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Former Arizona Regulator Among Top Candidates To Replace Powelson at FERC

Energy Daily, July 20, 2018 | By Jeff Beattie

Sources say the Trump administration is working quickly to replace outgoing GOP Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Robert Powelson, with former Arizona energy regulator Doug Little under serious consideration and other candidates including NRG Energy executive and former Energy Department general counsel David Hill, former Wisconsin energy regulator Ellen Nowak and Bruce Walker, assistant secretary of DOE’s Office of Electricity.

Another candidate that has been discussed is Travis Kavulla, past president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and vice chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission, the sources say. Powelson stunned FERC stakeholders June 28 by announcing he will leave the commission in mid-August, after just a year at the commission, to become president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies. 

At that time, Republicans will lose their 3-2 majority at FERC, evening the commission out at two Democrats and two Republicans, until Powelson’s replacement is approved by the Senate.

However, Senate Democrats may be inclined to block a vote on a GOP replacement for Powelson, and may not relent until they can pair that nominee with a Democratic appointee to FERC—the usual path for confirmation of appointees to key federal regulatory agencies in the politically riven Senate. The first opportunity to name a Democrat to FERC will come in June 2019 when Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur’s term expires.

Such a delay in getting a third Republican vote at FERC could pose problems for FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre’s efforts to advance key initiatives because LaFleur and Richard Glick, the commission’s other Democrat, have strongly dissented on several decisions pushed through by FERC’s GOP majority. 

And with the prospect of partisan deadlock clearly looming after Powelson’s departure, McIntyre now has little time left to move his agenda.

In particular, FERC is unlikely to finish a comprehensive review of its natural gas pipeline permitting policies before Powelson departs, McIntrye acknowledged to reporters following the commission’s monthly open
meeting Thursday. 

Pipeline permitting has recently split the commission on a partisan basis, with LaFleur and Glick saying FERC should begin assessing the greenhouse impacts of new pipelines in deciding whether to issue permits, a view FERC’s Republicans do not share. 

More broadly, FERC’s Democrats have raised questions about efforts by the commission’s Republican majority to speed reviews of proposed pipeline projects. While McIntrye has launched a review of FERC’s 19-year-old policy statement on how it evaluates pipeline applications, Democrats are pushing for tougher assessments of new projects, including whether FERC should continue to rely heavily on shipper contracts signed by affiliates of pipeline developers as indicators of market need.

FERC is also likely to deadlock on a controversial case involving how regional transmission organizations should accommodate state-subsidized power plants in their wholesale markets, a stubborn problem for FERC that has led to several court conflicts.

On June 29, FERC’s GOP majority proposed a two-pronged plan designed to assure that the subsidized plants do not suppress wholesale prices in PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for most of the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest. Glick and LaFleur dissented strongly on a variety of grounds.

FERC gave parties 60 days for comment on its plan for PJM, meaning that FERC is likely to be deadlocked at 2-2 on next steps in the proceeding until Powelson’s replacement arrives.

As for the possible replacement, sources say some of the people under consideration made their interest known and others’ names were forwarded to administration officials. Two industry sources said Little is under serious consideration for the FERC slot.

Little joined DOE last year as deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental and external affairs after more than three years at the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), including a year as chairman in 2016. At the
ACC and elsewhere, he was a strong supporter of fossil-fueled baseload power plants, which could give him a leg up with Trump, who has pledged to keep financially ailing coal plants and nuclear plants open.

Upon taking the job at DOE, Little told the Arizona Capital Media Services that he was joining the Trump administration to maintain “fossil baseload generation.”

One industry source pointed out that Little also has an advantage as a western-state candidate for FERC who could balance out a commission filled with eastern-state commissioners. That could please the several western state senators on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which reviews FERC nominees.

Little’s nomination also would place a former state energy regulator on the commission, a background that is common among FERC commissioners and crucial to helping FERC through tricky federal-state jurisdictional debates over energy markets.

On Wednesday, NARUC passed a resolution urging Trump to appoint a state energy regulator to FERC, noting that past administrations have frequently done so.

All in all, Little “is a Trump guy, from a western state, with a state regulatory background—that is a pretty strong resume for what would fit FERC right now,” said one source.

Hill, meanwhile, is a familiar Washington hand, having served as DOE general counsel from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush and more recently at NRG Energy, one of the nation’s biggest merchant generators. According to his LinkedIn page, Hill recently transitioned to a senior advisor role at NRG after having served as executive vice president and general counsel for more than five years.

Nowak joined the Wisconsin Public Service Commission in 2011 and was named chairman by Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2015. She has served as Wisconsin’s secretary of administration since March, and earlier this year was one of Walker’s candidates to fill a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, although she was not chosen. 

Walker might offer a relatively quick and smooth confirmation process in the Senate, having won approval by the chamber only last fall to head up DOE’s electricity office. That would be attractive to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) because it would help restore FERC’s Republican majority relatively quickly. One of FERC’s current Republicans—Neil Chatterjee—is a former McConnell aide.

Walker previously served as vice president of asset strategy and policy for National Grid–US, and director for corporate emergency management at Consolidated Edison, among other positions.

As always, the wild card for an open commission seat is whether a highly placed senator wants to promote an aide to the job. Before Chatterjee and Powelson were appointed, an aide to Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patrick McCormick, was widely seen as a likely nominee to the commission. That never happened, however.

Startup Linked To Former DOE Chief Seeking Path To Nuke Waste Disposal License

Energy Daily, June 18, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE

Two senior senators have shown initial interest in a new radioactive waste disposal plan proposed by a start-up firm backed by former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, nuclear experts and several Silicon Valley figures that says it has adapted hydraulic fracturing technologies to more efficiently carve out underground disposal facilities capable of safely confining spent reactor fuel and other dangerous waste.

Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s clean air and nuclear safety subcommittee, and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), ranking Democrat on the panel, recently asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission whether private firms can get a license to build a disposal facility to help solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem. Currently, only the Energy Department is seeking such a license.

While the senators declined to comment on the reasons for their inquiry to NRC, well-placed sources confirmed to The Energy Daily last week that they were asking on behalf of the startup, Deep Isolation, which is backed by Chu and other scientists based at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley.

Deep Isolation says it has adapted horizontal drilling techniques used in oil and gas “fracking” operations for the purpose of nuclear waste disposal. Unlike straight, mile-deep “boreholes” that DOE has contemplated as disposal paths for certain wastes, Deep Isolation plans to drill down a mile and then turn its drills horizontal for an additional mile or more, vastly increasing space available for waste emplacement.

Others backing the startup include Per Peterson, a Berkeley nuclear engineering professor and former member of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Nation’s Nuclear Future; Heritage Foundation Founder Ed Feulner; and Will Glaser, a co-founder of Pandora Radio, all of whom are serving as advisors.

Deep Isolation’s chief technologist is Richard Muller, a UC-Berkeley astrophysicist and climate scientist. The co-founder and CEO of the start-up is his daughter, Elizabeth, a former policy advisor to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a non-profit land temperature and climate science laboratory.

The company says its approach could help solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem, which has festered for decades with DOE having made little progress in building the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Congress named Yucca in 1987 as the nation’s sole repository for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related high-level radioactive waste (HLRW). But Yucca has been blocked for years by Nevada officials, who call the project unsafe.

NRC can license private companies developing facilities providing interim storage of nuclear waste or spent fuel, as distinct from disposal facilities. NRC is currently considering license applications for storage facilities in New Mexico and West Texas by two companies.

But for waste disposal, current law is silent on whether NRC can license a private entity’s disposal facility, assigning that job to DOE by saying the DOE secretary “shall” seek a license for final repository.

In a March 19 letter to NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki, Capito and Whitehouse asked if NRC was legally authorized to accept a license application for a waste disposal facility from a “private entity.” Alternatively, they asked if NRC could accept a private entity’s license if the entity was a DOE contractor.

In a June 6 response, Svinicki said the answer was “no” under both circumstances.

“Regardless of whether a private entity is a DOE contractor, the NRC may not license that entity to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste…,” she said. “The NRC is not authorized to license any entity other than…DOE to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel and [HLRW].”

However, Svinicki left open one possibility for Deep Isolation under current law: Enter an arrangement with DOE such that DOE seeks a license with Deep Isolation alongside developing the disposal facility.

“DOE may…enter into a contract with a private entity to prepare, or to support preparation of, such an application on behalf of DOE…,” Svinicki said.

Capito and Whitehouse are nuclear power backers, with Whitehouse supportive of advanced nuclear technologies to help combat climate change. However, it is not clear whether either senator was working directly on behalf of Deep Isolation or, as heads of the subcommittee with NRC oversight, asking the question on behalf of another lawmaker.

But in an interview Friday with The Energy Daily, Elizabeth Muller said “we are grateful for the clarification” from NRC as to private entities and NRC licensing, and said the company is considering all options.

“Two years ago we were told that a private company could not do disposal of nuclear waste in any case…,” she said. “It’s certainly not going to be easy, but there is some interest; it might be [possible] through regulatory clarification…[or] through legislation and we are grateful for these conversations at all levels.”

In a video on Deep Isolation’s website, Chu said of the company’s plan: “What they are proposing is very intriguing and it sounds like it really could be practical.”

In the interview Friday, Richard Muller said the company envisions drill-holes at least eight inches in diameter, wide enough to accommodate a single spent fuel assembly from a boiling water or a pressurized water reactor, one at a time. Deep Isolation has developed a proprietary, non-corrosive canister for the fuel assemblies, which it is seeking to patent, he said.

According to the company’s web site, Deep Isolation envisions one of its 2-mile-long drill-holes holding eight years of waste produced by a boiling water or 33 years of waste produced by a pressurized water reactor.

The use of boreholes for nuclear waste storage is not a new idea, and has been studied in the United States, Sweden and Russia. One problem is that waste, once emplaced, was seen as irretrievable, a problem if a policy decision was made to recycle spent fuel.

But Richard Muller says Deep Isolation’s system can retrieve waste using methods patterned after those commonly used in fracking operations when drillers pull out damaged equipment or sensors.

Importantly, Deep Isolation’s system has another commonality with oil and gas fracking—the shale rock formations that fracking operations are designed to split apart, releasing oil and gas.

Muller says Deep Isolation intends to drill into shale formations and to store nuclear waste within or below the formations, leveraging drillers’ knowledge about drilling in shale. And Muller says shale rock’s effectiveness in trapping oil and gas reserves over long periods of time should help Deep Isolation make the case that shale can also safely entomb nuclear waste.

A clear obstacle that Deep Isolation might face is community opposition. Under President Obama, DOE attempted a “deep borehole” program that, if successful, would have provided a vertical disposal pathway for small volumes of HLRW. However, initial DOE efforts to site a test borehole for simulated waste were spurned by communities in three states and the project was cancelled in May 2017

However, Elizabeth Muller said Deep Isolation’s approach and technology are entirely different.

She says the company plans to present the “option” of a drill-hole to communities that already host nuclear waste or spent fuel.

“We are a looking at taking the waste that has already been generated and securing it near its current location,” Muller said. “We are getting it out of the community—we are putting under a mile of rock,” she said.

“That is a somewhat easier ‘ask’ than for a community to provide [disposal] for waste that has been generated somewhere else,” she said.

Muller said the company has developed a siting team that is refining the company’s approach. Among those working with Deep Isolation appear to be some associated with DOE’s recently cancelled “consent-based” program seeking volunteer communities to host waste storage, as well as the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Nation’s Nuclear Future

Muller said Deep Isolation has raised about $4 million and is seeking additional investors.

Energy Daily: Southern Co. Seeking To Use China Test Data For New Nukes

March 21, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE

Southern Co. plans to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for waivers of license requirements in order to skip certain operational tests of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors it is building in Georgia and to substitute tests completed or underway on AP1000 units in China, a move that would save money and time for a project that is delayed and over budget, according to documents filed with the NRC.

Southern Nuclear Operating Co. notified NRC of its plans to seek the license amendments in a January 31 letter and discussed its plans with commission staff in more detail during a March 8 public meeting on the two AP1000 reactors under construction at its Alvin Vogtle nuclear plant.

In a written presentation for the meeting, Southern did not explicitly say why it was seeking to rely on Chinese testing, but suggested it met the spirit of NRC requirements for tests that are required only for the first projects to build new types of reactors, or in some cases for the first three such projects.

Those tests are designed “to further establish a unique phenomenological performance parameter of the AP1000 design features…that will not change from plant to plant, [and] are performed for the first plant only,” says Southern’s presentation. “Because of the standardization of the AP1000 design, these special tests (designated as first plant only tests) are not required on follow plants.”

Under Southern’s current NRC license to build and operate the new Vogtle Units 3 and 4, the testing is supposed to take place at the new plants. But under the new proposal, Southern would use testing already conducted or underway on AP1000 reactors under construction by Chinese utilities in Haiyang, Shandong province; and/or at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China’s Zhejiang province. China’s State Nuclear Power Technology says it expects both Sanmen Units 1 and 2 to come on-line this year, and that Sanmen Unit 2 recently successfully completed pre-operational testing.

In its March 8 presentation, Southern identified the “pre-operational” tests for which it hopes to sub in Chinese results, and said it will later identify the operational tests for which it hopes to do so.

The pre-operational tests for which Southern will seek license amendments are a refueling water storage tank heatup test; reactor vessel internal vibration testing; “core makeup tank test heated recirculation tests”; and an automatic depressurization system blowdown test.

“[Southern Nuclear] would like to credit testing completed on the China AP1000 units,” the company said.

Asked why Southern was seeking the license amendment, a spokesman for Southern’s utility subsidiary Georgia Power said: “Everything we do regarding the construction of Vogtle 3 and 4 is to ensure that the units are completed safely and correctly, and license amendment requests are a regular part of the construction process. License amendment requests are submitted to the NRC based on construction needs and timeline.” Georgia Power co-owns two reactors at Vogtle and the two under construction.

“Southern Nuclear plans to submit a license amendment request with the NRC in the coming months to provide the technical basis for utilizing tests on the AP1000 units in China in order to reduce risks and gain efficiencies for the Vogtle 3 and 4 units without impacting public safety,” the spokesman said.

Southern’s presentation makes no mention of how its proposal might affect the budget and schedule of its new reactors project.

However, it comes at a time when the company and its partners are under heavy pressure keep a lid on costs and to stay on schedule. The project is already several billion dollars over-budget and years behind its initial schedule, and nearly collapsed following the March bankruptcy of Westinghouse, previously the project’s primary construction contractor. Westinghouse bowed out of the Georgia project and a similar new reactor effort in South Carolina after incurring several billions of dollars in losses on those efforts.

Owners of the South Carolina project scuttled it last July. Southern and its public power partners—Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power and the city of Dalton, Ga.—decided in August to continue. In December, Southern won permission from the Georgia Public Service Commission to do so, but the commission also clamped down on Georgia Power’s ability to earn from the project, which is now expected to cost roughly $25 billion.

Beginning in January 2020, Southern will earn a return on equity (ROE) of 8.3 percent on the project, down from 10 percent currently. A year later, the utility’s ROE will drop to 6 percent.

David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project, suggested Southern’s plan to use the Chinese testing data would pose difficulties for NRC.

“I’d not want to be in the NRC reviewers’ shoes,” he said.

“If the plants were built on an assembly line, spot checking a reactor would shed insight on the quality of the other reactors rolling off the same assembly line,” said Lochbaum, a frequent critic of NRC and the nuclear industry. “But spot checking one reactor from an assembly line on a different continent built by a different owner and overseen by a different regulator might or might not shed light on the performance of the reactor off a different assembly line in a different country.”

To demonstrate that the Chinese tests results are appropriate for its project, Southern said its formal license amendment request will show the “adequacy” of China’s quality assurance program governing first-of-a-kind testing; the “acceptability of [China’s first of-a-kind test] results; and the “applicability of [China’s first of-a-kind test] results to Vogtle 3 & 4.”

Southern said it will break its license amendment request into two phases—covering pre-operational and then operational tests. The company said that strategy would enable it to submit the first request while certain “Chinese first-of-a-kind tests are being completed and/or vetted.”

Southern’s presentation suggests it has done significant work on its upcoming license amendment request, including completing its assessment of the quality assurance program for the Chinese testing programs and assessing China’s “test execution for pre-operation tests” at the Sanmen project.

The Sanmen and Haiyang projects are part of an aggressive nuclear power expansion in China, which is trying to match exploding demand for electricity with zero-emission nuclear rather than high carbon-emitting sources like coal. On March 7, China’s National Energy Administration said it expects five new reactors to come on-line this year, while construction begins on six to eight new ones.

LLEWELLYN KING: Why Doesn’t Elon Musk Thrill Us Like Tech Frontiersmen of Old?

By Llewellyn King

I present to you the strange case of Elon Musk. Whatever he does, his detractors, or at least his minimizers, seem to control the narrative.

When his Falcon Heavy rocket — the largest and most sophisticated flying today — blasted into space on Feb. 6, there should've been a national outpouring of unabated joy.

Yet it only briefly edged out the news coverage of the GOP memo, emanating from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and its Democratic counter-memo. The greatest show on earth had it all: a rocket you could watch ascending, shedding its reusable stages and flying away, whimsically, with a sports car for a payload. 

It was a showcase of American technology and know-how. It was a clear statement that the individual can still triumph in the United States.

President Trump acknowledged the achievement, which was probably hard for him because he and Musk don't see eye to eye on global warming or much else. Musk’s visions are wildly futuristic, like populating Mars, while Trump is a man firmly rooted in the glories of the United States as an industrial power tethered to past strengths. Also, awkwardly, Musk is an immigrant who might've been kept out under Trump's policies.

But the general indifference and in some circles antipathy to Musk, goes far beyond politics. We embraced Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as tech heroes, the faces of the future. Musk less so or not at all; maybe because we've narrowed our view of what is exciting tech to the internet and its collaterals.

Although he made his first $500 selling a game program when he was 12, and his first billion as a founder of PayPal, Musk’s real claim to fame is as an engineer and physicist. His Tesla electric car may not survive as the industry leader, but today it is out front.

His rocket may not be the future of heavy-lift space vehicles, but it is the leader today: cheaper and with reusable stages. His SolarCity is not alone in seeking convert idle roofs to electricity sources, but it is a big player. And Musk’s batteries, though disappointing at the outset, may yet make grid-free houses a reality.

Yet Musk’s detractors are legion and effective. I know quite a few and they range from an electric company chairman (who accused him of lying and denounced him to me in the most vociferous tones), to financial seers (who question the viability of any of his companies), to conservatives (who believe that he's misused government funds, and his “private” company owes everything to government support). The transportation industry, almost to a man, believes Musk’s plan for an underground, people-mover vacuum tube is nuts.

I, too, have been in the ranks of the detractors, at least in part. I sought to have him correct a whopper about nuclear versus solar power. He had his sums wrong by a factor of hundreds.

Yet you have to love Musk for thinking on a scale that hasn't been seen for over half a century. He is a throwback to the great builder-engineers of the past: men who built the bridges, canals, dams and railroads, and electrified the United States.

As a nation, we used to be devoted to the big, the bold and the futuristic. Now, we've developed sophisticated ways of defeating big projects. 

After the 1960s we lost our passion for the big idea and the big machine, from nuclear power plants to big civil engineering. The late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) lamented this lack of courage to go big on a project. Westway – the highway for New York City's West Side — was defeated partly to protect the striped bass in New York Harbor. Moynihan said, “There is a kind of stasis that is beginning to settle into our public life. We cannot reach decision.”

I don't wish to live on Mars, I don't want to be whisked in a tube from Washington to New York. I'm even undecided whether I want to ride in space — but try me.

I don't know whether Musk will go broke, whether he'll overreach or whether he'll give the whole world a new frontier. But until (and if) a better dreamer comes along, I'm glad we have him reaching for the planets.

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

Lake Barrett: 20 Years Late but DOE Needs to Jumpstart Yucca Mountain and Consolidated Storage

By Lake Barrett | January 31, 2018

Twenty years ago today, as the Acting Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), I had to publicly admit that the Federal Government, specifically the DOE, could not meet its lawful contractual obligation to start to remove spent nuclear fuel from America’s nuclear reactors on January 31, 1998.   Although ten billion plus dollars has been spent on science to demonstrate the safety of a proposed national repository at Yucca Mountain, petty election politicking is continuing to stop all progress on this critical environmental program.

So, today marks the 20th anniversary of the Department's failure to meet its contractual obligation to start removing spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.  This has come at great cost as Federal taxpayer liabilities are approaching $30 billion. Moreover, approximately 86,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and defense waste remains stranded at over 121 sites in 39 states albeit safely on our rivers, lakes and seashores that are within 50 miles of over 150 million people.

No current removal schedule exists because no funding has been provided by Congress since 2010, although the U.S. House of Representatives has consistently advanced appropriations to fund the program.  Meanwhile, the Nation’s taxpayers have had to wastefully pay billions of dollars in damage payments for temporary reactor site storage when the waste should have been removed and placed in a safe underground Yucca Mountain geologic repository for permanent disposal. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission after reviewing the Yucca Mountain License Application has issued five Safety Evaluation Reports deeming Yucca Mountain safe for waste disposal for a million years.  The next step in the process is to allow for challenges to their report in a public hearing phase before the NRC.  This public review process must continue.

This situation becomes worse as more of the U.S.’s older reactors shutdown leaving our grandchildren with an even greater problem to deal with.  Many leaders, like House Energy & Commerce Environmental Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, who has championed a bipartisan Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) amendments, President Trump, who has requested $120 million to restart the program and Energy Secretary Rick Perry either do or say the right things, but there is not enough political will, notably in the U.S. Senate, to overcome the constant Congressional political “wait until after the next election” drama.

Short of Congressional appropriations, Secretary Perry has executive action options to jumpstart OCRWM, which is statutorily prescribed under the NWPA.  His options include naming an acting director; nominating a director for Senate confirmation; and using an estimated $10 million in carryover funding to make preparations to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process (as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is doing).   This action would send a clear signal that DOE is serious about discharging its legal and statutory obligations after eight years of study, review, delay and distraction during the Obama Administration.

The Nation has been fortunate nothing significant, other than the waste of billions of dollars, has happened with the left behind spent nuclear fuel for the past twenty years.  Who knows what the price of inaction will be for the next 20 years if this vicious cycle is not broken?  If I had known that the Federal system would politically fail so badly over the last 20 years, I would have chosen a different path back in 1998.  It is way past time for our current leaders to move forward.  We can’t afford not to.


Lake Barrett was the Acting Director of the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste from 1993 to 2002.

Jeff Beattie, Energy Daily: Senate GOP leaders seen slowing Yucca project to save Heller–and majority

January 16, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE | Energy Daily

Despite solid support from President Trump and Republican legislative leaders, the long-delayed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project appears to have hit a wall in the Senate due to increasing concerns among Republican leaders about helping embattled Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller win re-election so they can keep their narrowing majority, some industry sources say.

The sources say the recent loss of a GOP-held seat in Alabama to Democrat Doug Jones significantly increased the anxiety of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) by reducing Republicans’ majority in the Senate to a scant 51-49 margin. They say McConnell now appears likely to give Heller free rein to bash the Yucca project in order to score political points in Nevada, where the proposed repository is unpopular.

The Senate’s failure to move on the Energy Department nuclear waste disposal project—which is already decades behind schedule—has exasperated Yucca supporters in the House, where legislation to rejuvenate the repository was approved in committee in the spring, only to then languish despite Trump administration calls to advance the effort.

Industry sources grumble that McConnell’s political worries about Heller’s seat appear likely to keep the Yucca project on ice for the remainder of 2018—notwithstanding Republican’s previous criticism that President Obama illegally obstructed development of the repository to meet the political desires of former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), a fierce Yucca opponent.

Perhaps the clearest sign of McConnell’s concern about Heller came in July when Senate leaders who have long supported the Yucca project provided no funding for it in a fiscal year 2018 spending bill, a surprise move for which Heller promptly claimed credit.

“I am the only person standing between Yucca Mountain happening and not happening,” Heller told Nevada reporters in October.

Republicans’ efforts to boost Heller have become even more noticeable in recent months. The Nevada senator has been prominently positioned next to McConnell or President Trump at high-profile events, including last month’s signing of GOP tax reform legislation, in what looks like an effort to generate footage for campaign usage.

Despite that, Heller trails Danny Tarkanian, who is backed by Steve Bannon, in polls on the Republican primary contest in Nevada. A late October poll had Tarkanian, a five-time loser in previous statewide Nevada elections, leading Heller by six points.

“McConnell seems to be bending over backwards for Heller, but Heller keeps falling farther and farther behind in his bid for re-election,” said one industry source who wants to see progress on Yucca. “At some point you would think McConnell would want Heller to show some indication that there is actually some way for him to win.”

McConnell’s office did not respond to requests for comment on allegations that he was blocking Yucca to help Heller.

A spokeswoman for Heller also did not respond to those assertions and instead forwarded a Heller statement contending the Yucca project was unsafe for Nevada residents.

“Nevada continues to reject Yucca Mountain not only because of the threat it poses to the people of southern Nevada and those living along the proposed transportation routes, but it also threatens the tourism industry that is the backbone of our economy,” Heller said.

“A state without a single nuclear power plant should not have to shoulder the entire nation’s nuclear waste burden,” he continued. “Instead of pursuing a failed project that has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars, the administration should pursue the only sustainable path forward: a consent-based siting approach”—meaning the Obama administration’s plan to find a state to volunteer to host the repository for money and economic benefits.

Industry sources complain that the GOP campaign to save Heller is irresponsible because Yucca Mountain was formally designated by Congress as the nation’s only repository project for spent commercial reactor fuel and high-level radioactive waste from past nuclear weapons production.

One source also suggests Senate leaders are wrong to block $120 million in funds proposed by the Trump administration for Yucca because continued delays in the project will expose the federal government to more damage claims from nuclear utilities. Utilities already have extracted tens of millions of dollars in damage payments from DOE over its failure to fulfill contractual obligations to take their spent nuclear fuel for disposal.

“The GOP Senate seems intent on blocking $120 million to solve the nuclear waste problem, but are okay with spending $720 million per year in liability for not solving it,” said the source.

Pro-Yucca lawmakers and industry officials are even more frustrated because 2017 was supposed to mark the end of delay for Yucca due to the retirement of Reid and Obama.

Reid spent his 30-year Senate career blocking progress on the repository, which he contended was unsafe and unfairly foisted on Nevadans by the federal government. Over his last eight years in office, Reid convinced Obama to halt work on the project.

But by early 2017 both were gone, and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee, began moving legislation (H.R. 3053) designed to fix the major problems facing the project, including dealing with land access and funding.

Energy Daily

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.