No operating nuclear reactors are presently located in Kentucky. However, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) was involved in the Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment Facility in Paducah, KY, which is leased from the U.S. Department of Energy and has been regulated by the NRC since March 4, 1997. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant ceased operations in 2013 and was handed back to the Department of Energy for decontamination and decommissioning. Kentucky is an Agreement State. This means the Nuclear Regulatory Commission relinquishes to the States portions of its regulatory authority to license and regulate byproduct materials (radioisotopes); source materials (uranium and thorium); and certain quantities of special nuclear materials. The mechanism for the transfer of NRC’s authority to a State is an agreement signed by the Governor of the State and the Chairman of the Commission.
Nuclear power plants generate heat through nuclear fission. When an unstable nucleus (such as 235U) absorbs an extra neutron, the atom will split, releasing large quantities of energy in the form of heat and radiation. The split atom will also release neutrons, which can then be absorbed by other unstable nuclei, causing a chain reaction. A sustained fission chain is necessary to generate nuclear power.
According to a report prepared by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the long-term goal of nuclear power is to “develop an economic, safe, environmentally acceptable, unlimited supply of energy for society.”
New Developments and Legislative History of Nukes in Kentucky
Lawmakers in Kentucky, fueled by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, have been receiving detailed information about “Small Modular Reactor” technology. This has driven the debate on whether nuclear technology should be reconsidered, as Kentucky currently has restrictions on the development of nuclear power, in place since 1984, primarily targeting issues involving the handling and disposal of waste. There have been several attempts to repeal the ban over the years in the Kentucky State Senate, only to be stopped in the House.
- Link: US Dept. of Energy on SMRs
- Link: NuScale Power corporate website
- Link: TVA Permitting SMRs
- Link: Scientific American blog posting on SMRs
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are a type of nuclear fission reactor which are smaller than conventional reactors, and manufactured at a plant and brought to a site to be fully constructed. They are generally intended for use in remote locations, where access to traditional power sources is limited.
Small reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those with an electricity output of less than 300 MWe, although general opinion is that anything with an output of less than 500 MWe counts as a small reactor.
Modular reactors allow for less on-site construction, increased containment efficiency, and heightened nuclear materials security.
SMRs produce anywhere from ten to 300 megawatts, rather than the 1,000 megawatts produced by a typical reactor. Safety features include a natural cooling feature that can continue to function in the absence of external power; which was precisely the problem that was faced in Japan when the 2011 tsunami hit. The SMR also has the advantage of having underground placement of the reactors and spent-fuel storage pools, which provides more security. Smaller reactors would be easier to upgrade quickly, require a permanent workforce, and have better quality controls, just to name a few more advantages.
The Tennessee Valley Authority announced it would be submitting an Early Site Permit Application (ESPA) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in May 2016 for potentially siting an SMR at its Clinch River Site in Tennessee. This ESPA would be valid for up to 20 years, and addresses site safety, environmental protection and emergency preparedness associated. TVA has not made a technology selection so this ESPA would be applicable for any of the light-water reactor SMR designs under development in the United States.
The US Department of Energy report on their website regarding TVA:
- A five-year Interagency Agreement (IA) with TVA to support an Early Site Permit application and its review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and later, a combined Construction and Operating License Application (COLA). This agreement was finalized in July 2015. More on the siting of this project here.
Disadvantages and Issues associated with SMRs
Environmental Impact: SMRs themselves do not necessarily combat all of the key criticisms levelled at nuclear power generally. While the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear fission power is much smaller than GHG production associated with coal, oil and gas, there is still a “catastrophic risk” potential if containment fails. This can happen by over-heated fuels melting and releasing large quantities of fission products into the environment, which would outweigh the potential benefits.
- Link: “Small Modular Reactors: No Solution for the Cost, Safety and Waste Problems of Nuclear Power.” Institute for Energy and Environment Research, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Makhijani/Boyd
- Link: “Environmental Competitiveness of SMRs,” Nov. 2016
- Link: “Health Effects of Uranium Mining”
The other risk remains with the problem involving “spent fuel.” The most long-lived radioactive wastes, including spent nuclear fuel, must be contained and isolated from the environment for a long period of time.
There are also significant environmental impacts associated with uranium mining. Radioactivity associated with the uranium ore requires some special management in addition to the general environmental controls of any mine.
Uranium mining, processing, and reclamation have the potential to affect surface water quality and quantity groundwater quality and quantity, soils, air quality, and biota. The impacts of these activities would depend on site-specific conditions, the rigor of the monitoring program established to provide early warning of contaminant migration, and the efforts to mitigate and control potential impacts. Disposal sites represent significant potential sources of contamination for thousands of years, and the long-term risks remain poorly defined.
Economic: With regard to SMRs, A key driver of SMRs are the alleged improved economies of scale, compared to larger reactors, that stem from the ability to prefabricate then in a manufacturing plant or factory. A key disadvantage, however, is that these improved economics can only be realised if the factory is built in the first place, and this is likely to require initial orders for an 40-70 units, which some experts think unlikely.
- Link: “Is There a Market for Small Nuclear Reactors?” Power Magazine, 6/1/16
Licensing/Permitting/Oversight: A major barrier is the licensing process, historically developed for large reactors, preventing the simple deployment of several identical units in different countries. In particular the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission process for licensing has focused mainly on large commercial reactors. The design and safety specifications, staffing requirements and licensing fees have all been geared toward reactors with an electrical output of more than 700MWe.
Licensing for SMRs has been an ongoing discussion. There was a workshop in October 2009 about licensing difficulties and another in June 2010, with a US congressional hearing in May 2010. With growing worries about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, added to problems with hydrocarbon supplies from foreign countries and accidents like the BP oil rig explosion (Deepwater Horizon) in the Gulf of Mexico, many US government agencies are working to push the development of different licensing for SMRs. Additional information from the US Dept. of Energy on Licensing challenges here.