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Chuck Eaton and Tim Echols, Georgia Public Service Commissioners: Pressing Forward with Nuclear Energy & Plant Vogtle

By Georgia Public Service Commissioners Chuck Eaton and Tim Echols

As two of your elected PSC Commissioners that regulate utilities in Georgia, we often have to explain to people exactly what we do and the positions we take on difficult issues that come before us from time to time.   Every six years you see our name on your statewide ballot and count on us to make sure Georgia’s gas, electricity and phone systems are state-of-the-art, reliable and reasonably priced. Ultimately,  our job and role is about building infrastructure that ensures reliability and low cost of service over the long term.  Here is why our decision on the Plant Vogtle nuclear project expansion mattered.

Plant Vogtle is Georgia’s premiere nuclear site on the Savannah River just south of Augusta.  Together, the two existing Vogtle units produce annually nearly 17 million megawatt-hours of baseload, around the clock, electricity. The units came on-line in 1987 and 1989 amidst cost overruns and controversy, but now serve the state’s energy consumers with carbon-free electricity at ultra-low prices.  And here we are again—with the plant’s 3rd and 4th units running behind schedule and set to cost substantially more than we anticipated and Georgia Power forecasted.   But hindsight is not only 20-20—it is helpful to us as commissioners as we weighed the pros and cons of finishing what is possibly the largest construction project in the country.  

Let’s start with low rates. Affordable electricity and a reliable grid are what companies looking to locate new facilities or relocate to a new state often look for.  As commissioners, we froze Georgia Power’s base rates in 2013 and they will remain frozen until Georgia Power’s next rate case in 2019. Those Vogtle reactors built in the 80’s now provide some of the cheapest power in the state.  Based on a consulting study by the Brattle Group, a single nuclear plant produces about $450 million annually in sales of goods and services in the local community.  Moreover, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show the median nuclear plant operator earns an average annual wage of $91,170, so the 800 permanent jobs created by these new reactors will go a long way to boost the Georgia economy too.  So too are the 6000 construction jobs now on site at the plant. Ceasing construction on the new units would have been like pulling $115 million in annual payroll from the regional economy.  In lieu of building this project, we could consider shorter-term options such as “leasing” a gas plant or out-of-state wind turbines.  But having Georgia-grown nuclear power that can last 80 years provides reliable baseload electricity over the longer term despite the higher upfront costs. Georgia Power also looked at renewable energy. In this case, the total cost to replace Vogtle capacity with solar PV coupled with battery storage is roughly $25 billion, accounting for a 60-year asset life.  That’s $7 billion for 4,000 megawatts of solar panels, and another $18 billion for 3000 megawatts of lithium ion batteries.  And these estimates don’t include the cost of the 30,000 acres of land needed.

Fast forward to our inbox this week. Subject lines of “Uneconomic,” “Cancel Vogtle,” and “Punish the power company” came in faster than we could respond.  And we most certainly understand the frustration from our ratepayers.  For this very reason, we voted this week to put in place risk-sharing mechanisms to save consumers money—especially if the project runs later than expected.  Even as we approved a new higher cost and schedule for the beleaguered project, we have imposed penalties on Georgia Power reducing their overall revenue collection from current ratepayers by over $1.7 billion.  And at the end of the project, we are prepared to disallow every single penny of imprudent expenditures—including schedule delays because of such. 

One thing was clear to most who know us.  We wanted to finish this new nuclear plant—the only one of its kind in North America.  We believe that nuclear energy makes sense in a day when baseload coal plants are disappearing due to early retirements and increased regulations.   We also know that the United States must maintain nuclear superiority in an age when Russia and China are building dozens of reactors and exporting their technology.  Georgia consumers benefit from the affordable and reliable energy made available from the diverse fuel mix we have throughout our state.

Let’s be honest. It was the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the prime Vogtle project contractor and reactor designer, that has put us in the pickle we are in.  All the protections we had built into their contract were made null and void by their self-serving action to walk away from their contract with Georgia Power. However, it is important to note that Toshiba, Westinghouse’s parent company has paid a significant penalty for Westinghouse’s failure – $3.68 billion or 40 percent of the original contract price.  This payment will reduce the cost of the project and that benefits customers.  That payment made a difficult vote a little better.

We have appreciated the feedback from many in the communities we represent urging us to complete this important project.  Doing so will help Georgia continue to be the best place to do business in America.

Edward Davis, USNIC: Senate kicks the can down the road again on Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste stalemate

Yesterday’s Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee action to report favorably a FY2018 DOE funding bill represents a disappointing setback in efforts to restart the long- stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste permanent repository project. 

Among the biggest disappointments was the apparent failure of the Senate Subcommittee led by Chairman Lamar Alexander to fund the Administration’s request for funding $120 million to restart the much delayed licensing process for the DOE Yucca Mountain project.

The Chairman’s opening statement lauded the efforts of the Subcommittee to end the nuclear waste stalemate by taking important steps toward solving the country’s stalemate over what to do with nuclear waste. Apparently, this was accomplished by including provisions for a consolidated interim (read temporary) storage facility and by providing funding for DOE to support storing nuclear waste at private facilities.

As the elephant in the room, the Yucca Mountain project was barley mentioned. Chairman Alexander’s statement did make note that the funding for private storage facilities was not intended to take the place of Yucca Mountain. But what of Yucca Mountain funding itself. Not a word mentioned. 

Never mind that the stalemate for the last eight years of Obama Administration has been over moving forward at Yucca Mountain to finish the legally required NRC safety review and to resolve the State of Nevada’s contentions. Evidently the stalemate over Yucca Mountain will have to resolved in some other venue and some other date in time.

The lack of inclusion of funding for Yucca is all the more surprising given Chairman Alexander’s past statements of strong support for the Yucca Mountain project, for example the Chairman’s opening statement on June 21st when Energy Secretary Perry testified in support of DOE’s budget where Chairman Alexander stated:

 “… solving the nuclear waste stalemate, to ensure that nuclear power has a strong future, we've got to break that 25-year-old stalemate and we welcome your leadership in helping us do that. We need to find places to build geologic repositories and temporary storage facilities so the federal government can finally meet its legal obligations to dispose of nuclear waste safely and permanently. This year's budget request for the department includes $110 million to restart work on Yucca Mountain repository and $10 million to study waste to open an interim storage site or use a private interim storage site. I strongly support Yucca Mountain. I believe it ought to be a part of the solution.”

Well, apparently Yucca is not part of the solution, at least not at the moment. This inconvenience or incongruity would seemingly benefit one particular senator from Nevada who is in the midst of a very tough re-election bid and whose vote on the GOP health care bill was absolutely vital to the Senate Republican efforts to clinch the necessary votes to put the Senate GOP ObamaCare Repeal and Replace legislation over the top – which now is off the rails.

For over eight years, Republicans in both the House and Senate have accused the Democrats of playing politics with Yucca. And what do Republican do the first chance they get  — Play politics with Yucca Mountain. Some things never change!!

Edward Davis, former President  of the American Nuclear Council, Senior Fellow, Nuclear Infrastructure Council.


JEFF BEATTIE, ENERGY DAILY: Yucca Backers Alarmed By Senate Approps Language

July 19, 2017 | BY JEFF BEATTIE 

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A recent version of the Senate’s Energy Department spending bill for fiscal 2018 obtained by IHS The Energy Dailycontains language opening a path for Nevada to potentially block the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a curious provision given that the bill is quarterbacked by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime Yucca supporter.

The language would require the Energy Department to develop a pilot program of one or two centralized storage facilities to collect and store spent nuclear fuel that is currently stockpiled at dozens of sites across the country.

The language then directs DOE to develop a plan to eventually ship the radioactive material for burial in a deep geologic repository; Yucca Mountain was designated 30 years ago as that repository.

But—in a new and crucial provision—it requires DOE to develop a plan to ship the spent fuel to a deep geologic repository, “following a consent-based approval process for that deep geologic disposal capacity.”

The language further defines the “consent-based process” to mean that the repository would have to be approved by the host state’s governor, any affected Indian tribes and “each unit of [affected] local government….”

Current Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is bitterly opposed to Yucca—as were all previous governors since Yucca was chosen as the nation’s repository site in 1987. As a result, any such consent process would mean a quick death for the project. Yucca is opposed by most public officials and affected tribes in Nevada, although it is supported by Nye County, which includes the project site, as a potential revenue-generator.

Importantly, the bill does not direct DOE to use a consent-based approval process for Yucca. Instead, it requires DOE to submit a plan for the pilot program that includes “recommendations for a mechanism” for eventually shipping the material to a repository, while requiring that repository to receive the assent of governors, tribes and other jurisdictions.

It also is not clear if the language, which was in a version of the DOE spending bill obtained by IHS The Energy DailyTuesday morning, is in the version approved by the energy and water spending panel Tuesday afternoon. The subcommittee at press time had not released the bill, which is scheduled to be considered Thursday by the full appropriations committee.

But several pro-Yucca industry sources say the language raises a clear obstacle to Yucca. And several called it baffling, particularly given the years’ worth of support that Yucca has gotten from Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee.

Alexander has long pushed a two-track approach to solving the nation’s nuclear waste problem, which includes centralized storage as a stepping-stone to moving the material to a deep geologic repository for final burial.

In a hearing held last month by the energy and water spending panel, Alexander cheered the fact that DOE’s fiscal 2018 budget includes $110 million to resume work on Yucca Mountain, on which the Obama administration halted work in 2009. Obama called the Yucca plan “unworkable,” but the decision was widely seen as a political favor to then-Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who—like Sandoval—bitterly opposes the repository project in his home state.

“I strongly support Yucca Mountain,” Alexander said in last month’s budget meeting. “I believe it ought to be a part of the solution.”

Some sources speculate that Alexander and Senate GOP leadership may be introducing a set of brakes on the Yucca program as a political favor to Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has made killing Yucca a key plank in what is expected to be a tough re-election campaign next year.

Heller’s re-election is seen as key to retaining a GOP majority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who serves on the energy and water spending panel. But Heller is the only Republican up for re-election next year in a state that went Democratic in last year’s presidential election.

“At this point, there will be nothing pro-Yucca in any [Senate] bill that Heller has to vote for,” one source said Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Alexander did not respond immediately to questions Tuesday about the “consent-based” repository language.

One industry source expressed frustration that the Senate, now under GOP control with Reid gone, might still produce a funding bill with obstacles to Yucca. With the backing of the pro-Yucca Trump administration, backers of the Nevada repository had expected 2017 to be a year of full-throttle Yucca revival.

“For eight years the Republicans accused the Democrats of playing politics with Yucca, but at the first opportunity what do Republicans do? Play politics with Yucca,” said one.

“It’s like the cold, dead hand of Harry Reid is still on the tiller,” he said, referring merely to the fact that Reid, who remains among the living, has departed the Senate.

Yucca backers can take solace, however, in the fact that appropriations bills for individual agencies like DOE have failed to become law for the past several years. Because of partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have instead funded the government with “continuing resolutions,” that largely extend previous-year funding.

In This Issue

Llewellyn King: The Carbon Solution Obama Won’t Take To Paris

By Llewellyn King

The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783 by representatives of King George III of England and the fledgling United States of America in a Paris hotel, ended the Revolutionary War.

Next month, another document will be signed in Paris: the climate agreement. It will be signed by about 200 countries, and will commit the signatories to meaningful reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon.

And it will be as seminal in its way as the one recognizing that the colonists of America would no longer be subject to the rule of England.

My point is not that this treaty of Paris will be perfect, or that every signatory will abide by its terms, but that it will do something that is vital, if climate change endeavors are to prevail: It will establish globally a kind of carbon ethic.

The concept of an environmental ethic started with Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” back in 1962. Since then, the world has known it should examine the environmental impact of major actions. After Paris, it will consider the carbon impact in a new way.

President Obama’s supporters will be jubilant when the signing starts in Paris. But Obama does not deserve all the praise that will come his way from Democrats and environmental organizations.

If the Obama administration were as concerned with the reduction in greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon, as it says it is, it would not have given the back of its hand to nuclear power. Nuclear produces a lot of electricity and no greenhouse gasses. Zero.

Yet the administration, yearning for a carbon-free future, has done nothing to address the temporary market imbalance that cheap natural gas has produced. Get this: a nuclear plant has a life of 60 years, and new ones may last 80 years. What we have now is a short-term price advantage in natural gas forcing the closure of nuclear plants, even though gas will cost more over the decades.

The administration leans heavily toward wind and solar power, understandably against coal and almost ignores nuclear. For example, nuclear does not get the support it deserves in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan: its blueprint for carbon reduction. Nuclear is an also ran, not a central plank.

The nuclear project needs updating. It needs a revision of the standards for radiation protection which were enacted when nuclear science was young and radiation little understood. They need to be reevaluated and almost certainly lowered in the light of today’s science. This would help across the nuclear spectrum from power plants to medicine to how nuclear waste is handled.

The administration declares itself in love with innovation and has offered partial funding for new, small modular power plants. But it does this without regard to the dysfunctional nature of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This bureaucracy is so sclerotic, pusillanimous and risk- averse that it has priced new reactors out of the possibility of being built in the United States. Because the NRC is a fee-collecting agency, it is estimated that to license a brand new reactor — a better, safer, cheaper reactor — would cost $1billion and 10 years of hearings and submissions. That is a preposterous inhibitor of American invention.

If the Federal Aviation Administration acted as the NRC does, we might well be flying around in propeller aircraft, while the agency studied jet engines and, for good measure, questioned the ability of wings to provide lift.

Certainly, the NRC should be protected from outside pressure that might impinge on safety, but it should not be so ossified, so confined in a bunker, that it cannot evaluate anything new.

Yes, something big is going to happen in Paris: Those big polluting nations, China and India, but especially China, are going to lay out their ambitious plans to reduce carbon — with nuclear.

Champions of the president will cheer Paris as a big part of his legacy, but his achievement is less than it should be. And nuclear power, like so much else that America led the world in, is headed overseas where it will evolve and probably flourish as the carbon-free champion of the future. Shame on the administration.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is He wrote this column for the InsideSources syndicate.

LLEWELLYN KING: U.S. Loves Engineers, Treats Them Badly

By Llewellyn King

We need more engineers. Go forth and study engineering for the future of the nation. Math and engineering are the keys to maintaining our place in the world and keeping the Chinese, and a few others, at bay.

That is the urging of our political class, whether they are appointed public officials or elected politicians; or whether they are members of the thinking and writing class. Taken collectively, they might be called “the exhortationists.”

But there is a problem: We do not treat engineers very nicely — at least not those who are federal employees or contractors. The very politicians who lead in exhorting our young to become engineers are those who treat engineers as disposable workers.

The government starts many projects and finishes few. A change of administration, a shortage of money, or some other excuse and the government shelves the project.

The impact on engineers is devastating. They have often relocated their families to the site of the project and — wham! — it is canceled.

It is not only that this rough treatment has a huge impact on families – and engineers are not that well-paid (median income is $80,000, and petroleum engineers are the highest-paid) – but also the psychological damage is considerable.

Engineering a new project is exciting but also demanding. Men and women throw themselves into what is a giant creative undertaking, eating up years of lives, demanding the most extreme effort. It is shattering when there is a sudden political decision to cancel a project.

To look at a bridge or a locomotive and say, “I built that,” “I made a difference,” is much of the engineer’s reward. Marc Goldsmith, a fourth-generation engineer, who has worked on 16 projects in nuclear power which have been canceled, says that many engineers get so frustrated they leave the profession and go into law or finance, and never face a logarithm again. He says the government treats highly educated engineers like day laborers: expendable.

Goldsmith, a former president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, says the heartbreak of a canceled project to the engineers is terrible and destructive of the can-do engineering culture.

The hundreds of engineers involved in a big engineering project do not do their job just for the money, but for the satisfaction that they solved a problem and made a thing that worked, whether it was a mega-passenger aircraft, a spindly skyscraper or a flood-control gate.

We now live in a world of project ghosts, where public policy (politics) has said “go,” and has said later, with the same passion, “abandon.”

Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the genius founder of the Lockheed secret division of engineers, dubbed Skunk Works, in Burbank, Calif., told me before he died in 1990 that some of the starts-and-stops and abrupt cancellations of military projects made him sick. The Skunk Works, which brought us such legends as the U-2 and the SR-71, to name a few, was also instructed by the government to eradicate any trace of other projects that were far along. “Not only were they canceled, but they had to be expunged,” he told me.

Nuclear has been especially hard hit by government policy perfidy. In today’s shame roster, Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository and the pride of thousands of engineers, was abandoned by the incoming Obama administration in a deal with Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada and Senate majority leader. Good-bye to $15 billion in taxpayer money; good-bye to a nuclear waste option; and goodbye to all that intricate engineering inside a mountain.

Now the administration is taking its policy sledgehammer to another engineering project: one it supported until it didn’t support it anymore. It is trying to end the program to build a plant to blend surplus weapons-grade plutonium with uranium and burn it up in reactors as uranium oxide, or MOX, as it is known.

The contractor – a consortium of Chicago Bridge & Iron Company and Areva, the French firm – says the plant is 67-percent complete and employs over 300 engineers, out of a total workforce of some 1,800, at the Department of Energy site near Aiken, S.C. Now this big engineering project, which is another way of dealing with nuclear waste, is in the government’s sights.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is This commentary was distributed by the Inside Sources news service.

Energy Daily Monday, April 3, by Jeff Beattie: Senate nuke waste hearing scotched after kerfuffle over NEI policy paper

The day after a surprise dustup between nuclear industry officials and three senators sponsoring nuclear waste legislation, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski Friday announced the cancellation of Tuesday’s planned hearing to discuss proposed nuclear waste legislation.

A spokesman for Murkowski cited a compressed workload and three days of lengthy deliberations last week on comprehensive energy legislation as a factor in the cancellation of the hearing, and he suggested it would be rescheduled.

However, the cancellation came one day after what sources describe as a dispute between the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and three sponsors of the bill (S.854) that was to be discussed Tuesday, including Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Sources say Murkowski, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) were taken aback by “principles” for new nuclear waste legislation recently circulated by NEI, which would bar developing a central nuclear waste storage facility until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided whether to license the permanent Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

That clashes with S.854—also sponsored by Sen Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)—which aims to speed development of a centralized interim storage site for the nation’s nuclear waste. While the bill would allow simultaneous development of the storage and Yucca facilities, NEI’s plan could severely delay storage facilities by first requiring a licensing decision on the controversial Yucca project.

Sources say Murkowski and Alexander met Thursday with NEI President and Chief Executive Officer Marvin Fertel to discuss their unhappiness with NEI’s paper linking startup of a storage project with a Yucca license decision.

While declining to link the disagreement to Tuesday’s hearing cancellation, the Murkowski spokesman said the chairman was “disappointed in the change in policy and let NEI know that that she remains commit ted to moving to consolidated storage on a parallel track with permanent storage.”

While NEI has always supported Yucca, it appears to be taking a more aggressive stance in favor of the project because of the coming 2016 departure of Democratic Leader Harry Red (Nev.) and President Barack Obama, who both have tried to kill Yucca.

Copyright Energy Daily

Reprinted with Permission

RON WARNECKE: DOE’s Integrated Waste Treatment Unit — A Robust Facility Using Proven Technology

By Ron Warnecke


The Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) is set to begin processing the remaining radioactive liquid waste from our nation’s defense programs stored at the Department of Energy’s Idaho site. The treatment of this waste is a critical step in completing the remediation of the site’s liquid waste systems.  As this important milestone approaches, it is important to understand the complexities of the IWTU project and the deliberate and measured approach the DOE is taking to assure the facility operates safely and efficiently when radioactive operations begin. 


The Waste


The IWTU will treat a chemically complex highly radioactive liquid waste.  The waste is a byproduct of the reprocessing of government spent nuclear fuel that supported our nation’s defense programs. All aspects of handling this waste– its transfer from underground tanks to IWTU for treatment, to the storage of the material after processing– must be accomplished  with the utmost care to ensure the safety of workers, the public and the environment.


The Waste Treatment Process 


The Fluid Bed Steam Reforming Process (known as THOR) installed in the IWTU was developed and patented by Studsvik, a Swedish-based nuclear services company.  The THOR process has treated hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid radioactive waste from US commercial nuclear power plants over the last 15 years in a facility similar to IWTU located in Erwin, TN.  These operations confirm that the THOR process is robust, stable and safe.  The THOR process creates a dry stable waste form and through volume reduction has saved hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of land disposal space.  


Prior to IWTU construction the critical components and systems of the THOR process  to be used to treat the Idaho liquid waste were successfully demonstrated through  engineering scale testing at the Hazen Research Facilities in Golden, CO. The treatment process also underwent rigorous and extensive laboratory and scientific analysis led by Savannah River National Laboratory’s (SRNL) chemists and engineers.   A recent integrated test of the completed IWTU THOR processing system using nonradioactive simulated liquid waste again confirmed the process will meet required treatment objectives for the Idaho site. 


The Facility


The IWTU facility meets the stringent safety and environmental performance requirements for treatment of the Idaho liquid waste. The facility is robustly designed and constructed with safety performance as its highest priority.  For example, based on lessons learned by DOE at WTP and due to the possibility of seismic events at the Idaho site the rightly required the design and construction of the IWTU to include features and performance capabilities to withstand earthquakes beyond the originally planned design criteria.  Although this decision increased design and construction time, their thoughtful planning resulted in a radioactive waste treatment facility that is highly protective of the worker, the public and the environment. 


The IWTU is also designed and constructed to perform functions beyond the treatment of liquid waste. The facility has three hot cells. Two are outfitted for the liquid waste mission. The third is has a versatile, flexible design that can be used to support other site missions. In addition, the facility is designed and constructed to serve as the shipping facility for the removal of the treated waste to a permanent repository. It can also be modified to treat and package the existing stored calcine material that is required to be removed from the site and permanently dispositioned.   In short, the IWTU is a versatile facility designed and outfitted to support the final activities associated with the Idaho site’s cleanup mission. 


With any major project involving nuclear waste treatment some items come to light during commissioning that must be resolved prior to the start of treatment of actual radioactive waste.  Most of the remaining startup activities are focused on process equipment and instrumentation calibration, grooming and alignment. In addition, processing parameters are being adjusted and plant operators are continuing their training based on the lessons learned from the last plant integrated test.  The work being performed is being carried out in a careful, diligent and safe manner. DOE’s directives are clear… “Let’s get it correct now before the plant becomes radioactive”. When the facility is ready it will undergo another nonradioactive test to assure changes and revisions perform as expected.  


I applaud DOE in designing and building a radioactive waste treatment facility that meets evolving and stringent safety, performance and environmental best practices. The IWTU is a safe, robust and versatile facility that will complete its liquid waste mission and provide the DOE with flexible alternatives for the disposition of other difficult wastes at the Idaho site. I for one am pleased the DOE is taking its time and getting this right! 


Ron Warnecke is a long time resident and businessman of Idaho Falls, Idaho. He has worked in the government and commercial nuclear industry for 30 years. Ron has worked at several of DOE’s sites in management positions. Ron is intimately familiar with the THOR fluid bed steam reforming technology and its applications for treating complex radioactive waste materials in a more environmentally responsible manner. He was a significant contributor to engineering and design efforts for a similar THOR system for treating problematic waste at Savannah River site. He continues to work in the nuclear industry supporting processes, systems and initiatives for cleaning up difficult radioactive waste material left form cold war defense programs.

Llewellyn King: Keystone XL, Yucca and Obama — Who Is Calling The Shots?

The Environmental Voices in Obama’s Ear

By Llewellyn King

In the South they ask, “Who’s your daddy?” In the North, “Where did you go to college?” 

In Washington we ask this very real question, “Who’s advising him?” Washington believes in advisers, who are often the authors of big decisions made by others.

When George W. Bush was running for president the first time, I raised the question about his lack of knowledge in foreign policy. One of his staunch supporters countered, “He’ll have good advisers.” 

Advisers come in all shapes and sizes in politics. A trusted aide may shape a senator’s understanding of an issue, and set the legislator on a path that later might be regretted but cannot be reversed. “Flip-flop” is a deadly accusation in public life.

When President Obama makes a decision, one wonders on whose advice? Who started the locomotive rolling down the track? 

This week, one wonders who led Obama to endlessly delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which should have been a rather mundane issue until he was backed into vetoing a congressional effort to move the project forward?

There are 2.5 million miles of pipe buried in the ground in the U.S.,190,000 of which carry crude oil. The Keystone XL pipline would have carried crude for 1,179 miles. It should have been a no-brainer for the State Department, which has jurisdiction because a foreign country, Canada, is involved. It is not hard to make a pipeline safe, and this one would be engineered as no other has. 

But a core of dedicated environmentalists saw it as a wedge. Their target was not then and never has been the pipeline, but rather the Alberta oil sands project, where much of the oil would originate. By cutting off deliveries of the oil to the U.S. market, they hoped to wound the project and eventually close it down.

I am no fan of the oil sands – which used to be called “tar sands” – project. I think it is abusive of the earth. It involves massive surface mining and has so scarred the region that the great pit can be seen from space. It is also a contributor to air pollution because the sands have to be retorted with natural gas. 

It is not a pretty business wringing the oil from the sands. However, not building the pipeline will not close down the oil sands project as environmentalists have hoped. Only low prices can do that. 

The Canadians are angry. They feel betrayed by the White House and stigmatized by outside forces like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been a relentless antagonist of the pipeline and the oil sands project.

The question is who persuaded Obama? In November 2011, Canada's minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, told me at an energy meeting in Houston that he had been told privately that the pipeline deal was done, and he was expecting Obama to sign off on a State Department decision in weeks.

But it did not happen. One or more people in the White House – Obama takes advice from a small circle of advisers in the White House rather than his cabinet secretaries — was able to sow doubt in the president’s mind about the pipeline.

The results: More oil moves by rail car which is resulting in accidents in Canada and the United States. An ally is offended, and there is bad blood that will affect other trade issues. Thousands of construction jobs in the Midwest are lost. Obama looks bad: the captive of a very small part of the constituency that elected him. 

There is an echo here of the folly of the president in abandoning the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. On the surface, Obama bowed to the wishes of Harry Reid, then Senate majority leader. It has been accepted by the nuclear industry as a cold, hard political gift to a vital ally. 

But as time has gone on, the nuclear spent fuel has piled up at the nation's power plants, as the cost of the abandonment has risen – it stands at $18 billion. One has to wonder whether one of Obama’s advisers, with an agenda of his or her own, did not whisper to the president, “Harry Reid is right.”

There are no winners on the pipeline issue, just as there were no winners on Yucca Mountain, except those who are celebrating in places like NRDC. On sparkling, organically grown apple juice, perchance?

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is

Llewellyn King: Those Were The Days – The Life and Times of Former AEC Commissioner Wm. Doub

By Llewellyn King

William O. Doub, former Maryland Public Service commissioner, member of the Atomic Energy Commission, international lawyer and enthusiastic booster of the U.S. Energy Association, has died at the age of 83.

Bill was my cherished friend for more than 40 years, and one of the kindest men I have ever known. I have always thought of him as a man who woke up in the morning thinking,“What can I do for my friends today?”

He rendered me, through all the years of our friendship, little and big kindnesses in every way – from seeing that I was included in “Who’s Who” to assisting me in establishing the publication, The Energy Daily.

As a public servant, Doub was a tough but nonpartisan utilities regulator. When he became chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), he shook up the old-boy world of Maryland regulation. I sat through hearing after hearing when he bore down equally hard on the companies under his jurisdiction and the public interest groups.

Initially, there was consternation in Maryland utility circles. Here was Doub, by birth a Maryland aristocrat and a former Republican candidate for state attorney general, dealing magisterially in public with issues that, in the prevailing culture, were settled between “gentlemen” over drinks in a club.

Gradually, the public and interest groups came to respect and revere their new chairman as a man who put the public good first.

As a commissioner of the then-mighty Atomic Energy Commission, Doub sought to find answers. The opposition to nuclear power was just emerging, and one of its most vociferous leaders was Ralph Nader. In those days, Nader was a god-like figure to many. Doub took it upon himself to reason with Nader. As I recall, he held a series of 5 a.m. meetings with Nader — a time decided by Nader. They did not reach a meeting of the minds, but Doub had the small satisfaction of having tried. It was his way: Try reason. All it takes is time and effort.

Spiro Agnew propelled Doub into public life. Doub, a lifelong Republican (as one might say of the old school), ran for Maryland attorney general on the same ticket that Agnew (whose middle name was Theodore and, in those days, liked to be called “Ted”) ran for governor.

Agnew won an unlikely victory in predominately Democratic Maryland because of the racist stands of his Democratic opponent. Doub lost and Agnew appointed him to the PSC.

Later, when Agnew became Richard Nixon’s vice president, Doub joined the Atomic Energy Commission – then the promoter and regulator of nuclear power. He brought in his friend, Manning Muntzing, to run the regulatory side of the agency.

When the AEC was dissolved, Doub and Muntzing formed a boutique energy law firm with clients in Japan and pre-revolutionary Iran. Their firm merged later with a larger firm, Newman, Reis & Axelrad. In time, that firm split up and the regulatory lawyers moved to Morgan Lewis & Bockius.

Doub was not happy with big, Washington law firm culture with its emphasis on billable hours. He was a man of friends; his clients were friends first and clients second.

Bill found an outlet in volunteer work. He played a critical role in improving the fortunes of the U.S. Energy Association — a unique organization that supports all energy sectors, but does not lobby.

Bill enjoyed a party. I was lucky enough over the years to party with him in Geneva, London, Madrid, Vienna, and all over the United States. The energy industries have a penchant for holding their meetings at the best resorts. We went willingly.

We got a great deal of laughter out of each other's company. Bill’s wife, Mary Graham, and my wife, Linda Gasparello, joined in the frolics. We laughed, we drank and we made up elaborate stories about one another and our ancestors. Although the Doub family was French originally, we thought an Irish surname, O’Doub, suited Bill’s buoyant temperament.

I met Bill when I was working for McGraw-Hill and The Washington Post. I arranged to interview him somewhere, and described myself as balding and fat. “We should find each other,” he averred. “That’s a description of me.” It took no more to launch a long relationship. Later, he was proud of controlling his weight.

When I founded what became The Energy Daily early in 1973, Bill telephoned me from the AEC to find out how he could help. I said it would help if the agency bought a handful of subscriptions. He went to work with the brilliant controller John Abbadessa; they delivered not a handful of subscriptions, but 140, and a whopping check of $35,000 – a veritable fortune in 1973.

Bill was one of the men-of-the-hour in the energy crisis that unfolded at the end of 1973. For those of us involved, the crisis delivered something that few enjoy: the sense of working on something really important, of being of real value.

In later years, Bill and I rued the way the energy industries had changed: how money and politics had come to dominate in an age of overpaid, under-talented executives; how the national interest had become subjugated to the personal one.

That was not Doub. He withdrew and spent his days worrying about his friends from his family farm in Keedysville, Md., and his house in Naples, Fla.

When idealism becomes subservient to money, there is no place for nobility. Bill was noble in public service, in the practice of law and, above all, in friendship. I owed him when he was alive, and I will always owe him.

In the end, the kindness is what we remember of people, of lives. William O. Doub’s kindness was monumental. He will be remembered.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is

Llewellyn King: The Uber Effect on Electricity

By Llewellyn King

Leon Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The same thing might be said about disruptive technologies.

The U.S. electric system, for example, may not be interested in disruptive technology, but disruptive technology is interested in it. What Uber and Lyft have done to the taxi industry worldwide is just beginning to happen to the electricity industry; and it could shock consumers – particularly the less affluent – as surely as though they had stuck their finger in an electrical outlet.

The disruptive revolution is not only happening here, but also in Europe, as Marc Boillot, senior vice president at Electricite de France (EDF), the giant French utility, writes in a new book.

Ironically in the United States, disruption of the otherwise peaceful world of electric generation and sale last year was a bumper one for electric stocks because of their tradition of paying dividends at a time when bond yields were low.

The first wave of disruption to electric generation has been a technology as benign as solar power units on rooftops, much favored by governments and environmentalists as a green source of electricity. For the utilities, these rooftop generators are a threat to the integrity of the electrical grid. To counter this, utilities would like to see the self-generators pay more for the upkeep of the grid and the convenience it affords them.

Think of the grid as a series of spider webs built around utility companies serving particular population centers, and joined to each other so they can share electricity, depending on need and price.

Enter the self-generating homeowner who by law is entitled to sell excess production back to the grid, or to buy on the grid when it is very cold or the sun isn't shining, as at night. The system of selling back to the electric company is known as net metering.

Good deal? Yes, for the homeowner who can afford to install a unit or lease one from one of a growing number of companies that provide that service. Lousy deal for the full-time electricity customer who rents or lives in an apartment building.

There’s the rub: Who pays the cost of maintaining the grid while the rooftop entrepreneur uses it at will? Short answer: everyone else.

In reality, the poor get socked. Take Avenue A with big houses at one end and apartments and tenements at the other. The big houses — with their solar panels and owners' morally superior smiles — are being subsidized by the apartments and tenements. They have to pay to keep the grid viable, while the free-standing house – it doesn’t have to be a mansion — gets a subsidy.

It's a thorny issue, akin to the person who can't use Uber or Lyft because he doesn’t have a credit card or a smartphone, and has to hope that traditional taxi service will survive.

The electric utilities, from the behemoths to the smallest municipal distributor, see the solution in an equity fee for the self-generating customer's right to come on and off the grid, and for an appreciable difference between his selling and buying price. Solar proponents say, not fair: Solve your own problems. We are generating clean electricity and our presence is a national asset.

EDF's Boillot sees the solution in the utilities’ own technological leap forward: the so-called smart grid. This is the computerization of the grid so that it is more finely managed, waste is eliminated, and pricing structures for homes reflect the exact cost at the time of service. His advice was eagerly sought when he was in Washington recently, promoting his book.

While today’s solar may be a problem for the utilities, tomorrow’s may be more so. Homeowners who can afford it may be able to get off the grid altogether by using the battery in an all-electric car to tide them over during the sunless hours.

The industry is not taking this lying down: It is talking to the big solar firms, the regulators and, yes, to Elon Musk, founder of electric-car maker Tesla Motors. He may be the threat and he may be the savior; those all-electric cars will need a lot of charging, and stations for that are cropping up. There’s a ray of sunshine for the utilities, but it's quite a way off. Meanwhile, the rooftop disruption is here and now.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is