The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, September 06, 2002

Quake study set to attract test plant
USEC's review of Paducah's proposal for a centrifuge plant may be affected by the existence of an earthquake zone.

By Joe Walker

As USEC Inc. reviews Paducah's proposal to land a test gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, local economic development leaders are trying to determine, once and for all, whether being in a major earthquake zone is a major hurdle.

Ken Wheeler, chairman of a local nuclear energy task force, said the issue would be part of a proposed study by University of Kentucky and Kentucky Geological Survey experts on whether earthquake-related building codes should be changed statewide.

The results could help Kentucky's recruitment of the test plant, which will use high-speed centrifuges that are very sensitive to shaking, he said. The issue is a concern to Wheeler and others because Paducah lies on the New Madrid Fault.

Wheeler moderated an Aug. 29 teleconference at Paducah Community College attended by Dennis Langford, commissioner of the Department of Housing, Buildings and Construction. State and local officials agreed to resolve study funding and other issues before another meeting later this fall.

"We had three action items one authorizing the UK-proposed study that would help not just USEC, but the construction industry generally, to understand a little bit better the significance of the numbers," Wheeler said, referring to county-by-county maps on which seismic designs are based. "We're trying to get that study started now."

Wheeler's task force helped the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development put together an initial recruitment proposal for the test plant, which USEC Inc. plans to build either in Paducah or Piketon, Ohio, starting in 2004 and have running in 2005. The test facility is a precursor to a $1.5 billion commercial plant in one of the two communities by the end of the decade.

Energy-efficient centrifuge will eventually replace USEC's 1,500-employee Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, whose technology is outdated and uses as much electricity as a major city.

USEC said Thursday that it is reviewing proposals from Kentucky and Ohio, and will provide feedback before the two states submit final proposals by Oct. 25. The firm will decide later this year where to put the plant, whose 240 centrifuges will provide updated cost, schedule and performance data for building the commercial plant.

Dennis Spurgeon, USEC vice president and chief operating officer, said USEC will spend roughly $150 million during the next five years on the test plant. "We have tripled our centrifuge staff in the last year, and we expect to triple it again this year."

The seismic question is key to local economic development. Spurgeon said the test facility will generate 50 jobs. About 1,000 contract workers will be needed to build the commercial plant and its centrifuges, and about 500 employees will be required to operate it, he said.

Some question if state building codes apply to the centrifuge project. Both the test and commercial plants will be built on land owned by the U.S. Department of Energy.

"In that case, Kentucky building codes might not have any effect because traditionally, federal projects are exempt from state and local codes," said Terry Slade, acting director of the Kentucky Division of Building Code Enforcement.

Slade, who participated in the teleconference, said the state housing board in May softened its seismic codes, which had been toughened last year to meet the stringent International Building Code. Engineers and other professionals convinced state officials that the changes were too conservative and would have stymied construction statewide, he said.

Depending on the findings of the UK study, Langford is willing to consider changes in the county maps used to make seismic designs if that will strike a better balance between safety and practicality, Slade said.

Wheeler, along with USEC and state economic development officials, declined to provide specifics of the initial economic proposals, which they characterized as proprietary.

"Both states have been offered the opportunity to put forth their best proposals to highlight incentives that would attract USEC to choose one site over the other," USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said. "We will look at all of these, plus a variety of other factors, in making our site selection."

Although Economic Development Secretary Gene Strong was unavailable for comment Thursday, spokeswoman Terri Bradshaw said Strong is confident.

"We obviously feel we've made a very strong proposal, but keep in mind this is only an initial proposal," she said. "We anticipate working with USEC between now and then (Oct. 25) to perfect the proposal we've made."