Nuclear Newsreel, Monday, February 3, 2014

Go Bernie! Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont may introduce legislation to repeal the Price-Anderson Act, which protects nuclear utilities from having to pay the potential full cost of damages in the event of a reactor accident. Then we would surely find out just how safe the nuclear industry thinks its reactors really are: they’d shut them down if they were liable for consequences. Under Price-Anderson as it currently exists, the nuclear industry as a whole would be liable for only about $12-15 Billion in damages–each individual utility would be liable for only a fraction of that. If damages exceeded that amount, well, it’s just not clear what would happen. Probably Congress would force taxpayers to make up the difference. Consider that both the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents have caused damages in the $300 Billion range (and perhaps even more before Fukushima is done), and you can quickly see why no utility would operate nuclear reactors without the Price-Anderson protection unless it was sure its reactors were fail safe. Of course, the utilities aren’t silly enough to bet their companies on that idea–even if they try to sell the notion to the public daily.

Sanders challenged conservative Senators to join him in such an effort, which he characterized as removing government authority over the nuclear industry. “I wonder if any of my conservative friends would co-sponsor with me legislation to repeal Price Anderson so that we can leave the nuclear power industry alone and not get involved with government,” Sanders said. “I look forward to working with Senator [David] Vitter [R-La.] or Senator Inhofe on getting the government out of the nuclear power industry. Any volunteers at this point?”

Not likely, unfortunately. When it comes to nuclear power, the traditional states’ rights advocates suddenly forget their principles and take a strong liking to federal interference with both the states and the nuclear industry. The last time there was a serious attempt to repeal the Price-Anderson Act was the late 1980s, and repeal was soundly defeated in the House of Representatives (as was a states’ rights bill sponsored by then Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) that would have given states greater authority over emergency planning issues).

Still, now that the real economic costs of a nuclear accident in an industrial society have been made clear, perhaps it does make sense to bring this issue back to Congress and force legislators to declare publicly whether they’re on the side of their home-owning, taxpaying constituents or prefer to back the dwindling nuclear power industry. I mention “home-owning” specifically because the Price-Anderson Act is also the reason you cannot buy private insurance to protect your home and belongings from damages caused by a nuclear accident. The Price-Anderson Act forbids insurers from offering you such coverage.

vermontcoolingtower_im004thSpeaking of states’ rights, Sen. Sanders is also urging the NRC to allow the states to have a greater role in the decommissioning process for nuclear reactors. Said Sanders at a Senate Environment Committee hearing last week, “We are very concerned that the decommissioning process in Vermont could take 60 years or more to complete. The licensee has a long history of safety and disclosure problems, despite NRC oversight, including the collapse of a cooling tower and multiple leaks of radioactive material. I hope you can appreciate why the prospect of letting a dangerous plant sit there for many decades makes Vermonters uncomfortable.”

As Johnny Rotten might have said: there’s No Future in SMRs. Westinghouse has decided to basically end its small reactor development program and concentrate on its AP 1000 design. It seems to have been a pretty easy decision; Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick says there are “no customers” for SMRs. The nuclear industry, many of its Congressional backers, and the Department of Energy just love the Small Modular Reactor program. But what they really love is the taxpayer money that funds the program. Because in the real world, as Westinghouse’s decision makes clear, there is no market for smaller, but still expensive and dangerous, nuclear reactors. That’s why the program already has “won” Taxpayer for Common Sense’s Golden Fleece award–without taxpayer money, the entire concept would wither away.

Another blow to UK’s Hinkley Point nuclear project: the European Commission says government subsidies are probably illegal. The proposed two reactor project is already poised to become the most expensive nuclear white elephant ever, with costs projected to exceed well over $20 Billion before construction even has begun. But if the European Commission holds to this finding and bars the subsidies, construction won’t ever begin. British ratepayers will reap the benefits, and Electricite de France will be left holding the bag. Which is as it should be.

The Indiana legislature has dropped any effort to implement CWIP for now, but some states may still be pursuing the concept. CWIP allows utilities to collect money from ratepayers while a power plant is being built, rather than the normal practice of charging ratepayers after a plant is built and is actually providing power to the customers. It’s basically the equivalent of treating ratepayers as a private bank for utilities, a bank whose directors (the public) have no say in what loans they want to make. Or, as Grant Smith of the Civil Society Institute puts it, “It’s like an ATM card for utilities.” CWIP policies in Georgia and South Carolina are the only reason any nuclear reactors in the U.S. are being built at all right now. Florida also has CWIP, although some reforms to the program already have been made in the wake of the fiasco of the Crystal River reactor steam generator replacement and subsequent shutdown, and the out-of-control projected construction costs of the proposed–and now cancelled–Levy County reactors, and there is an aggressive effort underway there to repeal CWIP entirely. CWIP doesn’t work at all in deregulated states, but in every state that still regulates electric rates, there is always some utility-beholden legislator who will try to sell that policy to unknowing colleagues. It’s something activists have to constantly watch for and protect against.

Three of four Tokyo gubernatorial candidates take anti-nuclear stand in public debate. Prime Minister Abe has been arguing that the future of nuclear power in Japan should not be an issue in this upcoming election; apparently the candidates and the public think otherwise.

EPA walks away from its responsibility, abandons efforts to clean up former phosphate mining site in Florida that still has high radiation levels. The EPA is turning the problem over to the State, which, siding with industry, just doesn’t see much of a problem here. Yet EPA’s own documents show 120,000 people will be exposed to high levels of radiation–levels that project to a 1 in 40 lifetime risk of fatal cancer. This is simply an unforgivable abdication of the agency’s responsibility and is unfortunately typical of the EPA’s treatment of radiation issues generally in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. People will get cancer and die because of this decision. The article is excellent; the reality is sickening.

Cable, check. Landline, check. Internet, check. Electricity, check. Comcast wants to become your electricity provider. Why not, it’s already controlling most of the wires coming into your house. Will it work? Not as far-fetched as it may seem; it looks like Comcast will team up with NRG Energy to begin providing electricity to Pennsylvania subscribers, in yet another potential major upheaval to the electric utility business.

Last week we reported that Xcel Energy is trying to push back against solar power standards in Colorado. Now the company is trying to reduce energy efficiency standards too, starting next year and continuing every year through 2020. Poor Xcel says all the easy efficiency stuff is already done, and it’s just too hard to increase efficiency–especially by enough to attain bonuses for exceeding efficiency targets. It really is incredible that a U.S. utility would try to argue that anywhere in the U.S. is even close to reaching achievable, cost-effective efficiency standards. After all, as we also noted last week, the average U.S. household remains less than 50% as efficient as the average household in the European Union. We have a long way to go. Reluctant companies like Xcel Energy just make it harder to get there.

Finally, last week we noted the upcoming retirements of Reps. Henry Waxman and George Miller (D-CA), both after 40 years in the U.S. House. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Rep. Waxman wrote a piece explaining his decision to retire at this time. What really struck me as a lesson for all activists was Waxman’s relentless persistence at achieving his goals.

Consider this passage (emphasis added): “In fact, the story of my career is that Congress can do tremendous good, but it never comes easily.

“For example, my fight to pass the 1990 Clean Air Act, perhaps the most effective environmental law ever written, lasted nearly a decade.

It was 15 years from the day the tobacco chief executives denied to my subcommittee that nicotine was addictive to the day President Obama signed a law prohibiting cigarettes from being marketed to children and giving the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over tobacco products.

“I had to hold 30 hearings from 1982 to 1990 to draw enough public attention to HIV-AIDS to enact the law that finally recognized that the disease existed and provided care to those afflicted.

“People now take generic drugs and nutrition labels on foods for granted, but the laws creating them weren’t easy fights, either.

“In the 1980s and early 1990s, I wrote 24 laws that expanded Medicaid coverage one small step at a time: to children of the working poor, to low-income women experiencing their first pregnancy, to parents transitioning to work. I worked with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to enact the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, another major step forward. But it wasn’t until 2010 — my 36th year in Congress — that my dream of affordable heath insurance coverage for all was finally enacted into law.”

Think about that for a minute. 30 Congressional hearings before a law could be passed providing help for AIDS victims. That’s persistence. And that’s an attribute activists absolutely must have. I’ll add repetition to persistence. It’s not enough to make our point once and say we’re done with it. We have to make our points over and over again, until we’ve grown tired of making the points, and then continue on making them anyway. That is, by the way, also the strategy large corporations use for TV advertising. They know we all get tired of their commercials, and they do change them from time to time, but they keep making the same points (in their case: buy our product! buy our product! buy our product!) over and over again because they want it to be ingrained in us. But activists don’t have the same bullhorn of large corporations, nor the ability to call Congressional hearings. Which means we have to use every means we do have of making our points even more often. It all matters: letters-to-the-editor, op-eds, calling radio talk shows, speaking to small groups in your community, leafletting, blogging, blogging some more, speaking out some more. When there is an opportunity to make our point, take it. When there’s no opportunity, make one.

That’s why, for example, four years on we are still doing actions to stop the Vogtle loans, even though most of our members have already taken that action at least once. But why stop at once? Do you think DOE and Congress heard you the first time? Not very likely. We have to keep it up, you have to keep it up. So take action to stop the Vogtle loans here and send this link around to everyone you can think of: We’d advertise it on TV nightly if we could, but our bank account won’t let us. We need your help to reach as many people as possible, as often as possible. Don’t ever be afraid of making your point, or taking action, too often. Because those who oppose us, those who would profit from a nuclear and fossil fuel-dominated dirty energy future, are never going to be afraid of stating their case too often, and they have a lot more resources than we do to make their case.

We have to be better and smarter. It’s just not enough to have the facts and the vision on our side. It takes constant outreach, constant action, and yes, relentless persistence. If Rep. Waxman can do that in the icy halls of Congress, surely we can all do that in the much more welcoming world outside.

And, by the way, if you haven’t joined NIRS free e-mail Alert list–where we regularly encourage you to take actions that matter–please join now. You can do so here: –and send that link around to everyone you can think of too…..

Michael Mariotte


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