By Geoffrey Sea
USEC Inc. has confirmed that today, May 31, is the last day of uranium enrichment at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, marking the end of sixty-one years of operation. The monstrous facility was opened in 1952 as a last hurrah of the Truman Administration, representing one of the most egregious acts of political favoritism in American history. The plant was located in Paducah because that city was the hometown of Alben Barkley, who represented Kentucky’s First District in Congress and then became Truman’s vice president.
(Concurrently, the Piketon, Ohio, plant was located as a concession to Ohio Senator and presidential candidate Robert Taft. Barkley and Taft each boasted about how they had won these megaliths for their states—plants that produced modest employment for half a century along with site contamination that will last for thousands of years.)
Cessation of enrichment today comes as something of a predictable surprise, following the breakdown of extension talks between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which owns the plant, and the privatized USEC Inc., which has leased the operation under the strange accord that has required no leasing fee, nor any continuing legal liability for the mess that USEC has made.
The news is cause for celebration by environmentalists, because the Paducah plant has been powered by three gigawatts of dirty coal in the Ohio Valley. According to the Times Free Press of Tennessee, the Paducah plant was by far the largest buyer of TVA electricity, accounting for $600 million in sales or 5 percent of TVA power last year. And sadly, USEC’s gigantic Freon coolers won’t qualify for TVA’s old-appliance scrap rebate program, because they are radioactive.
The Paducah plant has reputedly emitted more chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the worst ozone-depleting and global warming gasses, than all other global sources of CFCs combined in recent years. The plant had been granted a “national security” exemption from the ban on Freon, even though the enriched uranium USEC produced is not used to make nuclear weapons.
Today’s end of operations also has some profound consequences for USEC as it struggles to maintain minimum listing requirements on the New York Stock Exchange. USEC can no longer claim to be the only “American-owned uranium enrichment company,” a claim of dubious veracity anyway since Toshiba became a principal holder of USEC equity, and since federal regulations define a “domestic” producer as one located in the U.S., not according to ownership. URENCO, the European enrichment company, has been enriching uranium at its centrifuge plant in New Mexico since 2010, effectively edging USEC out of the market for centrifuge enrichment in the U.S.
Tomorrow, USEC will be just a broker for uranium obtained from other suppliers, which technically places the company in statutory violation of the USEC Privatization Act of 1996, which made many federal subsidies and concessions available to the company, only on condition that it meets its obligation to enrich uranium. Whether the federal government will demand repayment of the funds transferred to USEC under false pretenses remains to be seen. But don’t hold your breath.
In today’s announcement USEC also says it is issuing WARN Act termination notices to all 1,034 of its Paducah employees, expecting the first round of layoffs to affect about 160 workers between Aug. 5 and Aug. 19. That’s just in time to commemorate the anniversaries of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which fall on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9.
Layoffs are staggered because USEC had attempted to cajole the government into making an additional $13 million payment in material to extend operations and make it look like the plant was doing something. Preparations for property transfer to DOE were therefore delayed. USEC has also utilized Paducah facilities for managing an inventory of Russian uranium, under a separate U.S. government concession called the Megatons to Megawatts Program. That program, however, terminates in December of this year.
The complicated process of transferring leased facilities back to DOE control, and out of regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is known as “de-leasing.” In all ways it is comparable to delousing, only the hosts and parasites are smellier.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.