Experts, officials push nuclear energy future at Paducah forum
Experts and industrial leaders, along with federal and state officials, are coming together in far western Kentucky this week to talk about the future of nuclear energy, saying it should be an important part of transitioning to non-carbon-based fuel sources and mitigating climate change.
Organized in Paducah by the Energy Communities Alliance, a nonprofit organization that brings together communities impacted by U.S. Department of Energy activities, the forum focused on the group’s New Nuclear Initiative, which seeks to “define the role of local governments in supporting the development of new nuclear technologies.”
The McCracken County seat was chosen for the conference, in part, because of the community’s history with nuclear energy as the site of the former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The plant opened in 1952 and served in a national defense capacity until it began producing fuel-grade uranium used to generate electricity in nuclear reactors in 1964. It ceased operations in 2013.
The agenda features sessions on current and developing nuclear technologies, adding nuclear to regional power mixes, energy infrastructure, case studies and updates on different nuclear facilities around North America and the changing perception of nuclear power, among other topics.
U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy Assistant Secretary Kathryn Huff gave the keynote address Thursday morning. She said that nuclear energy – along with other clean energy technologies like solar, long duration energy storage and carbon capture at fossil fuel plants – is one of the keys to the Biden administration’s plan aimed at “mitigating the worst aspects of climate change.”
Huff said the goal of these mitigation efforts is to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and the “significant challenge” of achieving a net-zero emission economy.
“Domestic nuclear energy – which is about 94 gigawatts right now – needs to at least double, possibly triple by 2050 if we're going to deeply decarbonize our whole economy,” Huff said. “We're ready with this technology and I think it's important that we act on it, but it's really the commercial aspect that will be the hardest.”
A National Innovation Pathway Report published in April by the U.S. government details opportunities to commercialize newer “clean energy” technologies in the energy space, including advanced nuclear.
“The intent is to show how we can get to these aggressive, ambitious climate mitigation and carbon reduction goals while simultaneously ensuring a resilient, clean energy grid and transition by engaging the private sector and communities and the intent throughout our nation for a desire for jobs,” Huff said. “[This could] ensure that we can commercialize and deploy these kinds of clean energy technologies.”
A delegation of Kentucky officials, including Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman, welcomed attendees on Thursday morning. Goodman – a self-described “policy wonk and regulator” – said she believes Kentucky has a “rich energy history,” with coal, but nuclear power is a key part of the state’s future.
“Nuclear energy is not really meant to replace coal or natural gas or [hydroelectricity] or anything else, but it could potentially – at least in this state, and I'm sure many others – help us meet our energy needs more efficiently. A lot has to happen before that day comes,” Goodman said. “Not only should we be looking to enter the field of electric generation using new nuclear, but we also have such a strong manufacturing base here. We think that … because of that manufacturing base, [Kentucky] can contribute to the nuclear manufacturing supply chain.”
Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll, who sponsored legislation that lifted Kentucky’s nuclear moratorium in 2017, also spoke. He named the measure the Robert J. Leeper Act, after the former western Kentucky state senator who previously represented Carroll’s district.
“After the moratorium was lifted and then years of really not anything happening, this past session we started having conversations [about nuclear energy]. We knew it was time – that we needed to take another step in the Commonwealth,” Carroll said. “Kentucky is ready to move forward in nuclear energy. I'm convinced that nuclear is going to be the baseload energy of the future.”
Carroll, who lives in Benton, also ushered a joint resolution through the Kentucky General Assembly this year creating a nuclear energy development working group for the state.
He said he hopes during the next legislative session he can help establish a nuclear energy commission for the state. Carroll added that the state nuclear working group will hold its first meeting next week.
A video message from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was played before a pair of local officials, Paducah Mayor George Bray and McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer, addressed the forum.
“Through nuclear projects, we can reach goals for sustainability, create new forward thinking jobs for our people, diversify our economies and enhance our supply chain. This is work we're doing right here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “Just two years ago, we developed an energy policy that would promote economic development and a resilient energy infrastructure. Our vision honors our past, while also responding to the unique needs of today and creating the groundwork for the opportunities of tomorrow.”