Nuclear Newsreel, Friday, January 31, 2014

Nuclear News

A Southern Company spokesman says the deadline for the $8 Billion+ taxpayer loan for construction of Georgia’s Vogtle reactors has been extended yet again–until the end of February. We have seen no confirmation from DOE, but there is no reason not to believe this either. As this article suggests, this loan process represents the opposite of the Obama Administration’s commitment to transparency in government operations. Southern’s spokesman is quoted this way, “While we can’t disclose final terms, we do believe that our earlier estimate of approximately $200 million of present-value benefits is still representative of the loan’s value to our customers.” This is taxpayer money? More than $8 Billion of it? And taxpayers can’t know the terms of the deal? The Department of Energy may be broken beyond repair.

By the way, this marks the seventh time the deadline to complete this loan, which was first announced in February 2010, has been extended. Because of the continuing lack of transparency by both DOE and Southern Company, it is impossible to know how close they actually are to a deal or if the White House’s Office of Management and Budget is close to agreeing to the deal. That most of the previous deadline extensions were for three months or more, and this is the second extension for only one month, suggests DOE thinks the deal is close. On the other hand, it could indicate that the Administration is closer to wanting to just end the deal; after all, we know that one White House staffer said, not for attribution, that the Administration wishes the whole thing would just go away.

But the new Vogtle loan extension does give us all more time to work to block the loan. And if the White House is indeed as tired of this as the statement above suggests, a strong public outpouring could tip the balance. Some 4500 people already sent e-mails through NIRS’ action page over the past 48 hours (that makes about 50,000 over the past two years!): let’s keep it up! If you haven’t yet taken action, do it now. If you have, send this action page link to your friends and colleagues: If you’re with an organization, send it to your e-mail lists. We CAN stop this unnecessary, risky and dangerous waste of taxpayer money.

Two years ago today, there was a small radiation leak from a faulty steam generator at the San Onofre reactor site in southern California. The rest is history. Friends of the Earth and grassroots activists across the state teamed up in a superb campaign to shut both reactors permanently. KPBS in San Diego takes a look back at what happened, and, more importantly for Californians, what happens next with the radioactive waste, decommissioning, replacement power, etc.

Activists in the United Kingdom seek to block radwaste transport by road. The UK is no closer than the U.S. at selecting and building a permanent facility that can prevent high-level radioactive waste from entering the environment. There is absolutely no reason to move this waste more than once–when waste is on the road (or on the rails, or on the water), it is inherently more dangerous than when it is sitting in a cask. Accidents happen. No matter the country, Mobile Chernobyl is the term. For more information on how to prevent a radioactive waste transport accident in the U.S., visit NIRS’ Mobile Chernobyl page here.

The Kentucky legislature is once again considering lifting the state’s ban on new nuclear reactor construction, which has been in place for 30 years. The ban, similar to California’s, prevents reactor construction until there is a viable plan for disposal of the radioactive waste. The Kentucky Senate has tried to repeal this ban before–last session for example–but the Kentucky House has never agreed, and probably won’t this time either. Not that anyone has ever expressed any interest in actually building a reactor in Kentucky….

Clean Energy

Fukushima–the province, not the reactor site–plans to be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2040. They’ve learned. Although what a price to pay for the lesson. Even so, the province could probably achieve this goal 10 years earlier if it really tries.

The American wind industry sees unprecedented growth entering 2014; 12,000 MW of wind power is in the pipeline and likely to come online this year. In case you’re keeping track, that’s 12,000 more Megawatts than the nuclear power industry will bring online in 2014.
Very good analysis from on where the battles over net metering will be fought in 2014. As we’ve noted before, the far-right group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and some utilities are teaming up to try to limit the growth of solar power by attacking state net metering policies. Net metering is what allows solar customers to sell back any excess power produced to the utilities, which in turn sell it to other customers. These policies both encourage development of solar power and help reduce the need for new power plants–both of which are important objectives in the movement for clean energy and in reducing carbon and radioactive emissions.

rooftopsolarAnd here’s one reason why utilities want to change net metering policies and reduce the growth of solar power: rooftop solar cuts Xcel Colorado’s sales by 0.2%. Now, that’s not a lot, but it’s only the beginning and Xcel Colorado and other utilities know it. As the use of rooftop solar grows, utilities will be selling less electricity. From a societal perspective, that’s a very good thing. From a utility profit perspective using a traditional utility business model (the more electricity we sell the more profit we make), it’s not so good. The utilities are going to have to change or go out of business. Trying to stop or even slow something that makes as much sense as rooftop solar is not a winning strategy.

Inside Washington

President Obama nominates Norman Bay to be head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). He’s currently a staffer at the Commission and not well known. He would replace Jon Wellinghoff, who used his position to advocate forcefully for clean energy and distributed generation. The nomination of Obama’s first nominee to replace Wellinghoff, Ron Binz, was scuttled by fossil fuel interests led by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who believed Binz was insufficiently pro-coal. To get an idea of the level of discussion, here’s an actual quote about Binz, made after Bay’s nomination was announced this week: “The FERC is no place for anti-hydrocarbon ideologues like Ron Binz, and we stood strong with our coalition partners against his ultimately doomed confirmation,” American Energy Alliance President Thomas Pyle said in a statement following Bay’s nomination. Pyle neglects to mention that FERC has no authority whatsoever over what power sources utilities use. His organization and the polluting utilities industry want to block all clean energy advocates from government positions. Because FERC doesn’t have any direct authority over nuclear reactors, anti-nuclear advocates have tended to pay little attention to FERC activities. But FERC does regulate the electric transmission grid, and it is absolutely vital that the grid be made more accommodating to renewable energy and distributed generation if the U.S. is to attain a clean, safe and affordable nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system. Perhaps activists should be paying a little more attention to FERC….

The announced retirements of two venerable California Democratic Representatives over the past week or so, plus some other recently announced Congressional shakeups, mean that just about everything Congress does on energy and environmental issues will have a very different look and structure this year and even more so in the next Congress beginning in 2015. Yesterday, 40-year Representative Henry Waxman announced he is retiring at the end of this term. Last week, it was Rep. George Miller who made a similar announcement.

Waxman, the ranking minority member and former chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has never been closely associated with nuclear power issues (although he has been a forceful advocate for clean energy), but he is a strong environmentalist and has been a reliable vote against most nuclear industry initiatives. Perhaps it is that voting record–because it isn’t his identification with any particular nuclear-related legislation, that prompted Nuclear TownHall–a pro-industry website that posts links to nuclear-related articles–to headline this article: Former House Energy Chair & Longtime Nuclear Antagonist Henry Waxman to Leave Congress. Interesting headline given the article does not once mention Waxman’s position on nuclear power or even nuclear power in any context whatsoever. But if the industry dislikes him that much, you know his loss will be felt.

Rep. Miller, whose retirement didn’t generate such headlines from nuclear industry blogs, had much more of a history on nuclear issues. In early 1990, I got a call from one of his aides who asked if I knew that then-Senate Energy Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnston had appended to a Minnesota public lands bill, and gotten through the Senate, a bunch of provisions relating to a uranium enrichment plant proposed to be built in northern Louisiana, near the small town of Homer. Well, I knew about the proposed plant and was already working with a newly-formed biracial citizens group there, but I sure didn’t know about the legislation.

It turned out that Johnston’s bill would overturn existing law preventing foreign ownership of uranium enrichment plants, and would have dismissed requirements for adjudicatory hearings and even preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement for this project.

That clearly wasn’t acceptable. Rep. Miller agreed to hold a hearing on the issue in the Interior Subcommittee he chaired, and invited Sen. Johnston to testify. To his surprise, Johnston agreed to come over to the House and appear as a witness. I urged Rep. Miller to invite a representative from the citizen’s group–Citizens Against Nuclear Trash–and at first his office balked. So we told them that if a representative didn’t get to testify, we’d bring an entire busload of local residents to protest at the hearing. Problem solved, and Toney Johnson, a local real estate broker, came to Washington to speak.

The hearing became a circus. Sen. Johnston brought along a geiger counter and started waxing about how safe the uranium enrichment process is and thus no particular regulatory oversight was necessary. He turned on the geiger counter and held it to the microphone so everyone could hear it clicking a very small amount from the background radiation in the room. Then he held up a little uranium pellet, which he said was the product of an enrichment plant (one of his aides, not Johnston himself, had been carrying it in his pocket–Johnston may have been a con man, but he wasn’t a fool) to the geiger counter and the clicks barely increased. Obviously not something very radioactively dangerous…. Then he pulled an orange dinnerplate from his aide’s bag and held it up to the geiger counter, which went crazy, clicking loudly and incessantly. Johnston smiled triumphantly: see, he said, this uranium pellet is less radioactive than a normal dinnerplate.

Then Toney Johnson came on and in a plain-spoken but fervent style, with a bit of southern religious overtones, gave the citizens’ views–especially on the idea that no hearings or EIS would be needed. Taking on Sen. Johnston, Toney said, “Only God himself can say there will never be an accident at that plant.”

Afterwards, it occurred to me that Miller and his staff might not have realized that the orange dinnerplate Johnston held up was a Fiestaware relic. Decades earlier, to achieve the prized orange color, Fiestaware was made with a uranium glaze. It had been banned from commercial use for years because it was so radioactive. So I called the staff, and no, they didn’t know that and yes, they were mightily pissed that Johnston had tried to pull a fast one on them.

So I called some Louisiana TV stations and newspapers, and nope, they hadn’t known either. And one TV station got aggressive. They pointed out that the actual product of a uranium enrichment plant is uranium hexaflouride, a gas that is both radioactive and highly toxic. A reporter cornered Sen. Johnston and asked him about the Fiestaware, the uranium pellet he had been holding, and about uranium hexaflouride. Johnston evaded the questions. The reporter pointed out that if Johnston had been holding the actual product of the plant, the uranium hexaflouride, “it would have eaten right through his hand.”

The reporter for that piece was fired the next day after a call from Johnston’s office to the station’s owner, but for the entire next week the Louisiana media just roasted Johnston, who was running for re-election at the time. In fact, Johnston never again said a word, in public, about the project. A reliable source told me that policy even held in private–when someone in his family mentioned it once, Johnston walked out of the room.

For his part, Rep. Miller allowed Johnston’s repeal of the foreign ownership provision to go through, but the final legislation ensured a full adjudicatory hearing and a full Environmental Impact Statement–which eventually proved to be the downfall of the project (see Nuclear Newsreel of Tuesday, January 28 for more on the end of the Louisiana Energy Services plant near Homer, but its eventual resurrection in New Mexico).

Rep. Miller also played the pivotal role in ending the NRC’s Below Regulatory Concern (BRC) policy, which is another long story I’ll shorten here. After dozens of local jurisdictions and several states had enacted resolutions against the BRC policy, which would have deregulated about 30% of the nation’s “low-level” radioactive waste stream; Miller agreed to hold a hearing and invited the NRC Commissioners to testify.

It didn’t go well for the NRC; but then again, defending an indefensible policy rarely does. When then-NRC Chair Kenneth Carr suggested that a Little League baseball field could be built on top of a landfill full of deregulated radioactive waste, Miller responded, “Yeah, I’d like to see the Governor cut the ribbon on that one.”

Rep. Miller stuck to the issue, added it to the 1992 Energy Policy Act, and ensured that the BRC policy was fully revoked by Congress.

His formidable presence on Capitol Hill will be missed.

In other recent Washington news, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is poised to leave his chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee to take over Senator Max Baucus’ Finance Committee. Baucus (D-MT) is retiring and has been nominated by President Obama to be Ambassador to China. As soon as the Senate approves that nomination, which it will do soon, Wyden will move and the Energy Committee will be chaired by Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is perhaps not as ardently pro-nuclear as the previous Louisiana chair, Sen. Johnston, was, but is even more zealously pro-oil and fossil fuels generally. And while nuclear has never been one of her priorities, her voting record has been pretty solidly pro-nuclear and pro-utility.

While Sen. Wyden was a sponsor of S. 1240, the very bad Mobile Chernobyl radioactive waste bill co-sponsored by Sens. Feinstein (D-CA), Murkowski (R-AK) and Alexander (R-TN), there was some reason to believe he wasn’t entirely comfortable with it and might have pushed for changes to it. It’s likely Landrieu would support the bill as is, but it isn’t likely that it will be a priority for her in 2014, and this change at the top of the Committee would seem to indicate that radioactive waste issues, and nuclear power issues generally, will take a back seat until the new Congress arrives in 2015.

Finally, in one other piece of Washington news, the NRC staff has informed us that the deadline for presentation of their paper on foreign ownership issues of U.S. nuclear reactors (which are still banned by the Atomic Energy Act), slated to be provided to the NRC Commissioners by December 31, has been extended until March 7. The NRC Commissioners had asked the staff to re-examine the issue of foreign ownership, control or domination of U.S. reactor projects in the wake of their decision last year upholding an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board decision to deny a license to the proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor in Maryland. NIRS had raised that issue in the context of a hearing on that proposed reactor and it resulted in the first pro se intervenor victory ever if an NRC licensing proceeding.

Michael Mariotte


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