Published on Thursday February 03 2011
FRANKFORT, Ky. Wednesday, February 2, 2011 — A western Kentucky lawmaker whose district is home to a uranium enrichment plant resumed his perennial push Wednesday to lift the state's ban on the construction of nuclear power plants.
State Sen. Bob Leeper said his legislation, meant to signal Kentucky's friendliness to the nuclear industry, would put it on "equal footing" with other states if the federal government approves the construction and operation of new plants.
Leeper's bill cleared the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee over opposition from three lawmakers and a leading environmental activist. The measure, backed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's administration, now heads to the full Senate, which has supported removing the moratorium in past years.
"We must recognize the value of nuclear power and the importance of allowing nuclear power to be a part of the energy mix in our state," said Leeper, an independent from Paducah.
Leeper's district is home to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a uranium enrichment plant on 3,400 acres 15 miles west of Paducah. Uranium is reprocessed at the plant and enriched for use as nuclear fuel.
State law prohibits nuclear power plants from being built in Kentucky until the U.S. has a permanent storage facility to contain radioactive waste.
A proposed high-level radioactive waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been discussed since the early 1980s. Whether that proposed facility will ever open remains uncertain; the Obama administration has cut funding for the project without naming an alternative.
Leeper has pushed for years to lift Kentucky's ban on nuclear power plants, but his efforts have stalled in the House.
Leeper predicted a "timely vote" by the Senate to give the House ample time to consider the bill. Leeper, chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said he'll "try to make our case and work with the House."
The bill was opposed Wednesday by a lawmaker who pointed to Kentucky's past problems with nuclear waste.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, cited the ill-fated Maxey Flats, a nuclear dump site in Fleming County that opened in the 1960s and stored low-level radioactive waste when it was operational.
The facility was an attempt to attract the nuclear industry to Kentucky, but it closed in the 1970s because water _ contaminated by radiation _ was found migrating beyond the site's borders.
"I have seen firsthand the environmental and human impact of improper waste disposal," Webb said.
Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, told lawmakers that obstacles would remain to nuclear plant construction even if Kentucky lifted its prohibition. Those obstacles include rampant cost overruns in the nuclear power industry, security and safety issues and waste disposal issues, he told the committee.
"It's not too much to ask, before we go forward in this regard, that ... the nuclear industry have a permanent waste disposal strategy in place for waste that will have to be managed for hundreds of thousands of years because of their potential ecological and human health risks," he said.
Leeper said lifting the ban could benefit Kentucky's economy even if a plant isn't built in the state. It would enhance the state's attractiveness to suppliers that aid in constructing nuclear plants, he said.
"Why would they come to a state that's not friendly to nuclear?" he said.
The legislation is Senate Bill 34.