s Shawnee coal plant is located only minutes from the Paducah enrichment facility. It is impossible to determine exactly where the electrons that power the enrichment facility come from within TVA’s system. However, TVA does not serve any other significant demand in the Paducah area and Shawnee is the closest TVA power plant to the enrichment facility. For this reason, Shawnee serves as a good baseline for the possible environmental impacts of this deal.

Based on EPA data and calculating Shawnee’s 2010 pollution per kilowatt hour of electricity, if Shawnee is the primary source of electricity for the enrichment facility, this nuclear fuel is by no means a clean-air or carbon-free source of electricity.

10,600 gigawatt hours of electricity from Shawnee will produce over 35,000 tons of acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide, almost 20,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and 10.8 million tons of heat trapping carbon dioxide!

Hypocrisy is at the heart of this deal. The Kentucky politicians who engineered this profess to be anti-government crusaders, but here they have used the power of the federal government to push a private company to operate an antiquated, polluting technology. Proponents cheer the false environmental benefits of this deal and argue that it will provide for “clean” nuclear energy. We know nuclear power is a dirty, risky energy option and if a polluting coal plant is helping power this mess, then there is certainly nothing clean, or affordable, about it.

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4 Comments

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Thank you for providing insightful coverage of this overlooked fiasco. For more on the greater USEC scandal and the floundering attempts to bail out USEC, see the blog of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group at http://SONGSheetOhio.blogspot.com


Comment by Geoffrey Sea on May 31, 2012 1:05 pm


Yes, hence the need to complete the ACP Advanced Centrifuge Process by USEC/DOE. New ACP process uses only 10% of electricity per SWU vs 60 year old technology. Just need to move forward ASAP.


Comment by SS on May 31, 2012 1:54 pm


It is unconscionable that USEC continues to get bailouts and under the table deals after privatization was designed to let this company stand on their own. USEC is indeed a fiasco that if the general public was aware of the waste and bailouts, they would end forthright. Urenco USA could process tails at much lower cost than USEC making this deal another waste of taxpayer funds.


Comment by Apple Green on May 31, 2012 4:53 pm


Hence, the “magic” continues. To me this is an outrageous use of tax payer money. In 1985, SWUCO (of which I was President) tried, with the cooperation of Boeing, Shaw Pittman, and an engineering partner tried to buy the centrifuge technology from DOE. Looking back, thank God we did not succeed. Stop trying to justify in terms of an American owned enrichment facility, which is not economically viable. I strongly oppose the efforts to float USEC. In fact, prior to the privatization, I was writing the strategic and short term marketing plan for USEC. In that plan I strongly recommended that USEC pursue a joint venture with either the Russian or with URENCO. Their machines WORK.


Comment by Walt H Wolf on June 1, 2012 10:44 am


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