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Posts Tagged ‘Department of Energy’


Friday, December 17th, 2010

December 17, 2010
Nuclear Townhall
From the Editors


Enthusiasts of nuclear energy could have been discouraged this week by the Energy Information Administration’s latest Annual Energy Overview, which predicted that nuclear will only account for 6 GW of new energy by 2027 and will decline as part of the nation’s energy budget.

Is this cause for alarm?  EIA is a government agency and like all government agencies, from the military to the EPA, it likes to go with the flow. In 1997, as the Clinton Administration was busy closing down all nuclear research, EIA predicted that the nation’s entire nuclear fleet would be phased out by 2020. This was quickly invalidated by 20-year license renewals. Right now the prevailing winds say once again that nuclear is too expensive and that legislation will continue to boost other forms of energy generation. This could all change overnight.

The EIA report is built on the premise that shale gas will contribute 62 percent of new capacity over the next two decades. It assumes that oil production will slack off because of the six-month moratorium and other restrictions on offshore drilling. It assumes that the ethanol blend in gasoline will be increased from 10 to 15 percent. And it factors in California’s plans to raise the contribution of renewable energy to 33 percent of electrical generation by 2020. It also makes the remarkable prediction that carbon emissions will not reach their 2005 level again until 2027, based on a 7 percent drop in 2009. All these are short-term assumptions at best.

Any way you slice it, the U.S. is taking a huge risk by pushing into natural gas for our electrical generation. Fracking is coming under heavy criticism and New York State just banned any access to its portion of the Marcellus Shale. There are persistent reports that shale gas wells may play out much more quickly than conventional resources. Natural gas prices are nothing if not unpredictable. The Russians are building nuclear precisely to reduce their reliance on natural gas and save it for export and other industrial uses.

Although the EIA report assumes costs of nuclear construction will rise faster than any other form of generation, it takes no account of the possible emergence of small modular reactors. It also assumes California will meet its 33 percent renewable goal for electricity by 2020 when the figure is now barely above 10 percent and has not risen in a decade.

A few years ago, the “Freakonomics” blog in The New York Times ran a study by a Kansas City engineer about the accuracy of TV weather reports. It found that accuracy was fairly good for two and three days out but declined almost to insignificance after seven days. The EIA predictions are probably just about as accurate. They can be taken seriously for the next three or four years but after that they are just guesswork.

Read more about it at the U.S. government website and Politico

Upton Blitz Continues: Queries Chu on Stimulus Results — ‘Will You Stop Using the Term Shovel-Ready’?

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010




Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010


November 23, 2010
Nuclear Townhall
From the Editors

General Jubilation T. Cornpone was the Civil War hero of Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch of whom it was sung:  “With our ammunition gone and facing utter defeat / Who was it who burned the crops so we had nothing to eat.”

It’s been suggested on Nuclear Townhall that the Department of Energy ought to erect a statue of Gen. Cornpone outside its offices in honor of its support of corn ethanol. The 30-year-old government policy has not only wasted energy but placed significant upward pressure on food prices.

Now Al Gore has made a play to be remembered along with Gen. Cornpone when it comes to ethanol subsidies.  Speaking at an international energy conference in Athens this week, the Nobel-Prize-winning finally admitted ethanol wasn’t such a great idea."It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first generation ethanol," said Gore at the green energy conference sponsored by Marfin Popular Bank. "First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small. [But i]t’s hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going."

Gore was speaking, of course, of the entire American Midwest, which has now built nearly a quarter of its economy around ethanol subsidies. Dozens of ethanol distilleries have been built at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and 40 percent of the corn crop now goes into our gas tanks.

Moreover, Gore was also willing to admit that he originally supported ethanol subsidies to kowtow to farmers and that the government-initiated push into biofuels has pushed up world fuel prices. "The size, the percentage of corn particularly, which is now being (used for) first generation ethanol definitely has an impact on food prices,” he said. “The competition . . is real."

The former Vice President may be modeling for that statue real soon.

Read more about it at Reuters



Friday, November 19th, 2010

Start with this video on YouTube:


In the 1990s the Department of Energy conducted a test on what would happen if someone tried to crash an airplane into a nuclear containment structure. You can see the results.
Then came 9/11 and a round of new concerns, not all of them well informed or rational.  They made the unsubstantiated and irresponsible allegation that if the 9/11 hijackers had aimed their jet at Indian Point instead of the World Trade Center, millions might have been killed.
What about the test with the F-4 Phantom?  Well, that didn’t count. “A jumbo jet is much larger,” they argued. “They weren’t even invented when the first containments were built. The impact would be much greater.”
But all this is spectacularly ignorant of physics. The amount of kinetic energy generated by a jet plane is given by the formula E = ½ mv2, where m is the mass and v is the velocity. A jumbo jet could weight ten times as much as the F-4 and still not make a bigger impact. That’s because the velocity is the more important factor. The F-4 Phantom was doing 500 mph. A jumbo jet trying to hit a target the size of a reactor couldn’t possibly do much more than 120 mph. (That’s the speed it’s doing when an experienced pilot brings it in on the runway.)  Besides, a jet liner is basically an aluminum beer can whose structural integrity is linked to the air pressure inside. As one physicist puts it, a jet liner crashing into a containment all would be like an empty beer can crushed against John Belushi’s head.
Why does all this matter?  Because right now the Westinghouse AP1000 – the choice of nearly half the proposed reactors in the U.S. – is in a protracted design approval review because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to figure out how to protect it from airplane attacks.  Now, with site clearance moving along at the U.S. flagship for the Nuclear Renaissance – the Vogtle plant in Georgia with its two new planned reactors — the pace of the AP1000 review is more important than ever.  All this while the Chinese are more than halfway to completing the world’s first AP1000 and have three more underway.
Does it make any sense to try to build a shield to protect a containment structure?  Or have we already solved the problem already?


Thursday, November 18th, 2010

November 18, 2010
Nuclear Townhall

As the legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite might have put it:
And that’s the way it is, Tuesday, November 16, the 142st day of captivity for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision on its review of the Atomic Safety Licensing Board’s unanimous rejection of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain project license withdrawal request.
In a process that has been defined by days and even hours for the most part, it is now 142 days and counting since the ASLB’s June 29 ruling and the initiation of the Commission’s review of the lower panel’s decision. The full Commission, which has now had the matter under consideration over parts of six calendar months, has more than trebled the 39 days it initially provided to the ASLB to sift through considerably more complicated issues.  Meanwhile the U.S. Court of Appeals, which was scheduled to begin oral arguments on September 23 on an avalanche of legal contentions now filed on the Yucca Mountain issue, has put a hold on the proceedings awaiting a Commission determination.
Notwithstanding the NRC Commission impasse, on September 30, the U.S. Department of Energy closed the doors of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which is responsible for the license application.  Just days later, perhaps putting the cart before the horse, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko ordered the agency’s review of the Yucca Mountain license application stopped.  The handling of the latter matter is now under scrutiny by Jaczko’s own Inspector General and is expected to be the subject of oversight hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives in the next Congress.
Meanwhile, what is known at this point is that all four Commission votes are filed with Commissioner Kristine Svinicki recording hers on August 25; Jaczcko was last in on October 29 in a maneuver seen by some as a delaying action to ensure that a possible affirmation of the ASLB decision would not surface in the re-election contest of mentor and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who ultimately prevailed in a hard-fought campaign.  Commissioner George Apostolakis has recused himself from the issue.
No Commission affirmation session, which would codify any Commission verdict, is slated for this week, according to longtime NRC watchers.
As Walter Cronkite might have also put it:  
Stay tuned to this channels for further updates.


Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Veteran journalist Llewellyn King, host of PBS’s “White House Chronicles,” says the Office of Management and Budget “strangled [Calvert Cliffs] in its crib” and is pushing us back toward a nuclear “dark ages.” “By effectively axing a new reactor, OMB was acting against the  Department of Energy, Congress, and possibly the wishes of President Obama,” wrote King in his regular weekly column.

“Strangely, Congress and the Obama administration have declared the revival of nuclear power as national policy and  money has been appropriated for loan guarantees. But both are seeing their desires frustrated by OMB and its formula for calculating the chances of success or failure for new nuclear projects.”

King draws an apt comparison between Calvert Cliffs and the Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal build just down the Patuxent River in the Chesapeake Bay during the 1970s. “[T]he Cove Point terminal and gas plant has been a symbol of the vagaries of the gas market,” he writes. “Much of the time it has stood idle, with fishermen maneuvering their boats among its piers.” The reason is unpredictable gas prices, which have yo-yoed between $2 per $11 per mcf in the last decade.
“The joker is wild-and the joker is natural gas, aided by the OMB bureaucracy,” he says “The nuclear renaissance may be delayed again in the United States, but 58 nuclear plants are under construction in 14 countries, including 24 in China alone,” King concludes in a very insightful and well informed analysis of the Calvert Cliffs situation.

Read more about it at Stock Markets Review


Saturday, October 9th, 2010

In a move that could mark the end of the Nuclear Renaissance in the United States, Constellation Energy of Maryland released a statement yesterday saying it is withdrawing its attempt to secure a loan guarantee for Calvert Cliffs 3.

Calvert Cliffs ­ proposed by Unistar, a company owned jointly by Constellation and Electricité de France (EDF) – had been one of the most enthusiastically embraced new reactor projects since it was first proposed five years ago. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held the first hearing with regard to the application in 2005, the press and Washington observers ­ and even the NRC itself ­ were astonished to see practically the whole local political structure show up to testify in favor. Wilson H. Parran, president of the Calvert County Board of Commissioners, has become something of a national symbol of local support for nuclear, appearing on television, before legislative hearings and in many other political contexts. The local College of Southern Maryland had also geared up to train a new generation of nuclear workers, since 35 percent of the work force at Calvert Cliffs 1 and 2 are due to retire within a few years.

 Constellation blamed risings costs, although it hedged its statement by saying it was the method of calculating these costs as formulated by the Federal Office of Management and Budget that was the deciding factor. According to the press release:

“In a letter sent to DOE, Constellation Energy said the cost of the loan guarantee that is calculated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is unreasonably burdensome and would create unacceptable risks and costs for our company. There is a significant problem in the way OMB calculates the credit cost. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to resolve this issue with DOE and OMB, we no longer see a timely path to reaching a workable set of terms and conditions.”

Calvert Cliffs had been in close competition with NRG Energy’s South Texas project for the remaining funds in the $18.5 billion pool of loan guarantees authorized by Congress. The two Vogtle plants in Georgia, owned by Southern Electric, received $8.3 in the first guarantee awarded last February. This left $10.2 billion, which was enough to cover South Texas or Calvert Cliffs but probably not both. The last few months have been filled with intense speculation about which project would receive the award. President Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke at one point of expanding the loan guarantee program by $36 billion but Congress cut this to $9 billion in the proposed FY 2011 budget and has not yet gotten around to adopting the budget anyway.

Electricite de France, Constellation’s junior partner in the venture, had been growing extremely restless with the project and announced last summer that it might be looking to get out. EDF suffered a big drop in earnings in the second quarter after Unistar suffered $600 million in losses. In recent days EDF and Constellation had been feuding over Constellation’s suggestion it might exercise a “put” option in the 2008 agreement that would allow it to sell its non-nuclear plants to EDF for as much as $2 billion. EDF said it regarded the proposal as a hostile act.

Apparently uninformed by Constellation of the pull-out, EDF expressed extreme shock at the decision:

 “EDF is extremely disappointed and shocked to learn that Constellation has unilaterally decided to withdraw from the Calvert Cliffs 3 project." EDF said in a statement issued early Saturday morning. "For the past year, EDF has made huge investments of time and resources on the federal loan guarantee process with the Department of Energy for CC3.

"Constellation knows that we were at the finish line with the Department of Energy and were making significant progress. Constellation has withdrawn from CC3 in spite of our repeated efforts to substantially decrease their exposure and risk to the project."

The national utility, 80 percent owned by the French government, was under mounting criticism at home for becoming involved in the American adventure. EDF bought half of Constellation for $4.5 billion in 2008 after Constellation fought off a takeover attempt by MidAmerican Energy Holdings, owned by America’s premier investor Warren Buffett, who had a brief spasm of interest in nuclear. EDF bid $52 a share, almost twice Buffett’s $26.50 offer. Shortly before, EDF had bought British Energy, the UK’s nuclear company, for $12.5 billion. At the time, critics warned that EDF was overextending itself in a bid to become an international player.

Whether or not the demise of Calvert Cliffs will mark the end of America’s Nuclear Renaissance will be a subject of fierce debate in the coming weeks. But the news is anything but encouraging. Last month Progress Energy announced it might abandon its proposal for two new reactors at the Shearon Harris site in North Carolina. NRG has also had huge problems in Texas as the City of San Antonio with drew from the project.

 The consensus seems to be that rising costs and foot-dragging over federal loan guarantees, matched with the incredibly long lead times and uncertainty created by federal licensing procedures have essentially brought the American effort to revive nuclear to a halt. The Nuclear Renaissance continues to blossom on a world level, however, with 54 reactors under construction and countries as diverse as Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, Jordan and Argentina joining the parade.


Friday, October 8th, 2010

This week, as reported first in Nuclear Townhall, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko instructed the agency’s staff to begin closing down the U.S. Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain application, based on a subjective interpretation of a single paragraph in the agency’s proposed 2011 budget, which has not yet been enacted by Congress.

Closing down the application means that a purportedly near-complete Volume 3 of the NRC response may never see the light of day. Volume 3 deals with “post-closure safety” over the one-million-year time frame requirement. Word from NRC sources says that the report is favorable toward this critical facet of the Yucca Mountain project, but that may never be fully known.

Closing down the application in this fashion means the chairman is acting alone rather than with the consent of the other commissioners. The full commission (one of the five commissioners has recused himself) is supposed to be voting on whether to accept or reject the recommendation of the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB), which voted unanimously in June to reject DOE’s license application withdrawal request, saying it was not justified under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Closing down the application by fiat is an end run around the ASLB. It also means the NRC will be pulling the rug from under the lawsuits filed in opposition to termination of the Yucca project by Aiken County, S.C., the State of South Carolina and the State of Washington, where testimony has been temporarily suspended awaiting the Commission’s vote on the ASLB. In a filing with the NRC late yesterday, the parties asked the Commission to reverse the Jaczko action.

In brief, the chairman, acting alone, is short-circuiting the regulatory and legal process. It’s no secret that Jaczko owes his appointment to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has devoted much of his Senate career to keeping the nation’s nuclear waste repository out of Nevada. Is Jaczko simply facilitating the mission of his longtime benefactor? Or, as other Yucca Mountain detractors say, “What’s the difference?  Yucca Mountain is dead anyway. These are all legal niceties.”

Yet there’s far more at stake. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has built a reputation for fairness and transparency — an attribute that is critical to the future of the U.S. Nuclear Renaissance. Some of the loudest protests are coming from former employees and officials who say the NRC’s integrity is being compromised. So what’s the verdict?  Is Chairman Jaczko politicizing the NRC?  What are the implications?  Or is it naïve to expect that any federal agency won’t eventually be politicized?


Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Using an interpretation of a section of the 2011 budget not yet adopted by Congress, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko has ordered his staff to begin a “close-down” of the review of the Department of Energy’s license application –- even though the Agency’s final decision on a license withdrawal request and Congressional appropriations are still up in the air.

The NRC staff is using pages 94 and 95 of Nuclear Regulations 1100, Volume 26, as a guideline:  “Resources will support work to the orderly closure of the NRC’s licensing activities.”  The paragraph goes on to refer to “archiving material, completion of some technological work, knowledge capture and management, and maintenance of certain electronic systems to support these efforts.”

In plain language, this means NRC is closing the books on DOE’s application to develop Yucca, originally filed in 2008.  The Obama Administration asked for withdrawal of the application this March, saying Yucca was no longer needed.  Several states are appealing the DOE’s action in court.  In June, the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB), a division of the NRC, also rejected the application withdrawal request, saying that DOE did not have authority to do so under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and had not given sufficient scientific justification for abandoning the project.  The five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission has power of review over the ASLB recommendation but has not yet voted on the matter, which has been pending for 99 days.  Reports from within the NRC suggest that Chairman Jaczko may not have the votes to reject the ASLB finding.

Jaczko has a particular motive for pushing on with the Yucca close down.  A former staff member for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he was appointed NRC chairman – according to some reports – specifically for the purpose of closing down the Nevada facility in Reid’s home states.  Reid is currently locked in a hard-fought effort to retain his Senate seat and proof that Yucca is actually shutting down would give a big boost to his campaign.

Jaczko’s authority in operating on a budget resolution that has not yet passed Congress is obviously a judgment call.  “This may be not as dramatic as its sounds,” said David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC’s office of public affairs. “The agency staff has already been at work on the transition to a post-Yucca scenario for some months.” The public affairs office speaks only for the chairman and does not represent the other four commissioners.

“We just entered the new fiscal year on October 1,” said McIntyre.  “The guidance given to the staff has been that with respect to high-level waste, it should follow the FY 2011 budget plan, even if the rest of the agency is operating on 2010 levels.”  Congress has not yet adopted a 2011 budget but is operating on a continuing resolution for the 2010 version.

Are the steps now being taken to close the Yucca application reversible?  “That’s not immediately clear,” said McIntyre.

The other four commissioners were not immediately available for comment.


Friday, September 24th, 2010

On February 22, 2010,  just 21 days after the U.S. Department of Energy formally announced it would suspend the Yucca Mountain national nuclear spent fuel and high-level waste repository project in Nevada, the first of a bevy of lawsuits seeking to overturn the action was announced by three state of Washington businessmen.

Just nine days later, on March 3, the Department filed a license withdrawal request with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (ASLB).  A month later, on April 6, the NRC’s Atomic Safety Licensing Board – in the face of mounting legal challenges and interventions relevant to the DOE action– announced it was freezing consideration of the matter to await guidance on the matter from U.S. Court of Appeals proceedings.  Less than 17 days later, on April 23 – without waiting for their newest colleague, Commissioner George Apostolakis, who was scheduled to be sworn in just hours later – the Commission vacated the ASLB decision and ordered the Board to render a decision on the DOE withdrawal request in 39 days or less (June 1).

Twenty-eight days after the June 1 deadline, the ASLB issued a unanimous decision rejecting DOE’s license withdrawal request.  Less than 24 hours later, in an unusual action, the Commission set immediate ground rules for an appeal of the decision requesting briefs from interested parties by July 9,  just nine days later.  On July 15, just six days after parties to the proceeding filed a motion seeking the disqualification of three commissioners based on their Senate confirmation hearing testimony earlier in the year, freshman Commissioner Apostolakis recused himself citing other considerations.
In a process that has been defined by days and hours for the most part, it is now 86 days and counting since the ASLB’s June 29th ruling and the initiation of the Commission’s review of the lower panel’s decision.  The full Commission has now exceeded the 39 days they initially provided to the ASLB to sift through considerably more complicated issues.  Meanwhile the U.S. Court of Appeals , which was scheduled to begin oral arguments on September 23 on the mountain of legal contentions now filed in the matter, has put a hold on the proceedings awaiting a Commission determination.  In just six days, the Yucca Mountain project will be in purgatory with the expiration of the fiscal year, a likely continuing resolution and given a DOE edict that it will terminate all remaining employees in the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management on September 30.

The Commission’s delay with regard to an ASLB verdict has lead to much conjecture in Capitol Hill, legal and nuclear policy circles.  Does the NRC Chairman – a former disciple of chief Yucca Mountain antagonist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — lack the Commission votes to override the ASLB?  Was he waiting to get a consensus on an updated waste confidence rule, which was consummated on September 15?  Or for conspiracy theorists is he seeking to help his old boss’s up-hill re-election campaign by deferring a possible affirmation of the decision to reject the DOE license withdrawal until after the November 2 election or until Congress leave towns town for its elections recess?  Or for the more charitably-inclined was Jaczko just concentrating on his keynote speech on September 22 to the 54th International Atomic Energy Agency Conference on the  scintillating topic of “The Essential Role of the Safety Regulator?”

During the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD,  Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus purportedly fiddled while Rome burned.  One authoritative source claims there wasn’t a fiddle to fiddle at the time – although perhaps he was playing a lyre.  Other revisionists suspect that the story was invented by Nero detractors who took power shortly thereafter.

Years later, Clairol’s hair color advertisements famously touted the tag line – “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”  So perhaps while only Chairman Jaczko knows for sure, what’s your view?  Thus far, in the Nuclear Townhall poll on the subject, 63 % believe the NRC is delaying the decision until after the election; 14% feel the Commission should take as much time as they need ; 9 % say they are deadlocked.  A 2-2 vote by the eligible Commissioners would effectively rebuff a reversal of the ASLB decision.