By Nuclear Townhall Staff
Just 24 hours after the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board's (ASLB) rejection yesterday of the U.S. Department of Energy's motion to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application, the NRC Commission has issued an order inviting all parties to the proceeding to file briefs with the Commission as to whether the Commission should review, reverse or uphold the ASLB decision. The initial briefs are due July 9 followed by a response briefs due date of July 16.
Archive for June, 2010
By Nuclear Townhall Staff
By Yucca Johnny
Yesterday's decision by the NRC's Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) is obviously a much welcomed development in pro-Yucca constituencies. However, it will clearly put the NRC Commission on the hot seat.
The ASLB's 47-page decision meticulously dismantles any case for withdrawing the Yucca license. The Commission, which will in all likelihood get the case — on appeal or via its own motion — will have to decide whether to uphold and thereby preserve the NRC's credibility or go down the path of least resistance and let politics dictate its decision.
Any consideration of the ASLB decision will also raise questions about individual Commissioners and their objectivity. One need only recall the recently appointed Commissioners' confirmation hearing this winter. When asked point blank by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) whether they would "second guess" the DOE's decision to withdraw the Yucca license application, the three nominees responded individually in robotic, rehearsed lockstep that they would not.
While the freshmen Commissioners will no doubt be reminded of this pledge, they certainly didn't commit to not second guessing the ASLB. The conflict crosshairs will also be on NRC Chairman Jaczko, who had to recuse himself on all matters related to Yucca Mountain during his first year as Commissioner. All eyes will be on Jaczko — a former Reid staffer — as to whether he'll try to help out his old boss by pushing to reverse the unanimous ASLB decision, something which has reportedly never been done in NRC history.
Regardless of the full Commission ruling, its decision will be challenged and end up in the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, which is presently scheduled to hear oral arguments in late September on a round of consolidated petitions against DOE's termination of the Yucca Mountain project.
By Steve Hedges
Yesterday's decision by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board was a stunning defeat for the Obama Administration’s unilateral effort to terminate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage program.
The ruling was not just a stark reversal of the attempt by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and President Obama to shut Yucca down. It also called into question their methods and the power of the executive branch, noting that their actions have been driven by political will and are contrary to the stated wishes of Congress.
Specifically, the board ruled that the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, “does not give the Secretary the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress.”
Instead, the board advised that the project, “merits decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the construction permit."
That sharp language — and the ruling in its entirety — marks a significant victory for both the rule of law and science. It also represents a turning point in the efforts to keep the Yucca program alive.
While the licensing board’s ruling doesn’t ensure that the Yucca Mountain project will be revived – the administration and Reid have already said that they will continue to oppose it before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – it raises a raft of intriguing political and legal questions.
First, it is now up to the NRC – not the administration, Reid or Chu – to decide if Yucca will proceed. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid aide, has already said that nuclear waste can be safely stored where it is right now, on site at nuclear power stations. But many states don't want that, and Congress, in passing the NWPA, has already promised states a national waste repository.
For the five NRC commissioners, there are some other snags.
The licensing board, for instance, noted that the Department of Energy has conceded that "the Secretary's judgment here is not that Yucca Mountain is unsafe or that there are flaws in the application, but rather that it is not a workable option and that alternatives will better serve the public interest".
In other words, DOE is allowing that Chu's view on Yucca is subjective — or even political — and not scientific.
In addition, DOE acknowledged that it cannot withdraw the Yucca construction application if that would be contrary to the statutes passed by Congress.
Those admissions seem to give DOE little to stand on if it hopes to kill Yucca on scientific merit. The NRC will also have to consider that more than $10 billion has been spent on Yucca so far, and that lawsuits from utilities and states that expected a national waste repository by 1998 are piling up. Indeed, the federal government has already paid more than $500 million in legal settlements, by some estimates.
The licensing board’s Yucca ruling also puts Chu in a difficult spot. Chu once expected Yucca to proceed, but has sided with the Obama administration policy to shut Yucca down as a political favor to Reid.
That politics are at the heart of the Yucca controversy is a given. Reid, in a tough re-election battle this year, has already proclaimed that, “Yucca Mountain is dead, it will never happen.” He argues that having a waste facility so close to a top tourist destination like Las Vegas – it’s 90 miles away – is a threat to tourism.
The board’s decision Tuesday, however, inflicts some political damage to Reid’s re-election bid. His opponent, Republican Sharron Angle, has more wiggle room on Yucca — and Reid is already being publicly second guessed by state officials.
In fact, the ASLB decision may reinvigorate Congressional support for Yucca Mountain at a critical time, when funding for the next fiscal year is under discussion. House appropriators have already mentioned renewed funding for the project.
In addition, Tuesday’s ruling bolsters the claims of states and utilities that have filed suit in federal court to keep Yucca alive.
Finally, the ruling brings into question the work of the administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, co-chaired by former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and former National Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft. The commission is tasked with finding Yucca alternatives.
The final decision on DOE’s bid to cancel Yucca now rests with the NRC. The panel will have to soon make a decision in a manner that either preserves its scientific credibility or allows politics to leach into its deliberations.
DEVELOPING: HOUSE BEGINS TO MOVE SUPPLEMENTAL APPROPRIATIONS BILL WITH $9 BILLION IN LOAN GUARANTEESWednesday, June 30th, 2010
House leadership readies FY2010 Supplemental Appropriations bill for House floor action before leaving for July 4th recess.
The latest draft of the supplemental spending bill House Democrats plan to bring to the floor this week scales back funding for veterans exposed to Agent Orange to $10 billion from $13.4 billion, and aid to school districts to prevent teacher layoffs to $10 billion from $23 billion.
According to a summary of the bill circulated Tuesday by the House Majority Whip's Office, all funding above levels in the Senate-passed version will be offset over 10 years.
House Majority Leader Hoyer said Tuesday that he expects to bring the bill to the floor this week, but that no decisions have been made as to exactly when.
Reportedly, the House Supplemental bill contains $9 billion for nuclear loan guarantees and a matching $9 billion for renewable loan guarantees.
Townhall will closely follow developments.
Probably no one has labored longer and harder to convince the public that the dangers of nuclear power are being exaggerated than Dr. Bernard Cohen, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pittsburgh. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Cohen worked tirelessly to refute the exaggerated claims of critics, both through careful research and through popular articles. He also had a flair for the dramatic. On “The Tonight Show” he offered to eat as much plutonium on camera as Ralph Nader would eat caffeine. Nader never took the challenge.
A recipient of the Tom Bonner Prize from the American Physical Society, the Walter Zinn Award from the American Nuclear Society, the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award from the Health Physics Society, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, he is still active in promoting the need for nuclear power, sitting on the advisory board of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation. One indication of his enduring appeal: His 1990 book, The Nuclear Power Option, which once went for $8 on Alibris, was selling a year ago for $185 a copy. Even now there are copies going for $129. Maybe people are finally paying attention to what Dr. Cohen has to say.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: You've been working perhaps longer than anyone else to try to educate the public about the overblown dangers of radiation. Do you feel there's been any progress on that in the last twenty years?
COHEN: There has been a lot of progress in the scientific community in that most involved scientists now are convinced that low-level radiation is harmless. Many even believe it may be beneficial. This contradicts the old "linear-no threshold theory” which is the origin of the statement "no level of radiation is safe". Hopefully, this has filtered down to the public, but I am not in a position to personally measure that. Polls are showing that public acceptance of nuclear power is improving and is now in the 70 percent range, and politicians of both parties are supportive. Other factors are at work here, but this may also indicate a reduced fear of radiation.
NT: We're now in the midst of what people are calling a "Nuclear Renaissance?" Do you think that such a thing can really happen?
COHEN: It is happening all over the world and the Obama Administration is promoting it in U.S. with no Republican opposition. There have been about 30 applications for construction and operating permits submitted by Utilities to Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and financing is available at low interest rates from U.S. government guarantees. Worries about global warming are an important promoting factor. I am therefore optimistic that new nuclear plants will soon be started in U.S.
NT: The Linear-No-Threshold (LNT) hypothesis for radiation exposure is still going strong. It is the basis, for example, of a book recently published by the New York Academy of Sciences claiming a million people died from Chernobyl. The French have rejected the LNT hypothesis and others are challenging it. What's the state of the science there?
COHEN: That book was published by NY Academy of Sciences but they did not author it. The scientific case for rejecting LNT is very solid. I have published several recent papers on this. You can view them on my website.
NT: Why is it people have an inordinate fear of nuclear power? We have gas explosions, carbon monoxide poisonings, coal mine accidents, oil well blowouts, and the EPA says fossil fuel exhausts still kill 24,000 people a year. Yet nuclear's almost perfect safety record seems to generate more fear. Why is this?
COHEN: The media give far more coverage to nuclear and radiation risks than to other energy-related risks. They refuse to draw a comparison between the two in the same story, even when they report interviews with me in which I very strongly emphasize that point. TV programs compete for Nielsen ratings and they have decided that heavy reporting on the dangers of radiation is always an attraction. That makes for a vicious circle with more media coverage generating more viewer alarm, which in turn generates more media coverage.
NT: One of the things that distracts people from the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear power is the illusion that we can get all or a great deal of our energy from windmills and sunshine. What's your response to that?
COHEN: They are getting lots of government subsidies so let them try. I wish them well. But with rare localized exceptions, they are not competitive in the near future, so that is not a reason to hold back on nuclear at this time.
NT: Back in the 1990s, when the EPA was starting to argue that radon gas was causing cancer, you did an extensive study of the entire country and found that lung cancer was actually inversely related to the presence of radon gas in homes. Yet the President's Panel on Cancer recently said radon is the third leading cause of cancer and that x-rays and medical imaging are another major environmental insult. Has there been any more evidence to reinforce your observations that radon is not a threat?
COHEN: There are other studies, in Massachusetts and in Europe, that agree with my conclusion that radon levels found in the great majority of homes are not a threat. The idea that they are a threat derives from the LNT theory, and there is widespread evidence that LNT is not valid in that dose region. Evidence claiming to support that threat from radon is extremely fragile.
NT: You became famous known in the 1980s for challenging Ralph Nader's assertion that plutonium was "the most toxic substance known to mankind" by offering to eat as much plutonium on television as Nader would eat caffeine. Did he ever respond to this challenge? Did you ever eat any plutonium?
COHEN: I was never given an opportunity to do this on the “Tonight” show. I had published a widely quoted scientific paper on Plutonium toxicity. Nader was on the “Tonight” show and said that I was "trying to declassify plutonium with a pen." I sent an open letter to all TV networks and offered my challenge to Nader.
I do not recommend eating plutonium. You can suffer ill affects. I calculated, however, that the chances of my contracting cancer were about the same as the odds that an American soldier had of being killed in World War II. Since I believed that I the fate of my country depended very strongly on our acceptance of nuclear power, I believed it was worth taking the risk. However Nader never took me up on it.
By the way, my book, The Nuclear Energy Option, can now be downloaded for free on my website.
NT: Thanks much for your time Dr. Cohen and once again, congratulations on all the great, pioneering work you have done over the years.
By Nuclear Townhall Staff
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) — a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will ultimately decide the fate of continued funding for the Yucca Mountain project — has called for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to "stop all current actions to terminate the project.” In a statement following the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board decision yesterday to deny the DOE's motion to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain, Murray said: “It is clear from today’s decision that the Department of Energy does not have the authority to unilaterally attempt to terminate the Yucca Mountain project."
The defection of the Murray — a powerful Senate Appropriations "Cardinal" from a state with a large nuclear waste inventory — is fraught with implications for politically embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has made the termination of Yucca Mountain a key issue in his hard fought re-election campaign. In addition to her influential position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray's call for a cessation of the Obama Administration efforts to kill the national repository program is a likely harbinger of other breaks in Democratic Senate ranks, which have remained largely silent on the Yucca Mountain issue in deference to Senator Reid.
Murray faces a serious challenge this year in her own re-election campaign. The State of Washington has also mounted a legal challenge opposing the termination of Yucca Mountain.
Senator Murray's full statement follows.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Senator Murray’s Statement on Denial of Motion to Close Yucca Mountain.
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray released the following statement after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied the Department of Energy’s motion to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain.
“It is clear from today’s decision that the Department of Energy does not have the authority to unilaterally attempt to terminate the Yucca Mountain project. Given today’s decision, the Department should stop all current actions to terminate the project.”
“Over the last 30 years, Congress, independent studies, and previous administrations have all pointed to, voted for, and funded Yucca Mountain as the nation’s best option for a nuclear repository. And in concert with those decisions, billions of dollars and countless work hours have been spent at Hanford and nuclear waste sites across the country in an effort to treat and package nuclear waste that will be sent there. Without a repository, those sites and the communities that support them have been left in limbo.”
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, today welcomed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) Construction Authorization Board decision to deny the Department of Energy's (DOE) motion to withdraw the Yucca Mountain application. The NRC's Construction Authorization Board ruled against DOE's motion to withdraw, stating: "…the NWPA (Nuclear Waste Policy Act) does not give the Secretary the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress in the NWPA that, at this point, mandates progress toward a merits decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the construction permit."
"I'm glad to see that the Construction Authorization Board agrees with me that DOE does not have the authority to withdraw the application to build a repository at Yucca Mountain,"Senator Inhofe said. "Certainly, DOE Secretary Chu has given no reason for the NRC to cease its safety review other than stating that Yucca Mountain is no longer 'a workable option.' While such comments may serve a political purpose, I'm glad the Construction Authorization Board has chosen to base its decision on the law."
The following statement was released by NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to explain the decision to deny the license withdrawal:
“We do so because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended (NWPA),7 does not permit the Secretary to withdraw the Application that the NWPA mandates the Secretary file. Specifically, the NWPA does not give the Secretary the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress in the NWPA that, at this point, mandates progress toward a merits decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the construction permit.”
From The Editors
One of the most difficult tasks awaiting U.S. foreign diplomats is waking up to the realization that we no longer hold a world monopoly over nuclear technology.
In 1945, yes. Today, forget it. The rest of the world has caught up and even surpassed us. Yet as rogue countries such as North Korea and Iran develop their own atomic weapons, we keep imposing restrictions on friendly countries under the increasing anachronistic illusion that we are "guarding against the proliferation of nuclear weapons."
For the last six months, we have been dictating to South Korea by telling them that they can't reprocess their own spent fuel when our 1974 agreement to supply them with nuclear fuel expires in 2014. The danger, we say, is that reprocessing might allow them to develop a nuclear weapon. The Koreans say the problem is they are running out of space to store spent fuel. Sitting on the same peninsula with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-Il, the South Koreans can't help but feel our concerns are a little misplaced. "Does the U.S. want to treat us as a criminal?" said Korea Institute for Defense Analysis Vice President Kim Tae-woo.
Now the same approach has gotten us in trouble in Jordan, which wants to develop a civilian program after discovering it has large uranium reserves. "Go ahead and build a reactor," we've told them, "but you can't enrich your own uranium. You have to buy if from us." Jordan, which must import 95 percent of its energy needs, says it is only trying to achieve energy independence.
Jordan is generally regarded as Israel's best friend in the Middle East, but now our nuclear policies have produced accusations that Israel is orchestrating the whole affair. Last Saturday, Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli Minister of Justice, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times asking both Israel and American officials to let Jordan have its way.
The problem is not some nefarious American-Israeli plot. The problem is the intransigence of American policy in acknowledging that there's a Nuclear Renaissance taking place around the world and, if anything, we're trailing the pack. South Korea just won a $20 billion contract to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates. We don't even have a reprocessing industry or a national storage repository. Does this increasingly flimsy platform in a rapidly changing world give us the moral high ground to mandate who does or doesn't recycle?
By Nuclear Townhall Staff
Perhaps the most promising aspect of the Nuclear Renaissance is the revival of high-paying engineering, machine operating and construction skills in this country. That process is already beginning in Alabama.
Northeast Alabama Community College announced this week it will be opening a new training center for nuclear workers within sight of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte site.
"TVA expects to hire and train many people in these fields over the next decade," said NACC president David Campbell, who also serves as chairman of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority.
Jobs will range from industrial electronics and machine maintenance to construction skills such as welders, pipefitters and electricians. After a two-and-a-half-year training program with TVA, electricians make a starting salary of $63,000.
The TVA has two partially completed reactors at the Bellefonte site. It is currently deliberating on whether to resume construction or to begin anew with the Westinghouse AP1000 design. Even if TVA decides not to build at all, Campbell said, there would be plenty of job opportunities at the utility's other newly completed reactors at Watts Bar and Brown's Ferry.
One of the favorite arguments against the Nuclear Renaissance has been that America no longer has the industrial skills to build anything as complicated as a nuclear reactor. Specialty welders of the kind required by containment structures, for instance, are now in short supply. But NACC initiative shows that the Nuclear Renaissance is going to be about more than providing the nation with adequate power – it's going to be about the revival of good industrial jobs.