Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah
By Geoffrey Sea
Disaster is about to strike in western Kentucky, a full-blown nuclear catastrophe involving hundreds of tons of enriched uranium tainted with plutonium, technetium, arsenic, beryllium and a toxic chemical brew. But this nuke calamity will be no fluke. It’s been foreseen, planned, even programmed, the result of an atomic extortion game played out between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the most failed American experiment in privatization, the company that has run the Paducah plant into the poisoned ground, USEC Inc.
As now scheduled, main power to the gargantuan gaseous diffusion uranium plant at Paducah, Kentucky, will be cut at midnight on May 31, just nine days from now—cut because USEC has terminated its power contract with TVA as of that time [“USEC Ceases Buying Power,” Paducah Sun, April 19, page 1] and because DOE can’t pick up the bill.
DOE is five months away from the start of 2014 spending authority, needed to fund clean power-down at Paducah. Meanwhile, USEC’s total market capitalization has declined to about $45 million, not enough to meet minimum listing requirements for the New York Stock Exchange, pay off the company’s staggering debts or retain its operating licenses under financial capacity requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Paducah plant cannot legally stay open, and it can’t safely be shut down—a lovely metaphor for the end of the Atomic Age and a perfect nightmare for the people of Kentucky.
If the main power to the diffusion cascade is cut as now may be unavoidable, the uranium hexafluoride gas inside thousands of miles of piping and process equipment will crystallize, creating a very costly gigantic hunk of junk as a bequest to future generations, delaying site cleanup for many decades and risking nuclear criticality problems that remain unstudied. Unlike gaseous uranium that can be flushed from pipes with relative ease, crystallized uranium may need to be chiseled out manually, adding greatly to occupational hazards.
The gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, TN, was powered-down dirty in 1985, in a safer situation because the Oak Ridge plant did not have near the level of transuranic contaminants found at Paducah. The Oak Ridge catastrophe left a poisonous site that still awaits cleanup a quarter-century later, and an echo chamber of political promises that such a stupid move would never be made again. But that was before the privatization of USEC.
Could a dirty power-down at Paducah—where recycled and reprocessed uranium contaminated with plutonium and other transuranic elements was added in massive quantities—result in “slow-cooker” critical mass formations inside the process equipment?
No one really knows.
Everybody does know that the Paducah plant is about to close. Its technology is Jurassic, requiring about ten times the energy of competing uranium enrichment methods around the world. The Paducah plant has been the largest single-meter consumer of electric power on the planet, requiring two TVA coal plants just to keep it operating, and it’s the largest single-source emitter of the very worst atmospheric gasses—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
The plant narrowly escaped the selection process that shuttered its sister plants in Tennessee and Ohio long ago. A 2012 apocalypse for Paducah workers was averted only by a last-second, five-party raid on the U.S. Treasury involving four federal entities pitching together to bail out USEC financially, a deal so arcane that knowledge of Mayan astrological codices would be required to grasp its basic principles. The plot would make for a great super-crime Hollywood movie in which Kentucky’s own George Clooney and Ashley Judd could star, if only the crafting lawyers and bureaucrats had made the Code of Federal Regulations as easy to decipher as bible code, or half as interesting.
“The deal” that saved Paducah operations for a year, past one crucial election non-coincidentally, probably consumed more net energy than it produced by stupidly paying USEC to run depleted uranium waste back through the inefficient Paducah plant—like a massive government program paying citizens to drink their own pee as a way to cut sewerage costs and keep medics employed prior to a Presidential contest. The deal never would have passed muster if it had been subjected to environmental or economic reviews of any kind, but it wasn’t. The “jobs” mantra was chanted, and all applicable laws from local noise-control ordinances to the Geneva Conventions were waived.
But the deal expires on May 31, in nine days. USEC and DOE have both said that discussions for a new extension deal continue, but rumors of a new deal were dashed on May 7, sending USEC stock into a flip-flop, when in an investor conference call, the company announced that no extension had been agreed, with very pessimistic notes about even a “short-term” postponement. That accompanied news that USEC had suffered a $2 million loss in the first quarter of 2013, largely attributable to the power bill at Paducah, which USEC says it’s under no obligation to keep paying.
Showing no enthusiasm whatsoever, USEC CEO John Welch said on May 7:
“While we continue to pursue options for a short-term extension of enrichment at Paducah beyond May 31, we also continue to prepare to cease enrichment in early June.”
Meanwhile, the Kentucky DOE field office in charge, managed by William A. Murphie, has advertised a host of companies “expressing interest” in future use of the Paducah site, with no explanation of how the existing edifice of egregiousness will be made to disappear. “Off the record,” the Kentucky field office has floated dates like 2060 for the completion of Paducah cleanup.
That’s two generations from now and kind of a long time for the skilled workforce and other interested parties to hang around. Even the 2060 date assumes that costs can be minimized by evacuating the diffusion cells before power-down—the scenario that seems certain not to happen because no one has the funding for it. Flushing the cells of uranium hexafluoride gas is the only sensible way to power-down, but it’s costly and time-consuming. At the Piketon, Ohio, plant a semi-clean power-down has cost billions of dollars and has taken twelve years and counting to accomplish. (Murphie will have to explain why he paid USEC so much money for the extended power-down at Piketon, while simultaneously asserting that a Paducah power-down can be accomplished swiftly and cheaply). Clean power-down also requires that workers and supplies be available on demand, and in the Paducah case, there simply isn’t time.
According to reliable sources, contracts are being prepared for the work of placing the plant into what Murphie calls “cold storage”—a term of his invention. But those contracts won’t take effect until October when fiscal 2014 funds are available. “Cold storage” at that point means closing the doors, posting guards outside, and otherwise walking away.
Can there yet be an extension deal to hold over the plant until 2014 funds are available? Probably not, because USEC may not last that long, the equipment in the plant has been run to decrepitude with no attention to maintenance, there isn’t sufficient time to make the arrangements, and a second end-run around environmental compliance would likely generate lawsuits.
Captains Log: A Heck of a Long Time
As to when the site might be cleaned up for “future use” under a “cold storage” scenario, nothing has even been rumored. I think we are talking Star Trek dates. Or consider the half-life of natural uranium, which is about four and a half billion years.
Until such time, the Paducah plant will either sit like a massive metallic boil on the planet, or be demolished and scavenged for semi-precious metals like the Oak Ridge facility. But the plutonium, americium and neptunium at Paducah may nix the latter possibility. The dirty power-down arranged by Murphie would make it impossible to prevent transuranic atmospheric release during demolition.
I propose a bronze encasement for the whole fandango, with a plaque that reads:
WRECK OF THE U.S. USEC
GREATEST FAILURE OF GOVERNMENT PRIVATIZATION IN WORLD HISTORY
At least that would help Murphie comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. Call it a learning experience.
Interested observers are still awaiting some rabbit to be pulled from Murphie’s hat, as he produced one year ago in 2012. To gauge that possibility I sent Murphie an e-mail on May 10, asking him where he was going to get the money to pay for clean power-down with the cut-off date only weeks away as reported by USEC. Specifically, I wrote: “What’s up with that?”
And, within hours I received a reply, probably because I had copied Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff on my correspondence. Murphie wrote:
“As you are likely aware, the Paducah procurement process has begun involving the USEC facilities. I suggest you look at the DOE CBC home page regarding the proposed IDIQ business opportunities and keep an eye on it for updates. As for the funding question, the DOE did submit a request to Congress that includes language regarding the potential USEC facilities return [a fiscal year 2014 request].”
That’s a very interesting reply because, aside from the vacuous PR about fantastic “business opportunities” at a site of nuclear catastrophe (maybe a lollipop factory!), it confirms that DOE does not have some secret stash of funds to evacuate the diffusion cells at Paducah, at least until fiscal year 2014, at least five months too late. Murphie is still calling the certain closure of the Paducah monstrosity “potential,” meaning he can’t yet pay for it. I asked Murphie to resolve that dilemma in a follow-up e-mail, but alas I had used up my entitlement to one response per five years and so got none.
I admit that some pretty cool proposals for Paducah “future use” have been cooked up by Murphie and his PR people. In mid-2012, Kentucky state legislators sought an exemption from the state’s moratorium on nuclear power (a giveaway to coal interests), so that Paducah could become a research center exploring the use of nuclear explosives in fracking for oil and gas. Hot diggity!
“Discussions” between DOE and USEC about extension may indeed be ongoing. But I imagine they are like the proverbial separation negotiations between the gold-miner and the gold-digger. The gold-digger demands maintenance for the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed, or she’ll walk. The gold-miner looks at the lump of iron pyrite he’s been left with and says: “You already got everything I had.”
So how did it come to this? Since the plant was originally scheduled to cease operations on May 31, 2012, why didn’t USEC and DOE have plenty of time to plan for orderly and funded clean power-down, which was precisely what the sleazy one-year extension deal was supposed to give time to accomplish.
The answer is that the entire uranium enrichment enterprise of the U.S. has become a sham operation, a sham designed to funnel U.S. Treasury funds to private companies including USEC and its partners, a sham designed to convert any problem or scandal into additional contractor award fees, a sham designed to keep the fig-leaf of a privatized USEC Inc. from blowing away and exposing all the naughty bits.
Those became the goals of the operation, not enriching uranium, developing new technology or achieving safe operations or cleanup of the sites. Murphie’s Law is that if anything can go wrong, it will boost contractor award fees, for a select group of companies hand-picked by Murphie himself. Thus, the principal “cleanup” contractors at Piketon are Fluor and Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), both of which are suppliers to USEC’s fake “American Centrifuge Project,” and B&W is a strategic partner of USEC with a large share of USEC preferred stock, poised to take over USEC’s operations if the latter goes under.
And USEC is going under, by design, leaving its bondholders, pensioners and U.S. taxpayers holding one very empty bag. USEC stock has now lost 99% of value since its bubble peak in 2007. USEC’s auditors issued a “going concern” letter in March of this year, warning that the company appears to have no viable business plan moving forward. The New York Stock Exchange issued a delisting warning to USEC in May of 2012, and a second warning on a separate deficiency in May of 2013.
If USEC is delisted, about half a billion dollars of debt to bondholders becomes due immediately, and at least $100 million in pension obligations are owed in Ohio and Kentucky each. But the entire company is only worth about a twentieth of its debts, or about 1 percent of the cost of the new commercial plant it pretends it will build. USEC’s 2013 shareholders meeting, at which the crisis might come to a precipitous conclusion, was postponed from April to June, presumably to give the company a chance to depart from Paducah without adding a nuclear crisis to its public liabilities. USEC is now an empty shell about to be shucked: the company’s dissolution and the Paducah plant’s decommissioning have been timed to coincide.
Once USEC has departed Paducah, it will no longer be in the uranium enrichment business, as it will operate no enrichment facilities. The company, which was created by statute for the sole purposes of enriching uranium and developing new technology, will be doing neither. It will only be an international uranium broker, ironically a front for Russian uranium interests. Imagine if the U.S. Postal Service decided to hoard its U.S. government subsidies, exit the mail delivery business and become only a marketing agent for Russian stamps. That analogy precisely applies to what USEC is doing, in stark violation of the USEC Privatization Act.
But USEC has had two quite powerful politicians in its service, from the states in which it has operated, men who control the Republican caucuses in both chambers of Congress—John Boehner of southern Ohio and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. If Congress had appropriated the funds to pay for Paducah power-down in a timely fashion, for fiscal year 2013, then the USEC house of cards would have come down one year earlier. There could not have been rumors of federally-financed extension deals, or stock speculation runs premised on talk of a USEC buyout, or shipments of “spare parts” from Piketon to Paducah just to make it look like USEC is a going concern.
In short, if Bill Muphie’s office had secured the funds and let the contracts to do a clean power-down of Paducah starting June 1, then the jig would have been up for USEC months ago, the company might already be in liquidation, and hundreds of millions of dollars in continuing federal subsidies to USEC might not have been wasted. For its part, USEC has even now failed to announce a date certain for Paducah closure, although cancellation of its power contract was an effective extortion tactic for wheedling additional dollars from federal coffers.
So Murphie didn’t secure the funds and didn’t issue the contracts, and kept right on doing federally-paid PR work to falsely suggest there could be a smooth economic conversion at Paducah. Boehner and McConnell ate it all up while chanting the “jobs” mantra, for it reinforced their narrative that USEC Inc. is the best thing since sliced atoms. To keep a large campaign contributor out of bankruptcy court for a few more months, the Paducah plant was permitted to reach the current crisis state. And the people of Kentucky were sent straight to nuclear hell.