December 4, 2010
Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Regulatory Commission’
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was within a month of releasing its long-awaited Volume 3 report on the million-year implications of storing spent fuel rods at Yucca Mountain. The long-term aspects formed one of the biggest roadblocks to opening the nation’s nuclear spent fuel and high-level waste repository.
The original environmental impact statement projected out 10,000 years but when a report from the 2005 National Academy of Sciences mentioned that some isotopes would not disintegrate for a million years, environmental groups succeeded in getting the District of Columbia District Court to raise the bar.
Platts was reporting on the story broken this week on Nuclear Townhall that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has unilaterally ordered the agency staff to close out the ten-year effort to review the Department of Energy’s application, based on a paragraph in the 2011 budget, which has not yet been adopted by Congress.
South Carolina, Washington State, Aiken County (SC) and several former DOE and NRC employees have objected to the chairman’s actions.
Responding to the story broken last Tuesday on Nuclear Townhall, Aiken County and other Yucca Mountain plaintiffs filed a formal motion yesterday alleging that Chairman Gregory Jaczko acted improperly in directing the staff to "begin an orderly closure of high level waste activities."
The motion called the chairman’s action an “end run” around the four other commissioners and charged, “The chairman’s unilateral decision to halt review of the license application violates NRC regulations." A Las Vegas Review-Journal report on the filing gives extensive detail on the amount of weapons-related waste that has piled up in Washington and South Carolina, the two states that are suing to block the Department of Energy’s decision to withdraw the Yucca application.
The Las Vegas newspaper also notes the “unconfirmed rumors . . . of palace intrigue [swirling] at the top levels of the agency” about the content of Volume 3 of the NRC’s application review and the possibility that the full commission may vote soon on the ALSB review. It also reports that Nevada politicians are praising Jaczko’s actions.
The South Carolina Attorney General’s office has written the U.S. Department of Justice and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission querying the NRC’s recent moves to close out the Department of Energy’s license application for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.
"In responding, we request that you honor the spirit of our question, rather than splitting any technical hairs in how our question is framed," said the letter, signed by Andrew A. Fitz, senior counsel for the attorney general’s office. "In our opinion, this information is relevant to our mutual obligation to continue to inform the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals of the status of the administrative matter before the NRC."
South Carolina is a principal plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the Department of Energy’s decision to withdraw its application for Yucca. Originally filed by Aiken Country, S.C., home of the Savannah River site, the suit has since been joined by the State of South Carolina and Washington State, home of the Hanford Reservation. Both Savannah River and Hanford house spent fuel and other nuclear by-products that would eventually be stored at Yucca Mountain. The suit alleges that DOE’s decision reneges on the federal government’s obligation to provide a
permanent repository under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
Fitz asked either the DOJ or the NRC to either confirm of deny reports that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has instructed the agency staff to start closing out the DOE application, as reported yesterday by Nuclear Townhall. Jaczko has initiated the action even though the full commission has not yet voted on the Atomic Safety Licensing Board’s decision rejecting the shutting down of Yucca, which was issued on June 29.
The letter is addressed to both Ellen J. Durkee, of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department, and John F. Cordes, Solicitor for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "We are directing our inquiry to you, rather than the NRC directly, based in the fact that our question relates to a matter in litigation in which you represent the NRC, among other respondents," wrote Fitz.
Testimony in the D.C. lawsuit has been suspended pending a vote by the Commission on whether to accept or reject the ASLB’s finding.
Rumors are that Chairman Jaczko has been unable to assemble the votes for needed for a rebuttal. Jaczko has directed much of his attention toward closing down Yucca since being appointed chairman in 2009 under the championship of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, where the repository is located. Senator Reid is currently locked in a tight race for re-election against Republican challenger Sharon Angle, who holds a 4-point lead according to the latest poll.
To anybody surveying the landscape of nuclear energy right now, it’s becoming more and more obvious that small modular reactors are quickly emerging as a viable and necessary option.
With Progress Energy effectively suspending their reactor initiative last week and with many "First Mover" projects grinding along, it seems plausible that building a full-scale U.S. reactor could be a 10-year, $10-billion undertaking unless the current paradigm changes.
Having licensed designs on the shelf will help; however, few American utilities may willing to run this triathlon without carbon pricing in an projected era of sustained low natural gas prices. Small reactors, however, could offer a different dynamic if developers are able to consummate their designs and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responds accordingly.
Last week the good news was that Hyperion, the New Mexico company and leading mini-SMR pioneer, signed a memorandum of agreement with the Savannah River National Laboratory to explore the possibility of building a demonstration reactor on the site.
This week the good news is that the project is finding favorable review in South Carolina. In a column in "The State", business columnist Andrew Shain expresses enthusiasm for Hyperion’s business-like attitudes. “Hyperion impressed Savannah River National Solutions officials because the company came showing the technology first instead of asking for money,” reports Shain.
“They were not looking for a hand out from us or the government,” Pete Knollmeyer, vice president of strategic planning at Savannah River National Solutions, tells Shain.
Comments from South Carolina readers are what you’d hope to hear: “Sounds like a Common Sense idea that should have been explored a long time ago.” “The Navy has been running ships the size of cities for years with small nukes.”
It’s good to hear so much hope outside-the-beltway when sometimes there is so little inside.
When newly confirmed NRC Commissioner George Apostolokis cited a conflict emanating from prior work for the Sandia National Laboratories and abruptly exited stage right in mid-July from the Commission’s looming vote over the Atomic Safety Licensing Board’s rejection of the Energy Department’s Yucca Mountain license application withdrawal, all eyes turned to the recused Commissioner’s freshman colleague William Ostendorff.
With the Commission now levelized at two Democrats and two Republicans — and conventional wisdom suggesting that incumbent Commissioner Kristine Svinicki will negate a likely vote by Chairman Gregory Jaczko to overturn the lower panel’s ruling — Ostendorff has emerged as the pivotal vote on the matter regardless of what fellow Commissioner William Magwood, a Democratic appointee, decides to do.
According to a mix of NRC observers a vote on the issue ranges from either "imminent" to "before Congress returns in September."
Ostendorff’s vote can either ensure a 2-2 Commission stalemate or 3-1 majority vote to sustain the ASLB decision — or result in overturning the board if both Ostendorff and Magwood side with Jaczko — a former staffer for Yucca opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
For Ostendorff, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A decision by the Commission to overturn the ASLB and allow a DOE license withdrawal could be a fatal blow to the two-decades-old $10 billion national repository program. The Commission action will directly impact both a legal challenge to the Obama Administration’s termination effort and Congressional initiatives to revive the program.
Ostendorff’s vote is also complicated by political realities. He represents a Republican-blessed appointment to serve out the term of former NRC Chairman Dale Klein, a Yucca Mountain proponent who has been openly critical of the Obama Administration’s handing of Yucca Mountain. With the term expiring in less than a year — June 30, 2011 — Ostendorff’s chances for re-appointment would be clouded by a vote undermining the ASLB’s unanimous decision given outspoken Republican support for an increasingly bipartisan Congressional campaign to continue the program.
"Based on his Yucca vote, Ostendorff will either be a hero or a heretic," said one Capitol Hill observer.
Ostendorff’s decision is made even more ticklish by his February 9, 2010, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works confirmation hearing. In response to a question — posed by the Committee’s chair for Senator Reid — on whether Ostendorff would "second guess the Department of Energy’s decision to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain from NRC’s review", the prospective Commissioner said: "No."
In an early August decision declining to disqualify himself from consideration of the pending Yucca Mountain issue, Ostendorff offered a few clues:
"At the time of Senator Boxer’s question, I had only limited knowledge and appreciation for the matters at issue as part of the licensing proceeding, as well as only limited familiarity with DOE’s latest efforts with regard to that application. I certainly had no knowledge of the legal issues pertaining to the withdrawal of the application.
"I understood Senator Boxer’s question to ask whether or not I would take a position on DOE’s decision to seek withdrawal of the application as a matter of policy. My belief at the time was, and still is, that it was not my place to question the decision made by the Secretary of Energy to pursue such a withdrawal.
"It was not my belief, nor do I think that any reasonable person could conclude as such in light of all the facts and circumstances, that Senator Boxer was asking for my opinion as to whether the application could be withdrawn as a matter of law. It was simply not conceivable to me that the Senator would ask me to provide an on-the-spot opinion on a legally and technically complex subject with simply a ‘yes or no’ answer, or to opine on the matter without having been given sufficient opportunity to understand the extensive history or complicated technical or legal issues."
Colleagues who have been associated with Ostendorff — during his tenures as principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Counsel and Staff Director for the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee — say they would be surprised by an Ostendorff decision to reverse the ASLB finding. Speaking of the buttoned-down former nuclear. submarine commander who has been known to sport an atomic tie, one former colleague said: "He is a man of principle who understands the rule of law and respects subordinates. He will do the right thing."
When U.S. Supreme Court Justices appear before the Senate for confirmation hearings, they are never -– never -– asked respond to questions on how they would vote in specific cases. Thus, a whole line of Supreme Court nominees have dutifully responded that they have no preconceptions and will only follow the letter of the law when it comes to deciding hot-button issues such as abortion and gun control.
Yet when three of the present five Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners went through a joint confirmation hearing earlier this year, they were asked specifically if they would “second-guess” the Department of Energy on the biggest hot-button issue on the nuclear energy platter -– the fate of Yucca Mountain.
In confirmation hearing testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on February 9, 2010, there was this "brief exchange" with Senator Barbara Boxer, as follows:
Now, I have a question here for all three of you from Senator Reid. You can just answer it yes or no. If confirmed, would you second guess the Department of Energy’s decision to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain from NRC’s review?
Mr. Magwood: No.
Senator Boxer: Okay. Anybody else?
Mr. Apostolakis: No.
Mr. Ostendorff: No.
Senator Boxer: Thank you. I think he will be very pleased with that.
What’s going on? Should NRC nominees be able to invoke the same standards of neutrality as other regulatory or judicial nominees?
Has the NRC — which now is comprised of three former U.S. Senate staffers, including a former staff member handpicked by the Senate Majority Leader as well as a former Clinton and Bush political appointee — become completely politicized?
Or is it unrealistic or even mistaken to expect NRC Commissioners to be uncommitted, apolitical arbitrators in the first place — given that they are appointed on the basis of a political formula, which dictates that the President’s party controls three out of five seats, including the Chairmanship?
What is the impact of this growing politicalization on the agency’s integrity, objectiveness and credibility?
Join the Townhall debate!
In supplemental comments outlining a proposed Commission initiative for a final update of a waste confidence decision, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko suggested that 300 years of on-site storage might be plausible to deal with spent fuel from commercial nuclear plants.
Jaczko’s new proposal comes at a time the Commission is preparing to also deal with the question of whether to accept the U.S. Department of Energy’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain geological repository. The Commission is legally required to issue a waste confidence ruling before any construction of new nuclear reactors can go ahead.
The DOE’s license withdrawal action -– prompted by the Obama’s Administration campaign promise to terminate Yucca -– created the possibility that the failure to produce a waste confidence ruling might unhinge any nuclear new build blossom.
The NRC Chairman even dropped a hint that on-site storage might continue “indefinitely,” an idea that has not yet entered the waste confidence discussion to date. The full five-member Commission will have to approve anything the chairman proposes.
Jaczko noted that "while I remain confident that we will achieve a safe and environmentally sound means to permanently dispose of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, I believe that the prudent course of action is to direct the staff to conduct further analysis and update the Waste Confidence findings to account for the possibility of additional, indefinite storage of spent nuclear fuel."
In a week when comprehensive energy legislation with meaningful nuclear provisions craters, the next round of loan guarantees look shaky and the completion of Areva’s flagship Flammanville plant is delayed, there isn’t too much in the way of good news.
One glimmer of hope, however. According to Scientific American, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be laboring toward approval of the Westinghouse AP1000 by September 2011. The NRC has been fiddling around since 2005 with a huge concrete-and-steel shield that is supposed to protect the reactor from airplane attacks.
Apparently the Department of Energy test in the 1990s showing that an F-4 traveling at 500 miles an hour would disintegrate if it hit a containment wall has not been sufficient. Westinghouse originally had the shield at ground level. Then after concerns about terrorist hijacked airplane crashes arose, it voluntarily lifted the shield to a more elevated position. After considering the new design for two years, however, the NRC decided it was not earthquake rigorous and sent Westinghouse back to the drawing boards.
Westinghouse has not yet submitted a new design, but Scientific American reporter Robynne Boyd ventures a guess that its design approval may come by next year. The date is significant because it marks the time China is expected to start its second round of AP1000 construction at Sanmen. The first two reactors are well underway and expected to be completed in 2013. Toshiba, which now owns Westinghouse, and the Shaw Group, of Baton Rouge, are participating in the projects. After units 3 and 4, however, China plans to build the next two units without foreign help.
To the swift goes the race.
The New York Times was party to an excursion into the fantasy world of wind-and-solar energy yesterday by announcing a “historic crossover” between the costs of nuclear and solar energy.
The hypothesis is based on sheer extrapolations by a couple of academics who spend all their time opposing nuclear energy. Nevertheless it was judged creditable enough to earn a 2,100-word feature in yesterday’s Times business section.
The source for this supposed historical event is a single position paper issued recently by a Duke University professor and his graduate student claiming the “crossover” just occurred – at 16 cents per kilowatt-hour. “Solar photovoltaics have joined the ranks of lower-cost alternatives to new nuclear plants,” announced Professor Joseph O. Blackburn, who wrote his “Solar and Nuclear Costs – The Historic Crossover, for NC Warn, a North Carolina non-profit “working for climate protection through clean efficient energy.”
From there, Diana S. Powers, who wrote the Times article, quickly switches to Mark Cooper, of the University of Vermont Law School, who has long issued papers claiming extravagant costs for nuclear. The 16-cent “crossover” compares to the 4-cents-per-kwh cost at which current reactors are running, but of course Cooper and Blackburn are talking about future reactor construction, where anything is plausible. Other sources quoted to benchmark this historic event include Doug Koplow, an economist and founder of Earth Track, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Marshall Goldberg of the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a research organization in Washington. The article also quotes a 25-year-old Forbes article calling the first generation of nuclear plant construction "the largest managerial disaster in business history.".
Along with other energy capital projects, the costs of new nuclear construction have escalated and may continue to escalate. With China putting huge demands on the world’s concrete and steel – and with enormous Nuclear Regulatory Commission scrutiny – the precise cost of the first reactors due to be deployed between 2016 – 2020 is still an arithmetic exercise.
But all of these factors apply to wind and solar as well. The concrete-and-steel requirements for both wind and solar will be multiples greater than for nuclear. As a Roanoke Times article on today’s Nuclear Townhall indicates, a wind farm built on the very best mountaintop location projects out to $8 billion for 1000 megawatts – and that doesn’t include the natural gas turbines that will be required to back it up. The project, Virginia’s first wind farm, has already been delayed five years by bureaucratic review, lawsuits and environmental opposition and has not yet found funding. No one has ever built a solar installation larger than 15 MW so anyone projecting the costs to a utility-sized facility of 1000 MW is playing sheer make-believe.
Nonetheless, the Times does a marvelous job of perpetuating the fantasy that wind and solar energy are the wave of the future while nuclear is rapidly receding into the past. (This will come as news to the rest of the world, which is building 54 reactors with dozens more on the drawing boards.)