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Lawmakers, experts, utilities participate in first Ky. Nuclear Development Workgroup meeting

Perry Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 1, in Ohio.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Perry Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 1, in Ohio.

Lawmakers, energy and environmental experts and utility representatives came together for the first meeting of Kentucky’s Nuclear Development Workgroup Wednesday.

Kenya Stump is the director of the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy, an office housed within the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. She oversaw the meeting, which included member introductions and defining the workgroup’s purpose and schedule.

“What we're here to look at is everything from fuel to power generation to how nuclear can support the expansion of our manufacturing sector and our industrial base to also how we can play in the supply chain,” Stump said. “Everything we do today and over the next few months will focus on those main areas from fuel reactor placement to supply chain and how our industrial customers can help economic development can play into how we support the nuclear industry.”

Kenya Stump
Kentucky Office of Energy Policy executive director Kenya Stump
Kenya Stump

Over the next few months, the group will be looking at statutory, financial, social, environmental, workforce and educational barriers – as well as community concerns – that stand between the state and nuclear power generation. They also hope to identify unique Kentucky assets within the nuclear energy sector and to lay the foundation for what a permanent state nuclear commission would look like and how it would operate.

The group includes representatives from the Kentucky Public Service Commission, the Kentucky Conservation Committee, the Kentucky Industrial Utility Customers, the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research, AEP Kentucky Power, LG&E and KU, Duke Energy and East Kentucky Power, among others. Multiple state lawmakers – including Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll of Benton, Republican state Rep. Steven Rudy of Paducah, Republican state Rep. Deanna Frazier Gordon of Richmond and Democratic state Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson, also attended Wednesday’s meeting. Victor Ibarra Jr. – an analyst with the nonprofit Nuclear Innovation Alliance – has been contracted by the group for technical support.

Carroll sponsored the resolution that formed the working group earlier this year. The western Kentucky lawmaker also ushered the bill that lifted the state’s nuclear moratorium through the legislature in 2017, naming it the Robert J. Leeper Act after the senator that formerly represented his district and was a strong advocate for nuclear energy.

“I think with all of us working together we're going to make a difference in this state,” Carroll told the group. “We're gonna set a future for our kids and our grandkids that’s going to be meaningful in the area of energy and quality of life. It's not just about nuclear reactors. It is about our coal industry. It's about our kids' future.”

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet secretary Rebecca Goodman welcomes nuclear industry leaders and officials to a forum on nuclear energy organized by the Energy Communities Alliance in Paducah, Kentucky, on May 18, 2023. Western Kentucky Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll (right), who sponsored the legislation that lifted the state's nuclear moratorium, also spoke at the forum.
Derek Operle
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet secretary Rebecca Goodman welcomes nuclear industry leaders and officials to a forum on nuclear energy organized by the Energy Communities Alliance in Paducah, Kentucky, on May 18, 2023. Western Kentucky Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll (right), who sponsored the legislation that lifted the state's nuclear moratorium, also spoke at the forum.

A bill signed into law earlier this year made it harder to retire coal-fired power plants in Kentucky by requiring utility providers to prove it wouldn’t compromise the reliability or resilience of the state’s energy grids. Its supporters blamed federal regulations for the decline of coal and the increased cost for electricity in their communities.

In recent years, some eastern Kentucky Republicans have grown concerned about the economic impacts the transition away from coal has had on a part of the country that once relied on the fossil fuel for its prosperity. Coal production has fallen from a high of around 28 million tons to around 3 million tons as of last year, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Republican state Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence chairs the Kentucky House committee on Natural Resources and Energy. He said nuclear energy is going to be essential to make up the baseload energy that will continue to be lost as coal-fired power plants are retired.

“My primary concern has always been reliability and affordability, and we can't maintain that without baseload generation. The one thing that I do like about nuclear is it checks all those boxes: you have on-site fuel storage, it's 85-90% efficient and runs 24/7,” Gooch said.

“I just think we need to speed up this process a little bit because – at the rate that we're retiring other baseload generation, with intermittent sources that can't really fill the bill – we're going to have to embrace this technology.”

Carroll considers nuclear to be a key part of the state’s energy portfolio and economic development strategy in the years to come.

“We can make up for some of the losses that we've taken in the coal industry. There are ways that, if we're careful and use a measured approach, that we can make some good things happen in eastern Kentucky. I feel stronger about that than ever before,” he said. “There are so many opportunities that I feel like that we can present to our state with a good, dependable baseload energy … utilizing power with coal as much as we can, utilizing solar, wind, [and] whatever balance that we feel we need to come to.”

Federal officials have 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 effects of climate change by achieving a net-zero emission economy by 2050.

To that end, Stump acknowledged that making large-scale nuclear energy available in Kentucky isn’t a change that can happen quickly.

“It's not gonna happen overnight,” Stump said. “If you're going to work in nuclear, it's a long haul. We're talking between now and 2050. It's gonna require staying focused.”

Lane Boldman leads the nonprofit Kentucky Conservation Committee. She said she hopes to incorporate community concerns about nuclear power generation and legacy nuclear materials as much as possible to ensure safe environmental practices are understood and practiced in areas negatively impacted by fossil fuel waste disposal and energy byproducts.

“We want parity in opportunity. We've got to form a commission that ensures that there's parity for the Commonwealth,” she said. “My priorities are worker safety and environmental safety and we've got to craft a commission that alleviates those fears for that demographic once it’s identified because it’s out there.”

A Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant employee at work during the plant's heyday.
U.S. Department of Energy
Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant Virtual Museum
A Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant employee at work during the plant's heyday.

This meeting comes just days after a forum on nuclear energy hosted in western Kentucky. The Energy Communities Alliance organized a forum in Paducah that brought together nuclear power industry leaders and community leaders from around the world to talk about the future of nuclear power. Carroll said the event was an “eye-opening” learning opportunity for him.

“There is so much to be learned, and so much happening and so much that is yet to be discovered that probably will be in the next few years. I think it is crucial that we educate our state as much as we can, and we've got to start within the legislature,” Carroll said. “We need to make sure that we take the appropriate steps … we've got to be open for business. I think that's really what this next step is all about.”
Rudy, like Carroll, is enthusiastic about the opportunity that he feels nuclear power offers the state and his district, which includes the site of the former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. That 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.

“I'm excited about the potential here. We have long embraced nuclear in far western Kentucky,” he said. “ I'm really excited about this working group and the future and potential that we have for expanding our energy portfolio in the future here in the Commonwealth.”

The workgroup will meet again in July and September before it’s expected to submit a report to the governor and the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission in December.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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