Nuclear Newsreel, Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nuclear Power

New York Times: Despite today’s Vogtle loan approval, DOE’s nuclear loan program is fizzling. As it should. Vogtle is likely to be the first and only recipient of the DOE’s loan “guarantee” program initiated by Congress in 2005 and funded with $18.5 Billion in 2007. The Vogtle loan so far is to two companies and is worth $6.5 Billion; another entity is considered likely to receive another $1.8 Billion for the project relatively soon.

DOE did offer a $7.76 Billion loan to Constellation Energy for its proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor in 2010, but Constellation balked at the terms (as a merchant power plant in a deregulated electricity market, the project was appropriately considered extremely risky). And when Constellation took another look at that deregulated market, it dropped out of Calvert Cliffs-3 entirely, leaving Electricite de France with 100% ownership of the project. Since the Atomic Energy Act forbids foreign ownership, control or domination of a U.S. reactor, that didn’t work well, and EDF was denied a license following a NIRS intervention before an NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The decision was later upheld by the NRC Commissioners.

DOE also offered a $2 Billion loan to Areva for construction of a uranium enrichment plant in Idaho, but Areva too decided to simply abandon the project. Meanwhile, the always-teetering-on-bankruptcy U.S. Enrichment Corp. is still trying to obtain a $2 Billion loan to build a similar uranium enrichment plant in Ohio, but the company is so financially weak that DOE and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has a strong say in final loan approval, so far have refused to approve a loan.

NYT reporter Matt Wald says that “At one point, the program was expected to support more than $50 billion in loans for nuclear projects,” and he notes that the Obama Administration had requested $36 Billion in additional loan authority in its FY 2011 budget. But grassroots activism (NIRS alone has generated more than 250,000 letters against the loan program and additional budget authority) helped defeat nine separate Congressional attempts to increase money for the program by anywhere from $9 Billion to $50 Billion from 2009 through 2012. The Obama Administration did not request any new money for the program after FY 2011.

The Vogtle loan was announced personally by President Obama in February 2010–four years ago. It’s taken that long for the companies (primarily Southern Company) and government to reach agreement on the terms of the loan. Southern Company has acted like it is doing DOE a favor by accepting a loan at all and has insisted on a sweetheart deal, one that would provide lower interest rates that it can obtain from private banks. Because Southern Company is in a regulated electricity market state and essentially controls Georgia’s Public Service Commission, it has been able to collect money from ratepayers while it is building the reactors, rather than the traditional method of building a power plant and charging customers when the plant is actually providing electricity. After all, ratepayers are not buying nuclear construction projects, they’re buying electricity. Southern Company has been borrowing money from private investors and then paying it back as it receives its payments under the program, called CWIP (Construction Work in Progress) or early cost recovery.

Which brings up an interesting issue. Many, probably most observers have argued that private investors–i.e. Wall Street–will not invest in new nuclear power reactors. They cost too much and the investment is too risky. But Southern Company (and in South Carolina SCE&G, which is building two new reactors at its Summer site), is able to borrow money from somewhere. Exactly where is unknown, but it is obvious some very large investors (the kind that can pour hundreds of millions into a nuclear project) are in fact supporting nuclear construction and doing so with absolutely zero public exposure or scrutiny.

This is truly the sign of a sick society: an 84 year-old nun gets 35 months in prison and two others get 62 months for non-violent break-in at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant near Knoxville, Tennessee. The official crime is that they broke in to the plant, hung banners and spray-painted some peace-oriented graffiti. The real crime is that they exposed how lax security is at one of the nation’s major nuclear weapons plants. Beyond that, of course, the real crime is that major nuclear weapons plants still exist and that the people who created them and continue to espouse them are not in jail, but peace-loving elders are.

Hanford contractor deals with safety concerns by firing whistleblower who raised them. So typical. A high-ranking staffer, Donna Busche becomes appalled at discovering safety problems at the job site, reports them to the company and no action is taken, then reports them to the government. The government is “investigating” the safety concerns (Busche’s first report was filed in 2011). The company, URS Corp. sees the government doing nothing and rids themselves of their problem –a persistent whistleblower–rather than working to address the safety concerns raised. Busche says she will be filing a new lawsuit for unlawful termination.

NRC cites Constellation Energy over potential Ginna flooding problem. The utility resisted fixing the problem for several months. According to the NRC, a flood at Ginna could have led to a loss-of-power scenario at the reactor–and the backup diesel generators could have been flooded. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what happened at Fukushima after the tsunami knocked out their diesel generators leading to a station blackout, leading to meltdown. You’d think the NRC might deserve some credit for forcing Constellation to fix the problem, but the reality is the NRC says the problem should have been identified and fixed 30 years ago. Yes, the utility should have done that. But maybe, just maybe, the NRC should have caught the problem decades ago as well.

Inside Russia's Kalinin-3 reactor. Explosion occurs one minute into video.

Inside Russia’s Kalinin-3 reactor. Explosion occurs one minute into video.

Video of hydrogen explosion at Russia’s Kalinin Unit 3 reactor in November 2011, obtained by Ecodefense. The explosion, never before publicly revealed, probably occurred on November 26 as workers were testing reactor systems after some repair work. The reactor remained shut down until December 14, 2011. Fortunately, this hydrogen explosion was a small one and the extent of the damage it caused is not known. The explosion occurs at the one minute mark of this video.

Three years later, a brief but harrowing visit to Fukushima. An NPR reporters tours the area around the battered reactors and goes inside Unit 4. He also seems to give far too much credibility to Tepco and says he doesn’t feel “irradiated.”

Clean Energy

Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson unveils new plan to move U.S. to 100% renewables by 2050. The plan is being sponsored by The Solutions Project, co-founded by actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo. As such, the descriptions of the plan are oriented toward ending use of fossil fuels and nuclear power isn’t mentioned. But Jacobson knows his stuff and 100% renewable is just fine with us no matter how it’s framed.

Green crusader turned her horror at Chernobyl into a successful clean energy co-op, now with 135,000 customers. Like most Germans, Ursula Sladek was deeply affected by the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which spread radiation over much of the country. But Sladek decided to do something about it, and created an electric co-op in the Black Forest region. When German’s electricity market was deregulated in 1997, she decided to expand the co-op across the country. The co-op sets two conditions on the electricity suppliers it uses: they must have no connection with nuclear power or coal, and their equipment must be less than six years old. The co-op, the only source of power for its customers, uses 100% renewables and yet manages to supply power 24/7. And it does so at lower cost to ratepayers than the nation’s traditional utilities.

Michael Mariotte


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