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

Monday, June 18th, 2018

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

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

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.

Commissioner Tim Echols, GA PSC: Why Nuclear Matters

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

By Tim Echols

Just when we thought nuclear power might be on a comeback, well, stuff happened.   Only time will tell if Georgia and South Carolina can “jumpstart” a nuclear renaissance.  Let’s hope we can because low-cost baseload energy is a key to economic growth.

This was illustrated dramatically for me while I was in Germany this summer meeting with numerous officials including an economic minister for the country. As he told me how BMW was having their upcoming light weight electric car carbon-fiber body manufactured in South Carolina, he said, “The United States is about to enjoy mass re-industrialization because of your cheap energy prices.”  I couldn’t help but smile. He went on to tell me of other European companies setting up shop in the United States for the same reason.

But reality is that “new” nuclear power continues to sputter.  Remember back about five years ago?  States were working hard with private utilities to possibly build new commercial reactors.  Then, we had the accident at Fukushima which brought more regulatory uncertainty.  At the same time, our economy was in recession with natural gas prices continuing to drop primarily due to “fracking.”

Meanwhile, in our “Silicon Valley of Nuclear Power,” the work continued because a course had been charted.  Georgia was building two new nuke units at Plant Vogtle.  SCANA was building two identical units at V.C. Summer Plant, near Jenkinsville, South Carolina.  And in between them sat the 310 square-mile Savannah River Site, a highly protected federal facility run by the Department of Energy, where a special MOX facility is being constructed amidst a sea of other national security related projects.

There are three good reasons we need to complete each of these projects, despite the cost issues each are experiencing right now.

First, anything remotely related to nuclear means jobs—and many of them good paying jobs. 12,000 people work at SRS, 800 private sector jobs at V.C. Summer and another 800 at Vogtle. The last two figures will double once the new units come on line.  Add to that the cumulative construction jobs which should peak out at more than 7000, and the impact is enormous. Remember, jobs let you buy houses, cars, clothes and widgets—and cheap energy is a magnet for manufacturing these as the Germans testified.

Second, nuclear power is a great investment for southeastern states especially.  It gives us 24/7 base load power, provides grid stability, serves as a hedge against volatile natural gas prices—and all this without any of the emissions associated with conventional fuels.   The two new Vogtle units represent $4 billion in economic value for Georgia ratepayers over the next best available option—fracked gas, and you know how cheap that is.

Third, nuclear recycling and reprocessing allows us to convert the plutonium that once powered cold-war nuclear warheads into fuel that ultimately powers our homes.  What a trade-off! That is where the SRS MoX site comes in and why President Obama should not end the funding for it as he is threatening to do.

The mixed-oxide fuel factory, or MoX, will recycle weapons-grade plutonium into material that can be used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity.  And not too far away, the famed “H” Canyon facility as it is called at SRS, demonstrates reprocessing taking old nuclear waste and making usable material from it. These successes might help launch similar commercial facilities that can be built to handle the large inventory of commercial waste we currently have around our country. We need to take this step.

But the President is getting cold feet on this.  The MoX facility, which admittedly is way over budget, was started in 2007 and is the only one of its kind in the U.S.  Thought the cost is high, the benefits are immense as we evaluate the best way to handle these nuclear materials. We must move forward responsibly.

We can’t turn our back when it comes to nuclear power.  We have smart people who can solve the difficulties associated with this incredible resource.  Let’s move America forward.

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Message from Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman on DOE Reorganization

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

 

Subject: Message from Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman on DOE Reorganization

Message from Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman on DOE Reorganization

 

Dear Colleagues,

Earlier today, we shared with you the plans for a reorganization of the Department's management structure that is designed to achieve several of our key priorities and those of the President. Successful implementation of the President's Climate Action Plan, "all of the above" energy strategy and nuclear security agenda require the appropriate alignment of management functions and strengthened management throughout the agency.

We wanted to take this opportunity to share some additional details of the reorganization, which consolidates the mission support functions of the Department in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Departmental operations.  The reorganization also brings together the management of our science and energy programs, which will improve the integration of these two key areas of the Department's mission.  Finally, we are also establishing a system of Departmental Councils to improve coordination of issues that cut across Departmental organizational lines.

The reorganization will affect the organization of the Department at the Under Secretary level.  First, we have established an Office of the Under Secretary for Management and Performance to manage:

*Office of Management and Administration (MA)

*Office of Chief Human Capital Officer (HC)

*Office of Chief Information Officer (CIO)

*Office of Economic Impact and Diversity (ED)

*Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA)

*Office of Environmental Management (EM)

*Office of Legacy Management (LM)

 

In addition to bringing together the Department's primary support organizations, it will also include the Office of Environmental Management and Office of Legacy Management.  This is consistent with our objective of improving project management and performance in these two key areas and across the Department.  There is also a new organizational unit, the National Laboratory Operations Board that will report to the Office of the Under Secretary for Management and Performance, and will enable us to tackle the administrative issues affecting the laboratory system using an enterprise-wide approach.  Worker health, safety, and security continue to be critically important priorities, and we are in the process of reviewing how to strengthen our capacity to meet these challenges within this new structure.

Second, the current position of Under Secretary for Science is expanded to encompass both science and energy.  The resulting Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy will manage:

*Office of Science (SC)

*Office of Fossil Energy (FE)

*Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)

*Office of Nuclear Energy (NE)

*Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE)

*Office of Indian Energy  (IE)

*Office of  Technology Transfer Coordinator

 

We must have the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration, and deployment. The innovation chain is not linear, but rather one that requires feedback among its various elements.  This is particularly the case with regard to clean energy as we work to implement the President's Climate Action Plan.  This Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy will provide us the framework to make further improvements in this regard.  In addition, the majority of our national labs will reside within this organizational unit.

The Under Secretary for Nuclear Security continues to be a dual-hatted position as Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Finally, in order to better address important policy issues that affect a number of programs across the Department, we are establishing the following Secretarial Councils:

*An Energy Council

*A National Laboratory Policy Council

*A revised Credit Review Board

*A Cyber Security Council

 

We also are reactivating and restructuring the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), with the restructured SEAB having four standing sub-committees to address each of the major Departmental mission areas.

Finding additional ways to improve the management and performance of Departmental programs is a continuing challenge that will remain a high priority.  Last week, for example, the President asked all of his Cabinet Officers to develop an agenda of further management initiatives to guide the Administration over the next four years.  We have several additional study efforts underway, and we hope to be able to move forward with additional initiatives in the near future.  One area is a review of our energy policy and analysis capabilities, where some consolidation would enable the Department to take a better systems approach to policy analysis.  This will be very important for the Department in supporting the planned Quadrennial Energy Review called for by the President in his Climate Action Plan.  Another area under review is our oversight of security, where we are looking at ways to enhance line managem ent responsibilities and improve accountability for securing the complex.  We plan to report further on these items soon, following appropriate consultations.

We would like to highlight a number of senior personnel who have joined the Department in the past few months.  Many of you have already met my Chief of Staff Kevin Knobloch and our two deputy chiefs of staff, Erica De Vos and Jonathan Levy.  Erica is also serving as Director of the Executive Secretariat.  Additionally, Ed Bolton recently joined the Deputy Secretary's Office as Chief of Staff.

Among our new program leadership are Bruce Held, Acting Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration; Peter Davidson, Executive Director of the Loan Programs Office; David Klaus, Deputy Under Secretary for Management and Performance; and Jonathan Pershing, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Climate Change Policy and Technology.

A number of senior advisors have also joined us in the Office of the Secretary:  Melanie Kenderdine (leading efforts on energy policy and systems analysis), John MacWilliams (clean energy finance and other issues), Jeff Hughes (national security and intelligence), Elizabeth Connell (environmental management), Adam Cohn (cyber security), Alison Markovitz (departmental operations), Dmitri Kusnezov (NNSA issues), Skila Harris (PMA issues), and Mary Louise Wagner (nuclear energy policy).  Please join us in welcoming our new senior personnel to the Department. We are also working assiduously to advance excellent candidates to fill vacancies that require Senate confirmation.

Obviously this will continue to be a work in progress, and we are grateful for everyone's patience and support as we implement the reorganization.

We recognize the last few months have been a challenging time as we have adjusted to new and familiar faces, coming and going.  There have been a number of vacancies, and so far, we are extremely impressed with the way so many people–career and appointee alike–have stepped up and delivered.  We are deeply appreciative for the hard work you put in to contribute to the mission, and we continue to be honored to serve with you.

 

Sincerely,

Secretary Moniz and Deputy Secretary Poneman

EDWARD DAVIS AND DAVID C. BLEE: NRC’s Waste Confidence ‘Moratorium’ – Carpe Diem

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

By Edward Davis and David C. Blee

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) August 7, 2012 order to defer any final agency action approving the issuance of new reactor licenses or to grant new license renewals for existing operating reactors — in response to a Federal Appeals Court remand of the agency’s existing waste confidence rule — does not represent the draconian “Full-Stop” that the some of the industry’s opponents claim. 

Under the order, the agency will continue with its technical and licensing reviews while holding any final decisions in abeyance until the NRC has developed and completed its work responsive to the Court’s remand.  Accordingly, the Order could impact very few, if any, near-term combined license (COL) applications.  Moreover, under the NRC’s rules for license renewals, no operating plant would be directly affected where a timely renewal license application has already been submitted to NRC. Current spent fuel storage is certainly safe and not in question.  

Notwithstanding, there have been only rare occasions where similar orders have been issued by the NRC. Among them was the Calvert Cliffs Federal Appeals Court Decision in 1971 to require compliance with the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the preparation of environmental impact statements to accompany new reactor licensing and following the Three Mile Accident (TMI).

Moreover, any failure to resolve the waste confidence issue in a timely manner has the potential to delay new-term COLs, cloud license renewals and chill investor confidence in U.S. nuclear energy at a pivotal time. 

As such, the NRC’s Order and the Court’s remand are matters to be taken seriously.  At the same time, they offer a window of opportunity to chart a path-forward to resolve the back-end of the fuel cycle dilemma, which has plagued U.S. nuclear energy since its infancy.  The Reid-Jaczko four-year walk-in-the-wilderness prescription of just-leave-the waste-where-it-is was myopic at best.  Given the stakes involved, a head-in-the-sand approach in light of this new challenge would be equal folly.

For over four decades, the industry has operated under a series of interlocking court and regulatory decisions that have benefited and fostered the continued use and development of nuclear energy in the U.S. Starting in the early 1970s, a number a significant legal actions were taken to force the NRC to make a determination when licensing new plants that the spent fuel and nuclear waste could be disposed of safely and permanently.  In a 1979 Court of Appeals decision, known as Minnesota vs. NRC, it was found that the NRC was not required to find that such disposal capacity actually existed at the time of licensing of a new plant, only that a finding was necessary that NRC had “confidence”  that a permanent repository would eventually be available when needed.

The Court in the Minnesota decision referenced the NRC's 1977 order denying a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petition for a "confidence" rulemaking:

"It is neither necessary nor reasonable for the Commission to insist on proof that a means of permanent waste disposal is on hand at the time reactor operation begins, so long as the Commission can be reasonably confident that permanent disposal (as distinguished from continued storage under surveillance) (emphasis added) can be accomplished safely when it is likely to become necessary. Reasonable progress towards the development of permanent disposal facilities is presently being accomplished. Under these circumstances a halt in licensing of nuclear power plants is not required to protect public health and safety."

However, the Minnesota Court case did give rise to what has been enshrined as the Waste Confidence Rule, which the NRC updates from time to time.  The significance of this generic rule is that interveners cannot raise any questions in individual licensing proceedings as to whether the nuclear plant with its accumulation of spent fuel might one day become a de facto repository after its license expired because the Federal Government failed to successfully develop a repository. 

In addition, by virtue of another generic rule, the so-called Uranium Fuel Cycle Rule and its related Table S-3, one that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, opponents cannot question the environmental releases assumed from a repository in individual plant environmental impact statements because NRC has assumed a “zero release” assumption as part of these assessments.

Despite these regulatory protections, the NRC under pressure did concede, as it does today, that the NRC will not continue to license reactors if it does not have reasonable confidence that spent fuel and nuclear waste can and will in due course be disposed of safely. And, specifically, this codified policy commitment relates to permanent disposal and not temporary surface storage. 

The linkage between progress towards permanent disposal and continued reactor licensing is at the heart of today’s nuclear waste confidence impasse — one that cannot be resolved through efforts to site temporary storage facilities, notwithstanding how desirable those efforts may be in terms of moving spent fuel from nuclear power plant sites.

When the Obama Administration disbanded and defunded the DOE’s nuclear repository program while seeking to terminate the Yucca Mountain project,  former NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko pushed through an update of the Waste Confidence Rule based on the flawed premise that despite the Administration's efforts to terminate the only repository program that the nation has had over the past 30 years, the NRC still had "confidence” that somehow, some way a repository would materialize precisely  when needed.  In the meantime, the NRC found that spent fuel  could be stored onsite safely for a total of 120 years — 60 years during operations followed by an additional 60 years after license expiration for the repository to become available.

Two states seeking to block license renewals and anti-nuclear groups who have had a long running feud with NRC over this issue saw an opportunity and pounced on this update and its “predicative” finding of confidence as a bridge too far and sued the NRC over the revised rule. 

As a result of the Federal Appeals Court’s June 8th remand, the NRC must now go back and develop an environmental assessment of the implications of not having a repository.  Based on oral arguments, Petitioners are seeking an expansive, multi-century analysis of the uncertainties, costs and effects of a repository and its potential failure and related consequences as well as the onsite effects of indefinitely storing spent fuel at reactor sites across the country. Such an assessment is analogous to the Environmental Protection Agency’s one-million-year repository dose standard for Yucca Mountain that took nearly a decade to address. 

Ironically, the DOE in its 2002 Yucca Mountain EIS submitted to the NRC in connection with its license application did in fact make such an assessment of the potential environmental effects in its “No Action” Alternative and found that potential consequences of not having a repository could be quite significant.

This confluence is manifest destiny for the anti-nuclear community, which now believes it has finally opened up a Pandora’s Box that will force the NRC’s hand not to license new nuclear plants without a repository or even with just the reasonable prospect of one.

In writing the Court’s unanimous opinion in the Waste Confidence case, Chief Judge David B. Sentelle summed-up the paradox:

“The Commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such failure.”

He also highlighted this dilemma during oral argument in responding to a suggestion by an NRC lawyer that the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) recommendations were a basis of renewed confidence that there would be a repository sometime in the not too distant future:

“You just related the history of the law, the Congressional resolutions had required the construction of the Yucca Mountain site, and then you tell me that we should reason from the fact that the President killed the Yucca Mountain site and put in some other Commission that therefore there’s going to be a solution. If anything it sounds like this is one more time that the frustration of the Petitioners reflected reality. “

In short, without a repository, there can be no nuclear energy resurgence. What is required now is a concerted action not only by the NRC but also the Administration and the Congress to address the root cause of the waste confidence impasse and put the U.S. nuclear waste program back on track.  

A good start would be for the NRC to restart the Yucca licensing process and not wait for a Court mandamus order to do so. Such action is supported by the recent vote 326 members of the House of Representatives to provide additional funding for the Yucca licensing process. In addition, the DOE should re-standup the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in order to refocus efforts and develop a repository restart plan. Congress should appropriate the necessary funding to put the program back on track.

Progress on these fronts and on Yucca Mountain provides confidence that a repository can and will be available.  It also provides a demonstration that there is a political will to resolve the siting issues and to carry out the law that Congress established

Mr. Davis is President of the Pegasus Group and a former President of the American Nuclear Energy Council. Mr. Blee is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy and Executive Director of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council. 

William Tucker Goes to the Movie: Heritage’s New Movie “Powering America” — Real People and Nuclear Virtues

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Review of Heritage Foundation’s “Powering America”

By William Tucker

The Heritage Foundation has decided to keep abreast of the generation that doesn’t read anymore by producing a 40-minute documentary, “Powering America,” touting the virtues of nuclear energy.  It probably won’t be playing soon at a theater near you but the film will make a powerful tool for policy groups trying to convince Americans that nuclear must be part of our energy future.

“Base load power” – that’s the message “Powering America” conveys and we’re going to need plenty of it.  Even the most conservative predictions say we’ll need at least 25 percent more electricity by 2035 – which happens to be the exact time when our current generation of reactors, built in the 1970s and 1980s, will be reaching retirement.  So it’s not just a matter of providing more electricity.  We’re going to have to replace the 20 percent of our electricity that nuclear energy already provides.  It’s a big task and building one or two new reactors per decade – the rate we’re currently achieving – isn’t going to come close to solving the problem.

So what’s holding us up?  Mostly fear of radiation and accidents.  On radiation, the Heritage filmmakers note, most people are inclined to think it was invented in 1945 with the introduction of atomic weapons.  In fact radiation is just energy in motion.  It constantly bombards us on all sides.  Next to what we absorb from outer space, from rocks, from food, from our own bones, the radiation emanating from a nuclear reactor is less than trivial.  Living next to a reactor for fifty years would give you about the equivalent of one dental x-ray.

“Powering America” illustrates all this with real people and that’s the film’s great strength.  We meet hardhat workers, male and female, who have spent their lives in the nuclear industry and know the score.  As with everyone who gets close to the technology, they both understand both the dangers and appreciate the excruciating care the industry takes in dealing with them.  They are not afraid.  We meet Abby Rodriguez, a dosimeter specialist at Plant Vogtle who says she hasn’t picked up a trace of radiation exposure in 2-1/2 years of work.  We meet Daniel and Dani Hackman, a couple who have run Red Hill Farm within sight of the cooling towers of Three Mile Island for a generation and have no worries.  “There was a guy here yesterday who wanted to take samples – they come every couple of weeks,” they say.  “If there was something in the atmosphere, they would definitely find it in the plants.  But they’ve never found anything.”  

Things being what they are, however, “Powering America” feels compelled to take on the three major accidents – Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – and that occupies much of the film’s time.  It’s a reassuring walk-through but after fifteen minutes you begin to wonder whether there is anything to nuclear energy except potential accidents.  But host John L. King eventually gets around to explaining the tremendous advantages of nuclear – mainly its incredible energy density.  One fuel pellet the size of a pencil eraser produces as much energy as 150 gallons of gasoline, a ton of coal or17, 000 cubic feet of natural gas.  And don’t even think about wind and sunshine.  Matching the output of just one nuclear reactor – as Jim Hopson of the TVA’s Watts Bar station tells us – would require covering the Great Smokey Mountains National Park with 45-story windmills.  

“Powering America’s” great strength is that it introduces us to the forgotten players in the nuclear debate – the men and women who work with it every day.  Who else could be more knowledgeable about its benefits, more informed about its assiduous safety measures?  Strangely enough, though, I think the film could have benefitted by giving a little camera time to some of the more highly exaggerated and uninformed personalities of the anti-nuclear movement.  What better contrast with the sober, ground-level assessments of nuclear workers than Pete Seeger glibly telling us that a nuclear reactor can blow up at any moment, Dr. Ernest Sternglass recounting the thousands of babies who have been murdered by reactors or noted renewable energy advocate Mark Z. Jacobson of Berkeley recounting how it doesn’t matter if the wind doesn’t blow all the time because somewhere the sun may be shining.  

But these are minor quibbles.  The important thing is that Heritage has taken the common-sense case for nuclear energy and turned it into a glossy, contemporary documentary that will have something to say to people of all persuasions.

 

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