The Political Hypocrisy of Uranium Enrichment

Guest Blog | May 31, 2012 | Coal, Energy Policy, Nuclear

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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