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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Hedges’


Monday, September 13th, 2010

By Steve Hedges

John Rowe, the chief executive of U.S. nuclear heavyweight Exelon Corporation, has gone public with a blanket conclusion that natural gas prices are going to make building new nuclear power reactors difficult. As long as gas prices stay low, he told Bloomberg in an interview published on Friday, “you can’t economically build a merchant nuclear plant."

The Bloomberg interview highlights Rowe’s bottomline market thesis that — as long as low natural gas prices persist — new U.S. nuclear construction will be postponed by a "decade, maybe two."

Rowe isn’t the first to note that natural gas prices could negatively impact the renewal of nuclear energy in the U.S., which is lagging behind Europe and Asia in the construction of new nuclear power reactors.

What’s striking, though, is that Exelon has 17 nuclear reactors at 10 power stations, which comprise 20% of the U.S. commercial nuclear fleet. Merchant plants, which sell electricity wholesale, are also in a different class than those reactors run by utilities with a dedicated customer base.

Rowe’s take is interesting, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. A recent set of Standard and Poors reports on the cost of nuclear power plant construction found that, in the U.S., the cost of building all plants — coal, gas, wind and nuclear — has risen dramatically. S&P cites an IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates’ index of costs, and notes that, in the U.S., a power plant that cost $10 billion to build in 2000 would cost $21.5 billion today. Base costs in the U.S., the report states, “have grown 20% faster in the U.S compared with Europe over the past decade.”Why the difference between the U.S. and Europe? When it comes to nuclear, S&P states that, “A steady stream of reactors established a relatively cheap supply chain and skilled labor force in Europe and Asia.”

Not so in the U.S., the report states, where a virtual moratorium on nuclear reactor construction has diminished an important skilled labor pool.

“Amid serious doubts over the future of the U.S. nuclear industry during the 1980s, the pool of nuclear construction managers and specialized workers dried up and remains shallow today,” S&P reports. “Several specialized skills (such as highquality welding) that are unique to the construction of nuclear power plants are now hard to come by in the U.S. We expect some specialists to transfer from France, Japan, and other nations to provide expertise and increase the workforce. However, these countries have substantial building programs of their own and may not be able to export experienced manpower.

“The dearth of experienced nuclear engineers and construction workers is a key factor that also increases costs.”

Rowe’s position aside, perhaps the bigger threat to the Nuclear renaissance in the U.S. isn’t the costs of other forms of energy, but the cost of not doing anything.

Bloomberg noted that, “Exelon… on June 11 asked to withdraw its application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and run two reactors in Victoria County, Texas.

‘We haven’t totally abandoned it, but we’ve turned it into an early site permit and it’s very unlikely we would do it for a long time,’ Rowe said. An early site permit means a location has met some safety and environmental requirements.”

S&P notes the uncertainty of both continued low natural gas prices and a climate change bill in Congress that could tax carbon output. With a carbon cost applied, it found that the capital costs of nuclear versus natural gas power are not that different, though natural gas production is still cheaper. Nuclear, it stated, could compete with the proposed government loan guarantees for new construction.

“Our results show that a merchant nuclear plant with $6,500 per kW in capital costs is likely uncompetitive without a federal loan guarantee under the prevailing forward gas prices, but can be competitive at natural gas prices as low as $4 per mmBtu with subsidies,” S&P concluded.

But cost isn’t everything. Hydraulic fracturing, which wrests natural gas from shale, has helped increase the natural gas supply by 35 percent in the last two years, according to a December 2009 New York Times article. That has driven down prices. But this method of drilling has also increased the environmental controversy over wresting cheaper natural gas from shale.

“The drilling boom is raising concern in many parts of the country, and the reaction is creating political obstacles for the gas industry,” the Times reported. “Hazards like methane contamination of drinking water wells, long known in regions where gas production was common, are spreading to populous areas that have little history of coping with such risks, but happen to sit atop shale beds.

“And a more worrisome possibility has come to light. A string of incidents in places like Wyoming and Pennsylvania in recent years has pointed to a possible link between hydraulic fracturing and pollution of groundwater supplies. In the worst case, such pollution could damage crucial supplies of water used for drinking and agriculture."


Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

By Steve Hedges
Nothing in the energy field comes easy. So it is hardly surprising that a series of reports out recently have put a damper on any enthusiasm nuclear power advocates may have felt for the so-called “Nuclear Renaissance.”

A hint of the new skepticism , in the U.S. at least, is a central theme in a recent series of Standard and Poor’s assessment of the nuclear industry.

"The nuclear renaissance that seemed imminent in 2007,” S&P wrote, “has slowed due to moderate natural gas prices and the credit crisis that followed the economic downturn, which limited funding options."

What gives S&P pause is not the viability of nuclear power, but a string of cost overruns and delays involving nuclear projects in a variety of countries, and the projected higher costs of reactor construction in the U.S. due to supply prices and a lack of skilled labor.

The rating agency also notes the failure so far of the federal government to grant promised loan guarantees for new reactor construction in the U.S.

Despite the fanfare and excitement brought on the Obama administration’s $36 billion ramping-up of loan guarantees (on top of $18 billion provided in the 2005 Energy Policy Act) to back nuclear expansion as part of its energy and climate strategy –- only one such guarantee has been arranged so far. That $8.3 billion guarantee, of course, went to the Vogtle nuclear power plant near Augusta, Ga.

Other reactor projects -– Calvert Cliffs in Maryland and the South Texas Project, to name just two –- are hopeful for similar guarantees, but still waiting. Others are at the gate.

“In response to its $18.5 billion nuclear loan guarantee program,” S&P reports, “the U.S. Dept. of Energy has received 19 applications from 17 companies to build new nuclear plants. In terms of financing needs, these requests total $188 billion and average an all-in cost of $6,500 per kilowatt (kW).”

Elsewhere, the renaissance seems to be blossoming. In Asia, for instance, just about every country seems intent on joining the nuclear power race between China (27 plants underway) and South Korea (7 underway) and Japan (5 under construction).

“In other countries, new nuclear construction is in full swing,” S&P reports. “Many have adopted nuclear generation as an integral energy source option; about 60 nuclear plants with various reactor technologies are currently under construction around the world, and many more are in the advanced development and planning stages.”

S&P even has positive words for Europe where “a steady stream of new reactors in Europe and Asia has established a relatively cheap supply chain and a skilled labor force there.”

France, though, is concerned about future competition. France recently issued an internal blueprint for new ways to re-engineer its well established nuclear firms, AREVA and EDF. Those two companies, along with a few other French nuclear partners, might need the boost. For instance, the internal report to President Nicolas Sarkozy noted:

“The actors in the French nuclear industry (EDF, AREVA, ASLTOM) are the uncontested industrial leaders in France and are the ones to have first acquired expertise in this area. On the international level, the challenge is newer and more difficult: France must capture a significant part of the nuclear plant market, a market that is extremely segmented and very competitive.”

Perhaps that sentiment just reflects good old fashioned competition. But France’s nationalist fervor over its nuclear industry is not uncommon. As S&P found, “Nuclear power generation in China, Russia, and South Korea is essentially a government enterprise. Similarly, the French government owns 91% of AREVA S.A. and 85% of Electricite de France S.A. (EDF), the two major domestic nuclear players. The Japanese rely on private companies for nuclear development, but the government encourages companies to establish conglomerates.”

 Where does that leave the U.S.? Overall, the S&P reports spell gloom – though not doom – for the U.S. nuclear industry. Costs here are higher here, the reports state, and indecision over nuclear power’s future has meant that expertise and skill sets have migrated overseas.

“Amid serious doubts over the future of the U.S. nuclear industry during the 1980s, the pool of nuclear construction managers and specialized workers dried up and remains shallow today,” the ratings agency reports. “Several specialized skills (such as high quality welding) that are unique to the construction of nuclear power plants are now hard to come by in the U.S.”

There’s really only one way to fix that problem – borrow the expertise until U.S. firms can gain a beachhead again. It’s not surprising, then, that foreign nuclear firms are so heavily involved in U.S. projects, like France’s EDF’s role in the Calvert Cliffs, Md., reactor project.

First, though, U.S. projects have to break through the regulatory muddle,  As S&P observes, “the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is reviewing five types for new plant design certification: Toshiba Corp.'s advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR), AREVA S.A./ Electricite de France S.A.'s (EDF) European pressurized reactor (EPR), Westinghouse's AP-1000, Mitsubishi Corp.'s advanced pressurized water reactor (APWR) and General Electric Co.'s economic simplified boiling water reactor. The builders claim to be able to construct plants in three years from the first concrete pouring to the first fueling. But the construction track records for these technologies is not very long.”

As noted in Nuclear Townhall Aug. 23, the most vibrant sector of the U.S. nuclear industry right now seems to be one of the oldest: The Tennessee Valley Authority. By the end of 2010, TVA will have completed several rector projects that have created thousands of jobs. And its board recently approved the investment of $250 million toward the completion of a Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama. And those projects are on budget and schedule. It can be done.


Friday, July 23rd, 2010

By Steve Hedges
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s legal staff has advised the commission that three of its five members do not have to recuse themselves from consideration of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada nuclear waste facility.

In an 8-page brief, the NRC’s lawyers disagree with claims that  three NRC commissioners should withdraw from the Yucca debate because of alleged bias.

The request for the recusal of the three commissioners has become one of the thornier legal sideshows in the Yucca Mountain dispute.

The issue is the “No” answer from three commissioners –William Magwood, George Apostolakis, and William Ostendorff — during their Feb. 9, 2010 confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate. The question was posed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), on behalf of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), a strong opponent of Yucca and the current Senate majority leader.

Boxer asked the commissioners if they would oppose an effort by the U.S. Department of Energy to withdraw its license application for Yucca from the NRC. Upon hearing the “No” answers, Boxers said that, “I think he (Reid) will be very pleased.”

The parties that are fighting to keep Yucca open, including the states of Washington and South Carolina, the counties of Aiken, South Carolina and White Pine, Nevada, and an association of utility commissioners, contend that — in light of their nomination declaration — the three commissioners have already voiced a bias against Yucca as well as their intent of supporting DOE’s efforts to withdraw its license.

One commissioner, George Apostolakis, recused himself July 15 from Yucca, citing his earlier work with a DOE national laboratory.

Regarding the commissioners’ statement, the NRC lawyers concluded that pro-Yucca litigants, “fail to carry their burden to demonstrate that, as a matter of law, the listed commissioners have prejudged the issues regarding the DOE motion or that a reasonable person, cognizant of all the circumstances, would harbor doubts about their impartiality.”

The NRC lawyers did agree with a contention by the states, counties and utility commissioners who favor Yucca that the NRC’s standards, “are generally the same as those for the federal judiciary.”

However, the NRC counsel argued that, “There is a presumption that public servants and administrative officers will discharge their responsibilities with integrity.”

The NRC filing notes that, “An adjudicator must recuse himself where he is biased against a party, or where there is the appearance of bias or prejudgment of the factual issues.”

But it adds, “Here, the Commissioners’ answers do not appear to be a prejudgment of fact because the answers can reasonably be construed to pertain to DOE’s policy reasons for withdrawal when viewed in the context of the surrounding circumstances. The Commissioners’ Senate confirmation hearing was held on February 9, 2010, prior to the filing of the DOE motion and subsequent reply that delineated DOE’s legal arguments as to why the withdrawal should be granted.”

The NRC staff concludes: “While a decision on whether to recuse is within the discretion of each Commissioner, neither recusal nor disqualification is required if the affected Commissioners determine that their prior comments do not reflect prejudgment or the appearance of prejudgment of adjudicatory issues associated with the DOE motion and that, in fact, they have not prejudged the DOE withdrawal motion.”


Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

By Steve Hedges
A sampling of the legal arguments filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over its deliberations involving Yucca Mountain reveals some very blunt language and fundamental disagreement over whether Congress left any wiggle room in its selection of Yucca as the nation’s nuclear waste repository.

The Department of Energy and state of Nevada say that is did. Everyone else, from several states to a Native American community, says that it didn’t — and they do so with some very deliberate jabs at DOE, Nevada and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In their filings with the NRC, proponents of Yucca, armed with a supportive decision from the NRC’s licensing board, suggest that the DOE and NRC are striding off on a political mission to shut Yucca down.

DOE and the state of Nevada, who oppose Yucca in their briefs, use defensive language to question why the pro-Yucca crowd could question the legal process now underway.

For instance, DOE begins its brief with the statement:

 “The States of Washington and South Carolina, Aiken County, and White Pine County (“Movants”), in an opportunistic and untimely attempt to disable this Commission from performing its statutory duties,” have filed a brief arguing that three Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members should recuse themselves from considering the Yucca issue because of possible bias.
Nevada’s attorney general, making a similar argument, accuses the pro-Yucca parties of an “outrageous tactic”

Earlier this year, the Obama administration opted to have the DOE withdraw the license application for Yucca that it had submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But a three-person licensing board within the commission – the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) ruled in June that DOE doesn’t have the authority to substitute its policy for a Congressional act that dictates that Yucca be decided on the merits.

The NRC Commission then promptly announced that it would accept briefs on Yucca and consider a formal review of the ASLB decision. A final round of responses were submitted by parties to the proceeding on July 19.
Not surprisingly, those states, counties and organizations that are counting on Yucca as a place to put nuclear waste agree with the licensing board’s decision.
Those opposed to Yucca – namely DOE and Nevada – say that Congress didn’t necessarily mean that Yucca was the only place to store nuclear waste.
Yucca proponents also swing some pretty sharp elbows in their briefs. Phrases like not seeing, “the forest for the trees” and “fundamental error” pop up here and there.

For instance, South Carolina notes that, “The DOE arguments simply ignore the forest for the trees. DOE relies on intricate, microlevel principles of statutory construction, and ignores the plain intent of Congress decreeing that Congress itself has made the policy decision that a license for a repository at Yucca Mountain should be pursued. This issue has been removed from the discretion of the Executive Branch. No amount of parsing the fine details of the language of the NWPA or of NRC regulations can empower the current Administration to contravene the clearly-expressed will of Congress.”

It continues: “There is no suggestion at all in the legislative history that anyone contemplated the possibility that a later Administration would attempt to decline to proceed with the Yucca project. What is clear, however, is that Congress has consistently decided for decades now ‘to provide close Congressional control [over the repository development process] to assure that the political and programmatic errors of our past experience will not be repeated.’
“Congress did not intend for its policy choices about Yucca Mountain, choices that had been in the making for fifteen years, to be overturned at the whim of a subsequent Administration.”
Minnesota’s Prairie Island Indian Community argues that DOE’s decision to withdraw its Yucca license application took place without any proper consideration.

“DOE’s claim that the DOE Secretary, as a matter of policy, may withdraw its License Application and thereby terminate the Yucca Mountain repository project, as being ‘contrary to the public interest,’ is also completely unexplained. The DOE Secretary undertook no process whatsoever to evaluate any policy considerations, such as to undertake a formal process such as that used by the DOE to issue its Final Interpretation, to develop a reasoned policy decision that the DOE now claims the Secretary has made. No reasons are given for DOE’s unforeseen reversal of its duties under the NWPA and Standard Contract, although DOE itself has acknowledged that the reason does not relate to safety concerns.’ ”

The Prairie Island community also attacks the state of Nevada’s legal logic:
“Nevada’s Brief…also makes a number of oblique intimations that the DOE License Application, or underlying studies, suggest that Yucca Mountain is or may be unsafe as a repository. Of course, DOE itself has not made this claim, and any such suggestions are meritless and off-limits because the license review process in this case is supposed to determine these matters.”

Nye County, Nevada argues that DOE had its chance to shut Yucca down, and blew it.

“DOE was given express authority to terminate the repository process on technical, not policy, grounds, but only during the site characterization phase if the site was found unsuitable. … Conspicuously absent is any authority for DOE to make a project termination decision after that time has passed.”

Nye County continues to argue that, if DOE wants to shut Yucca down, it should find another way to do it:

“It remains unexplained why DOE has not pursued a Congressional amendment to the NWPA here. That avenue is still available, but the NWPA does not authorize DOE to abandon Yucca Mountain unilaterally.”

What do the DOE and Nevada, which both oppose Yucca, have to say about it?

First, Nevada attacks the argument by some states that three of the five NRC commissioners have already said that they would not oppose a DOE effort to shut Yucca down.

The three made those statements during their public U.S. Senate confirmation hearings in February. The question was posed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), on behalf of Reid. Boxer asked for a yes or no answer, and each commissioner said, “no,” – they would not block DOE’s efforts to withdraw its Yucca application.

One of the commissioners last week recused himself from the Yucca issue because of prior work with the Sandia National Laboratory, which included a review of the project.

Nevada’s attorney general, Catherine Cortez Masto, uses strong language to argue that the commissioners’ hearing statements are irrelevant.

“Some of the parties opposing review accuse the three newest NRC commissioners of prejudgment and caving in to political interference, hoping that this will intimidate them into recusing themselves, deprive the Commission of the quorum it needs to take review, and prevent the collegial Commission from performing its statutory duty to decide important legal questions. This outrageous tactic should be seen for what it is – an utterly baseless effort that confuses mudslinging with proper legal argument.

“Suffice it to say, for now, for the purposes of this response brief, that these commissioners have done nothing to deserve this disrespectful treatment.”

Nevada also argues that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that Congress passed in 1982 “does not prevent DOE from withdrawing its application.”

“First, no opponent has called the Commission’s attention to anything in the text or the legislative history of the NWPA showing that Congress considered the precise question whether DOE may withdraw its application. Withdrawal of the application is simply not mentioned, let alone discussed, anywhere in the statute or in its voluminous legislative history.”

Nevada’s argument appears to be that, since Congress never said that DOE could not withdraw its Yucca application, DOE can do it.

Nevada argues in the end that the NRC “should take review” of the licensing board’s decision and, “reverse it insofar as it denies DOE’s motion to withdraw its Yucca Mountain license application with prejudice.”
DOE, in its brief to the NRC, states that efforts by pro-Yucca forces to have the three NRC commissioners recused, “does not come close to meeting the high standard for disqualification.”

It argues that the commissioners’ statements during their February confirmation hearings are irrelevant, and that the only issue is, “ a legal one: the specific interplay among the Atomic Energy Act, the DOE Organization Act, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), and whether the NWPA deprives DOE of its pre-existing authority to decide not to proceed with this license application.”

The DOE brief also criticizes the pro-Yucca parties for raising questions about the commissioners’ Congressional testimony too late.

 “If the Movants had real concerns about the Commissioners’ alleged bias, then they should not have sat on their hands. These issues could have been raised when the Commission was first asked in April to weigh in on the withdrawal proceedings. Instead, Movants chose to ‘wait and see’ what the Commission would do.”

Regarding the larger question of DOE’s effort to withdraw its Yucca license, DOE has said earlier in a statement, “The Department remains confident that we have the legal authority to withdraw the application for the Yucca Mountain repository. We believe the administrative board’s decision is wrong and anticipate that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will reverse that decision.”


Friday, July 16th, 2010

“This has to be based on data and science and technology and we cannot allow politics to guide what we do.” – Gov. Christine Gregoire

By Steve Hedges
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire says she’s been dealing with the issue of nuclear waste for more than 20 years, and she has the logic down cold.

As she told President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future Thursday, there are a few key principles to her formula.

First, there’s science. Then there’s technology. And then there is politics – two kinds. There is politics with a “Big P,” she said, and politics with a “Little P.”

Politics with a “Little P” means working with the local community to win acceptance for a plan for treating nuclear waste.

It’s the “Big P” politics that causes the problems, Gregoire told the commission. And it’s “Big P” politics, Gregoire implied, that has led to the Obama administration’s decision to shut down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.

Gregoire didn’t say that directly. But during her talk with the commissioners it was hard to miss her inference.

Yucca was authorized by Congress, she said, but it has been, “taken away for reasons I don’t know and I don’t understand. The reason we’ve lost trust on that is that we don’t’ know if it’s based on science and technology. We have spent billions of dollars. We have prepared Hanford waste to go to Yucca.

“When we allow politics or anything else to get involved, we lose the trust of the people of Washington. This has to be based on data and science and technology and we cannot allow politics to guide what we do.”

Hanford, Washington, a center of U.S. military nuclear production, is sitting on thousands of tons of nuclear waste. The people of Hanford and Washington, Gregoire said, have been planning on moving that waste and cleaning up Hanford’s soil for years.

Those hopes rested on the construction of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which Congress designated in 1987 as the nation’s nuclear waste repository.

So it was notable that the Blue Ribbon Commission, formed earlier this year to examine waste storage alternatives, held two days of hearings at Hanford.
Hanford , in south central Washington, was established in 1943 to build weapons grade plutonium, and it did so throughout the Cold War until 1989. The biggest worry there is 149 single-cell underground storage tanks filled with liquid waste generated by the process of making plutonium for nuclear weapons. More than 40 of those tanks are “leakers,” Gregoire said.

During her talk, Gregoire’s primary focus was on the long-running state-federal partnership to clean up Hanford. But with speaker after speaker at the commission’s Hanford hearing focused on the decision by Obama, press by Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada democrat and the current Senate majority leader, to shut Yucca down.

In turn, the hearing showed the ripple effect that closing Yucca will have on the communities where reactors have been running and producing energy and where waste has been accumulating and stored, all in the belief that the Congressionally-mandated Yucca repository would one day be available.

Right now nuclear waste is stored at more than 100 reactor sites while states waited for Yucca.

DOE, which was charged by Congress to build Yucca, earlier this year called it, “unworkable,” but has yet to provide scientific data to support that assessment.

Reid’s opposition is based on the premise that Yucca is too close to Las Vegas, and that a leak or an incident involving nuclear material being transported to Yucca will damage Las Vegas and Nevada’s tourism industry.

But Gregoire and several other witnesses before the Blue Ribbon Commission on Wednesday and Thursday noted that the selection of Yucca has been a 20-year long process, and that other sites – including Hanford – were considered before Congress settled on Yucca.

Upon learning of administration efforts to close Yucca, Washington, South Carolina, the counties of Aiken, S.C. and White Pine, Nev., as well as an association of utility commissioners have sued to keep it open.
Gregoire, in fact, told the commission Thursday that she has personally been involved in negotiations with DOE to clean up Hanford for two decades as director of the state’s environmental agency,  its attorney general and now its governor.

She noted that DOE is half-way done with a $12.3 billion waste treatment plant that will vitrify weapons waste to specifications designed for storage in Yucca. If Yucca is cancelled, she said, that will put the waste treatment plant’s mission in limbo.

"I don’t have any confidence that we’ll pick another (deep disposal) site anytime soon, and even then, the process will take years," Gregoire said. "Hanford cannot wait."

Waste in seven Hanford storage tanks has been removed – no simple feat, she said, given the fact that no one knew how to handle that waste beforehand.

The present danger, Gregoire and other speakers reminded the commission, is that leaking tanks are spreading in underground plumes that threaten the nearby Columbia River, one of the West’s vital waterways. Hanford stretches along 51 miles of Columbia River bank.

“We’ve got to get those tanks emptied,” Gregoire said. “There’s a plume that’s headed toward the Columbia River. We’ve got to stop it. We don’t know how to stop it.”


Thursday, July 15th, 2010

"Boy oh boy, what a mess we created making those bombs.  Now we have to fix it up," the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune reported that commission member and former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici said after a commission tour of Hanford.

By Steve Hedges
Washington State will use a visit by the President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of nuclear waste Thursday to press the Administration to halt its effort to shut down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, telling the commission that Yucca is the only viable option available “after 28 years of science.”

In prepared remarks made available early Thursday, Washington’s attorney general states, “To ensure the timely availability of a repository for high-level radioactive waste, the Blue Ribbon Commission must include the Yucca Mountain facility as one of the alternatives it examines.

“Decades of delay means decades more delay in achieving cleanup of our environment, all the while exposing the citizens of Washington State and our environment to the risk of further leaks and releases.”

Closing Yucca Mountain, Washington state argued, would also mean disrupting construction of a $12.3 billion waste treatment that is being built at Hanford to prepare radioactive waste from government weapons programs for storage at Yucca.

In the statement to be read by Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Sue Wilson for Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington state also argues that the U.S. Department of Energy, “must not abandon its application to license the Yucca Mountain facility, so that it remains an option for the national repository for high-level radioactive waste.

“Finally, as to Attorney General’s request of the Commission: At this juncture, there is only one legal process in place for developing a geologic repository – that provided by the current NWPA (Nuclear Waste Policy Act). And, under the NWPA, there is only one entity that may take Yucca Mountain off the table – and that is Congress.

“The convening of a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine alternatives to Yucca Mountain and recommend possible amendments to the NWPA cannot substitute for a process already provided by law.”

The comments were part of a two-day visit to Hanford, Washington by the Blue Ribbon Commission, a group established by the administration to explore alternatives to Yucca for nuclear waste storage.

Though Congress determined in 1987 that Yucca Mountain, Nevada should be used as a deep-storage facility for the nation’s nuclear waste, the Obama administration and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), the Senate majority leader, oppose the use of Yucca and have moved to block its construction.

The administration has cut off Yucca funding and its Department of Energy attempted last spring to withdraw the license for Yucca from consideration before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

However, a three-person licensing board within the NRC ruled in June that DOE does not that authority to withdraw the license, since the selection of the Yucca site was determined by Congress. Currently, nuclear waste is stored at reactor and government sites around the country.

In Washington state’s case, that means tons of waste is kept at Hanford, which produced plutonium for nuclear weapons until 1989.

Washington, South Carolina, the counties of Aiken, S.C. and White Pine, Nev., and a group of utility commissioners have taken legal action to stop efforts to shut Yucca down. They have filed suit against the government in federal court and have filed motions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has said that it will now rule on Yucca’s viability.

On Wednesday, the Blue Ribbon Commission heard from several Native American representatives and other local leaders and environmentalists about the impact of keeping waste stored at Hanford instead of moving it to Yucca.

Those speakers noted the dangers of storage at Hanford, and how leaks in containers might pollute the Columbia River and local groundwater and soil for thousands of years.

As reported by the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune, “Taking Yucca Mountain off the table has disrupted a nationwide ‘ecosystem’ for dealing with nuclear waste, said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council.

“If high-level waste doesn’t go to Nevada, then why should New Mexico continue to be home to a national repository for plutonium-contaminated waste, why should Idaho take nuclear Navy waste and why should Hanford be considered for disposal of mixed low-level radioactive waste? he asked.

“ ‘These are just three examples of what we believe has turned into a political house of cards,’ he said.”

Echoing the complaints about the Obama-Reid efforts to close Yucca, Brooklyn Baptiste of the Nez Perce tribe told the commission, "Science always seems to be topped by politics in the end.”

"Boy oh boy, what a mess we created making those bombs," said former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a Blue Ribbon Commission member. "Now we have to fix it up."

In his written testimony, McKenna stated, “The environmental legacy at the Hanford site includes approximately 2,300 tons (2,100 metric tons) of spent nuclear fuel; 9 tons (8 metric tons) of plutonium in various forms; about 25 million cubic feet (750,000 cubic meters) of buried or stored solid waste; groundwater contaminated above drinking water standards, spread out over about 80 square miles (208 square kilometers); more than 1,700 waste sites; about 500 contaminated facilities; and more than 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste in 177 underground storage tanks.”

McKenna and several of the other speakers noted that there are 177 underground tanks holding waste at Hanford, and that 149 of those tanks are, “single-shell tanks” (SSTs) that do not comply with applicable hazardous waste tank standards.”

“The average tank is now 42 years past its expected 25-year design life,” Mckenna stated. “All 149 SSTs have been declared “unfit for use” by DOE under Washington’s Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA) and the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Of these 149 tanks 67, or more than one-third, are “known or suspected leakers” that have together released approximately 1 million gallons of waste to Hanford’s surrounding soils.”

To deal with those leaks, DOE is building a $12.3 billion waste treatment plant that is closely tied to Yucca’s operation, McKenna said. The plant will process the waste into vitrified logs that will be stored for years.

“The WTP was designed and is being constructed to satisfy performance standards specific to the Yucca Mountain facility,” McKenna argued. “Through a series of references, DOE’s contract for design, engineering, and construction of the WTP requires that the facility be designed and built to produce a product that satisfies waste acceptance standards specific to the Yucca Mountain repository.”


Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Commissioners have already shown anti-Yucca bias
By Steve Hedges
WASHINGTON — Proponents of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada nuclear waste facility have told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it must meet the same standards as the federal judiciary and that three of its members should recuse themselves from the debate over Yucca since they have already voiced their opposition to the project.
In a motion filed with the NRC in Washington, the states of Washington and South Carolina, the counties of Aiken, South Carolina and White Pine, Nevada and a group of utility commissioners “respectfully request that (NRC) Commissioners Magwood, Apostolakis, and Ostendorff recuse themselves and be disqualified from any consideration," of the license concerning Yucca.
"When acting in an adjudicatory role, NRC Commissioners are, like other agency adjudicators, subject to the same objective standard for recusal as federal judges," the motion states. "This objective standard provides that a judge ‘shall’ recuse him or herself in any proceeding in which ‘his impartiality might reasonably be questioned. ‘
“The Supreme Court has explained that under this standard, “’what matters is not the reality of bias or prejudice but its appearance. Quite simply and quite universally, recusal [is] required whenever ‘impartiality might reasonably be questioned.’ ”
Congress determined in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 that a national nuclear waste repository be built, and in 1987 it chose the Yucca Mountain, site, which is about 90 miles from Las Vegas in desert lands.
But Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada democrat and now the U.S. Senate majority leader, wants to cancel Yucca. The Obama administration has sided with Reid, a political ally who is in a close re-election fight this year. Earlier this year the administration asked its Department of Energy to withdraw its Yucca license application before the NRC.
But last month, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that the DOE doesn’t have the authority to do that, since Congress selected the Yucca site and dictated by law that it be built.
Following the decision, the NRC invited parties involved in the Yucca dispute to submit arguments to determine, "whether the Commission should review, and reverse or uphold, the [Atomic Safety and Licensing] Board’s decision."
The motion filed by the states, counties and utility commissioners suggests that the NRC can’t objectively do that because three of its members have already voiced their opposition to Yucca. A fourth, commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, previously worked in opposition to Yucca when he was a staff member in the Senate for Reid.
The three NRC commissioners in question — William Magwood, George Apostolakis, and William Ostendorff — answered "No," during their confirmation hearings in February 2010 when they were asked if they would oppose DOE’s request that its Yucca license be withdrawn (DOE made that request a week before the hearing).
They were questioned by Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer said she was asking the question on behalf of Reid. When each commissioner replied that he would not block the effort to halt the Yucca project, she told them, that Reid, "will be very pleased."
But the motion filed with the NRC by the states, counties and utility commissioners argues that it was that exchange that demonstrates that three of the commissioners are biased, and that the political considerations of Reid and the administration have tainted the NRC deliberative process.
"The standard for recusal or disqualification is met in this case," the motion states. "The extra-judicial testimony of Commissioners Magwood, Apostolakis, and Ostendorff, made in advance and as a matter of confirmation that they would not ‘second guess’ any DOE decision to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application, can be reasonably interpreted to demonstrate that each have, in fact, prejudged this matter should the Commission choose to review the ASLB’s decision."
The motion specifically cites the exchange with Boxer at the confirmation hearing, and her statement that Reid "will be very pleased" as, "further indication that the questioning was intended to establish that the new Commissioners would not stand in the way of DOE’s motion to withdraw. No other meaning was intended or understood, nor can any other meaning be inferred."
Since the new Commissioners had not yet taken office when they made the statements, their opinions were obviously formed on “‘some basis other than what the judge has learned from his participation in the case.”
Besides the issue with the three commissioners, the motion also raises questions about the impartiality of NRC Chairman Jaczko. In notes that during Jaczcko’s own Senate confirmation hearing, in April 2005, that Jaczko pledged to recuse himself from Yucca mountain deliberations for one year. That period has since expired. But some senators during the hearing questioned whether a year-long recusal was adequate, given Jaczko’s opposition to Yucca while working the Senate.
One such skeptic was Sen. James Inohofe (R-Okla.), then the committee’s chairman. During the hearing, he told Jazcko about the recusal of a previous NRC commissioner involving NRC deliberations at the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire:
"Senator INHOFE: Well, you know, there is some precedent for this. It was Commissioner Curtis, a few years ago, who had had a very similar association with Seabrook. He did recuse himself, by letter to us, in his tenure of service. So if that is the request I make of you, do I understand that you prefer not to do that?
Mr. JACZKO: I would certainly review that. I am not familiar with all the details of his circumstances, and I will certainly review that with the Office of General Counsel and seek their advice on the similarities with my circumstance."
During the hearing, Jaczko also told the committee that, "My hope is that within 1 year, I will have demonstrated that absolutely I can be fair and objective. My hope is that at the end of my recusal, that the answer to that question will be self-evident, whether or not I need to further recuse myself. But I will certainly continue to discuss with our Office of General Counsel, as well as other members of the Commission, what my appropriate action should be on any matters, including Yucca Mountain, after that recusal."


Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Nuclear Townhall Exclusive Video of NRC Commissioners at Senate Nomination Hearing

By Steve Hedges
The States of Washington and South Carolina along with Aiken County (SC) and White Pine County (NV) have asked that three members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recuse themselves or be disqualified from ruling on the use of Yucca Mountain, Nevada as a federal nuclear waste repository, citing the commissioners’ Senate confirmation testimony where they indicated they would not oppose a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) decision to withdraw a pending license application. 

During their confirmation hearing in February, 2010, the three commissioners — George Apostolakis, William Magwood and William Ostendorff — each said that they would not "second guess" a decision by the Department of Energy to withdraw its application to the NRC to operate Yucca Mountain.

Washington, South Carolina, the South Carolina county of Aiken and a group of utility commissioners from around the U.S. have sued to keep the project alive.

Those parties also filed statements with the NRC Friday as part of the commission’s deliberations over Yucca.
The Washington filing to the NRC noted that the NRC will not have the required quorum to vote on Yucca if the three commissioners recuse themselves.

While DOE has asked that its license for Yucca be withdrawn at the request of the White House, an NRC licensing board of three judges ruled in June that DOE does not have the authority to do that.
The licensing board found that the Congressional Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which authorized a federal nuclear waste facility, "does not give the secretary (of energy) the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress."

After that ruling, the NRC asked parties to the Yucca proceeding to submit their views as to whether the Commission should review the order and reverse or uphold the licensing board decision. Department of Energy s decision to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain from NRC s review?

Aiken County, S.C. in its own filing argued that, "Public confidence in the NRC demands that the politically charged and nationally significant issue of whether to second-guess the Licensing Board’s independent decision should not (be) undertaken by a Commission that has demonstrated predisposition, nor by a Commission effectively diminished to just two members by obvious and intentional political interference. However, if review is undertaken, the Licensing Board’s correct interpretation of the NWPA should be upheld."

Other parties in the dispute have questioned whether the NRC even has the authority to expedite that process by requiring briefs on the Yucca case within just two weeks – not its normal practice.

Further questions about the NRC’s impartiality have been raised in regard to the commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko. He is a former aide to Reid who opposed Yucca Mountain while working for Reid in the Senate.

But the statements by the three commissioners seemed to pose the biggest stumbling block for the parties that favor Yucca’s operation.

"This undue political influence on this adjudication cannot be effectively cured by votes to "abstain" by the three Commissioners directly subjected to the inappropriate questions in their confirmation hearing," the Aiken pleading stated. "Indeed, as Aiken County will set forth by separate motion jointly with other parties, full recusal from any consideration regarding DOE’s motion to withdraw is the ethically appropriate response by these Commissioners."

The statements against Yucca by the three commissioners came during their Feb. 9, 2010 U.S. Senate confirmation hearings.

During the hearings, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), questioned nominees George Apostolakis, William Magwood and William Ostendorff together.

According to the transcript of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing, Boxer posed a question on behalf of Reid:

"Senator Boxer: 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."

Click below for the exclusive video:

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Friday, July 9th, 2010

WASHINGTON – Three of the five members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have already voiced their opposition to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Facility and should be disqualified from the debate, according to evidence presented in federal court by two states, a county and a group of utility commissioners that have sued to keep the Yucca project alive.

The NRC commissioners made the statements in opposition to the Yucca Mountain project during their Senate confirmation hearings in February. At the time, they had yet to consider evidence regarding the project.

The plaintiffs who made the allegation – South Carolina, Washington, Aiken County, S.C., and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners — state in their motion that they will ask to have the three NRC commissioners recused from the Yucca Mountain deliberations.

Each commissioner was asked during Senate confirmation hearings whether they opposed a decision by the Department of Energy to cancel the Yucca, Nevada project, and each answered, “No,” the motion claims.

Congress in 1982 mandated that a central repository for the nation’s nuclear waste, which is currently stored at nuclear reactor sites throughout the country, be built. In 1987, it selected Yucca mountain in Nevada as that site. So far, more than $10 billion has been spent to develop Yucca, which is not yet operational.

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a democrat and Senate majority leader, opposes Yucca and has vowed to shut down the project. President Obama, during his presidential campaign, agreed to side with Reid on Yucca and has since directed his Department of Energy to cancel the project.

The states, county and utility commissioners then sued the government in an effort to keep Yucca open.

The NRC’s three-member licensing board ruled in late June that DOE could not withdraw its license application, but that federal law requires DOE to obtain a waste repository license for Yucca and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission evaluate the application and rule on its merits.

The licensing board found that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, “does not give the secretary (of energy) the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress."

That decision put the case back before the NRC, which now must rule on Yucca.
Without explanation, the NRC has since asked the parties involved in the Yucca dispute for expedited filings, giving them just two weeks.

The NRC’s chairman is Gregory Jaczko, a former aide to Reid who the plaintiffs claim worked against Yucca when he was in the Senate.

According to the motion filed Thursday, three of the commissioners – George Apostolakis, William Magwood and William Ostendorff — were asked directly by Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), if they would oppose Yucca if confirmed? The suit cites a hearing transcript for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Feb. 9, 2010 hearing:

Senator Boxer. … 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

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.
The plaintiffs’ motion argued that, “Given the foregoing Congressional Testimony (answers to questions from Boxer), further proceedings before the NRC itself concerning DOE’s motion to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain are irreparably tainted.”
It also suggests that the three commissioners have violated a standard in an earlier case which found that, “agency officials should be disqualified where a disinterested observer may conclude that the official has in some measure adjudged the facts as well as the law of a particular case in advance of hearing it.”
The motion states that the plaintiffs, “who are participating in the NRC proceeding will shortly move to recuse/disqualify these three Commissioners.”
The motion filed Thursday by the Yucca plaintiffs was in opposition to a government motion asking the court to suspend the court case brought by the states and others until the NRC had ruled on the Yucca application.


Thursday, July 8th, 2010

No matter what happens with an energy bill in Congress this year – if anything happens — the future doesn’t look bright for carbon. 

Congress might impose a straight up Cap-and-Trade provision limiting carbon emissions and allowing carbon-neutral energy producers to earn  credits that can be sold to carbon emitters.

Congress could just impose a simple tax on carbon emissions, or approve a deal with just the utilities to cut emissions.

And if Congress doesn’t act, the Environmental Protection Agency may issue its own carbon limits.

Utilities have known this for a long time, and they’re not waiting for Congress to figure it out.

Their websites may be graced with images of wind turbines and solar panels as carbon alternatives, but an expansion to nuclear seems a more likely hedge against carbon uncertainty and a surefire way to fill the high-energy demand/low carbon gap.

Case in point: Jacksonville, Florida’s JEA recently closed on the $2 billion purchase of part of a reactor to find safe harbor from a carbon-tax world.
According to the utility, The JEA Board of Directors approved the pursuit of nuclear energy partnerships at their March meeting with the goal of providing 10 percent of JEA’s power from nuclear sources. That is the equivalent of approximately 300 megawatts of capacity. Adding power from nuclear sources to JEA’s portfolio is part of a strategy to make the utility less dependent upon fossil fuels.

The Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG) is developing a nuclear plant with Georgia Power that would be one of the first new plants licensed in the U.S. in decades. It is an expansion of the existing Vogtle nuclear complex outside of Augusta, Georgia.

Oglethorpe Power Cooperation, a Georgia-based cooperative, is also a player in the Voglte expansion. It operates natural gas, hydroelectric, coal and nuclear plants, but cited its Vogtle investment as a source of, “emission-free power.”

Adding heft to the project is President Obama’s decision to grant the Vogtle project $8.3 billion in loan guarantees. The administration, while sour on Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site, has used a 2005 funding bill to back nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative that is already available.

Other projects are already lining up for federal loan guarantees. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland democrat and the House of Representatives majority leader, has said that Constellation Energy’s bid to build a reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Md., is "first in line" for a federal loan guarantee.

Projects in Texas also hope to snare some of the guarantees. Luminant, a Texas utility, has applied for a license to add two new reactors at Comanche Peak nuclear plant in Somervell County.

A two-reactor expansion project run by NRG Energy in San Antonio is also hoping for federal guarantees.

The International Energy Agency, in a “Nuclear Roadmap” report issued last month, found that nuclear power could generate nearly a quarter of the world’s power by mid-century.

The report cited global pressure to reduce carbon emissions. It found that reactor and fuel-cycle development will have to continue and overall capacity will have to triple if nuclear power intends to compete with other low-carbon technologies.

"Nuclear energy is one of the key low-carbon energy technologies that can contribute, alongside energy efficiency, renewable energies and carbon capture and storage, to the de-carbonisation of electricity supply by 2050," said IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka.

Exelon Corporation, which operates in several states, has already made nuclear power the cornerstone of its operations. The company operates 10 power plants that utilize 17 reactors, as well as wind and solar farms. Exelon has three coal-fired plants and 31 natural gas units, but it has aggressively, and comfortably, moved to nuclear.

Exelon Chief Executive John Rowe has said that his company won’t build new reactors as long as there isn’t a price on carbon. Just the same, Exelon is expanding its current reactor capacity as the energy environment changes and a carbon price tag looms larger.

President Obama met with Senate leaders of both parties recently to press his energy agenda, which in the past has included a cap and trade provision.
During the meeting Democrats agreed to scale back proposed carbon limits.
“We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further,” said Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, a co-author of one energy bill. But Kerry added, “The president was very clear about putting a price on carbon."

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee saw it a different way.

“We’ve got to take a national energy tax off the table in the middle of a recession,” he said.

Obama could find a way to follow the lead of the United Kingdom’s new conservative prime minister, David Cameron.

Cameron recently announced a carbon tax as a way to boost nuclear power production. He views nuclear power not as just a hedge against carbon production, but an outright alternative.

Cameron made no secret of a possible carbon tax during his recent campaign for prime minister, though his government, intent on cutting deficits, just nixed a $120 million loan to support reactor construction.

He and Obama hope that pricing carbon will give private markets enough incentive to expand other forms of energy production, including nuclear power.

It is not yet clear if Congress agrees, but some utilities are not willing to wait.