Paducah lawmaker hopes to end Kentucky's moratorium on building nuclear power plants

09/17/2015 10:11 PM

FRANKFORT — The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant ended its operations two years ago, but a bill proposed by a lawmaker from that city would pave the way for another nuclear facility to be built at the shuttered site.

Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, presented a pre-filed bill before the Interim Joint Economic Development and Tourism Committee Thursday that would lift the state’s moratorium on new nuclear construction. The proposed legislation would add a provision to the moratorium that past nuclear sites could be used for newly built facilities.

Watkins was joined by Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters in pushing for the measure, saying that nuclear power and coal-fired electricity can co-exist in Kentucky’s energy portfolio. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant first began enriching uranium for nuclear weaponry in 1952 before transitioning to electricity generation in the 1960s, Watkins said.

They also touted nuclear energy as a means to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and attempted to dispel concerns with storage of nuclear waste, a particular interest given the state’s history with the Maxey Flats Superfund site near Morehead.

“I don’t think there will be another Maxey Flats in Kentucky,” Peters said, noting his belief that President Barack Obama’s administration erred in ending plans to develop a storage facility in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

“Yucca Mountain was well on its way to become an ultimate disposal site,” he continued. “It had been endorsed, believe it or not, by seven or eight of the DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) lab directors, one of whom was former Secretary of Energy Steve Chu.”

A bill sponsored by by Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, that would have opened new construction of nuclear facilities passed the Senate 30-7 in this year’s session, but the proposal did not receive a committee vote. Neither did Watkins’ House Bill 34, and both went to the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee.

Lawmakers of both parties voiced support for Watkins’ proposal, with Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs of Pikeville suggesting that Watkins expand his bill to lift the nuclear moratorium across the state rather than limiting it to Paducah.

The prospects of thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of jobs at completed nuclear plants were key for Combs.

“The opportunities for nuclear is, yes, something that we need to look at and seriously consider because like I said, I’d like to keep mining coal and I’d like to keep burning coal, but I know what we are up against in that situation,” she said.

“But the number one priority that I’m concerned about is creating and putting our people to work and finding jobs for them as well as creating energy sources to keep our energy costs low for our folks.”

Watkins said he expects his bill to earn more support in the Democrat-led House in next year’s legislative session. Some members of leadership have backed the proposal, he said, and having lawmakers from coal-producing districts like Combs’ gives him some optimism given the industry’s past opposition to lifting Kentucky’s nuclear moratorium.

“We’re having conversations with some of those people to let them know, and that’s why I brought it up in my remarks today, that nuclear power is not a competitor of coal,” Watkins told Pure Politics.

“They compliment each other, you know, with 400 jobs there that were providing coal-fired electricity for USEC (U.S. Enrichment Corporation) while it (Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant) was open, and so nuclear power, at least in Paducah, protects and expands coal miners’ jobs and the mining of coal.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.