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In Kentucky coal country, lawmakers open up to nuclear power

Posted March 15

— Lawmakers in coal-producing Kentucky voted Wednesday to lift a ban on building nuclear power plants in a move one detractor called a "kick in the teeth" to the slumping coal sector.

The House passed the bill 65-28, sending it to Gov. Matt Bevin. The Republican governor has signaled he would not veto the measure if it reached his desk.

For years, efforts to open the door to nuclear energy melted down in a state that has been culturally and economically dominated by coal. Kentucky is the country's third-largest coal producer, and politicians from both parties have promised to revive the struggling industry.

But the measure is on the verge of becoming law in Kentucky's first legislative session in memory where Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governor's office.

The bill's House supporters said Wednesday it would take a decade or more for developers to get a nuclear power plant operational in Kentucky due to the rigorous permitting process.

But that didn't satisfy Republican Rep. Jim Gooch Jr., who represents some of western Kentucky's coalfields. Gooch invoked coal's historic role in powering the state and the sector's deep slump while speaking out against the measure.

"While I don't really believe that this bill does that much to really affect coal, I think it's a kick in the teeth that our coal industry shouldn't be facing right now," he said.

Kentucky's coal industry has been steadily declining for decades. Coal mining employment has fallen from 31,000 in 1990 to just over 6,300. Three years ago, coal-fired power plants provided 93 percent of the state's electricity. Today, that has fallen to 83 percent, according to the Kentucky Coal Association, as older plants are being shut down and replaced by natural gas.

The bill lifting the decades-old moratorium has been pushed by local government and business leaders in western Kentucky, which was home to a uranium enrichment plant that closed in 2013. That left the area teeming with skilled workers who had no hope of employment in their field.

Western Kentucky lawmakers who shepherded the bill through the House said lifting the moratorium won't result in any immediate nuclear power plant construction.

"There is no expectation that the commonwealth will have a nuclear reactor constructed in it anytime soon," said Republican Rep. Steven Rudy. "Should this bill become law, as a matter of fact, it will take a decade or more, probably decades, before an applicant could possibly wade through the regulatory environment before bringing a reactor online."

Kentucky is one of 15 states that restrict the construction of new nuclear power facilities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill requires Kentucky officials to review the state's permitting process to ensure costs and "environmental consequences" are taken into account.

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