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NTH: What’s It Going To Take To Make Nuclear Cool Again

This week, NTH’s reporter spoke to Eric Meyer of GenerationAtomic, a pro-nuclear grass-roots organization, and learned the latest on several key campaigns planned and getting underway at the state level.

Check out their site at:

NTH: Up and Atom — What’s It Going To Take To Make Nuclear Cool Again

NTH Reporter | January 22, 2020

This week our intrepid NTH reporter attended a “Up and Atom” morning briefing on Capitol Hill that featured as special guest Dr. Steven Ashly, the Director of DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and moderated U.S. Nuclear Industry Council’s (NIC) Bud Albright, former DOE Under Secretary.

Up and Atom event is a quarterly bi-partisan educational series sponsored by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy and is designed as to be a conversation on topical nuclear energy issues and U.S. Lab innovations. These events are part of DOE NE’s efforts to meet former Secretary Rick Perry’s challenge of “making nuclear energy cool again.”

As aptly described by Dr. Ashly, PNNL is one of 17 national laboratories that represent the U.S. crown jewels of science and innovation and are supported by our federal government and managed by the DOE.  With a staff of over 4,700 people and annual budget of about $1 billion per year, PPNL is a dynamic engine of innovation – turning out one of two patents a day and one major documented invention a year according to Dr. Ashly. 

Historically established to support the nation’s Manhattan Project, PPNL is the nation’s premier chemistry and materials lab operating at the frontiers of science and engineering and is involved in all things nuclear including advance reactor development to national security to nuclear medicine. 

As part of its wheel house, Dr. Ashly reported that PNNL supports the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) licensing process for advanced reactors by performing the environment impact assessments  required by NEPA. With some obvious pride of accomplishment, Dr. Ashby stated that as a result of PNNL’s efforts, the time required for preparing TVA’s environmental assessment to support the Clinch River Early Site Permit was cut in half to two years from the four years it normally takes.

Now that’s progress and that’s what it is going to take to make nuclear cool again!

Key DOE Waste Cleanup Plant, SWPF At Savannah River, Faces New Problems On Start-Up

January 21, 2020 | BY GEORGE LOBSENZ

More than three years after the troubled $2.3 billion nuclear cleanup facility was completed at its Savannah River Site, the Energy Department is facing new problems in starting up the Salt Waste Processing Facility, with outside inspectors saying DOE has found “significant” shortcomings in final preparations by the project’s contractor to begin operations, including safety issues.

In two December memos, inspectors with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) said DOE has rejected key elements of an “operational readiness review” (ORR) conducted by Parsons to demonstrate that the plant it built for the department is safe for startup.

Further, the memos released earlier this month by the DNFSB—which provides independent oversight of safety at DOE nuclear sites—said DOE had “serious concerns” about corrective action plans developed by the contractor to fix problems flagged in that ORR.

At the same time, the memos suggested Parsons has pushed back against the adverse DOE findings about the contractor’s readiness to proceed to a DOE-conducted ORR and startup of the SWPF.

The safety issues are the latest in a series of setbacks at the SWPF that already have forced DOE to move back startup of the critical nuclear cleanup plant by a year, potentially jeopardizing DOE’s ability to meet a looming September 2022 deadline set by South Carolina regulators for removing millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste from the oldest of 43 aging underground storage tanks at the nuclear weapons and materials storage site near Aiken, S.C.

Startup of the SWPF is particularly important because those decades-old storage tanks are increasingly prone to leaks, and salt waste represents 90 percent of the 35 million gallons of mixed nuclear and toxic residues that remain in the underground tanks. DOE faces a September 2028 deadline to empty all 43 tanks at the site in preparation to close them in place.

The SWPF is needed to separate out cesium and other high-level radioactive materials in the salt waste so they can be solidified and eventually sent to an underground disposal repository. The remaining low-level waste stream, which constitutes most of the waste in the tanks, is to be mixed into a specially formulated concrete for disposal in shallow burial vaults at Savannah River.

However, despite the SWPF’s vital mission, DOE and Parsons have struggled for years to solve technical problems that have delayed construction and startup of the facility—a project launched by the department 18 years ago.

Parsons was initially selected by DOE in 2002 to design the SWPF and then won a follow-on contract in 2004 to build the facility, with a deadline for completion by 2009.

However, the project ran into immediate difficulty when the DNFSB raised concerns about whether the SWPF as designed would meet earthquake safety standards, among other issues. That prompted DOE to put the project on hold until design and engineering changes could be made to resolve the board’s concerns, which DOE acknowledged were valid.

Parsons began initial construction of the SWPF’s foundation and walls in September 2007, at which time DOE officials said they had a validated cost estimate of $900 million and a new startup date of 2013, four years later than previously planned.

However, due to continuing delays with the project, the department pushed back the startup date to 2015 and in 2007 deployed an interim low-capacity salt waste processing system, the Actinide Removal Process/Modular Caustic Side Solvent Extraction Unit, to maintain some progress on waste removal from the tanks.

The SWPF was finally completed in May 2016, seven years later than initially scheduled, and with an estimated $900 million in cost overruns.

Following that, Parsons launched a complex effort to commission the plant, which among other things required the development of additional infrastructure to link the underground waste storage tanks to the SWPF.

However, the project continued to be dogged by delays and technical problems, forcing DOE to push back the facility’s startup date to December 2018. The continuing severity of the problems was revealed in a highly critical “notice of concern” that DOE sent to Parsons in March 2018 in which the department said it no longer had confidence the contractor would meet a contractual deadline to commission the plant by December 3 of that year.

The letter raised a host of concerns about Parson’s management of key aspects of the SWPF, including safety analyses needed to show the waste processing facility has the necessary controls, operating procedures and design features to protect workers and the public from accidents or other operating problems during waste processing. DOE officials also said they had “lost confidence” in Parsons’ ability to provide accurate forecasts of costs and completion schedules, and that the contractor had failed to properly control SWPF operations, resulting in “numerous…reportable and off-normal operational events.”

DOE subsequently pushed back the deadline for SWPF startup to December 2019, only to run into the new problems detailed in the recently released DNFSB memos on Parsons’ ORR.

“In the final [DOE] report for the contractor operational readiness review, three objectives (fire protection, radiation protection, work planning and control) were graded not met,” the DNFSB inspectors said in a December 6 memo.

“In addition to ten findings, the report describes several dozen additional negative observations, many of which appear to be significant and several of which are related to integrated safety management guiding principles and core functions.”

The memo went on to say that despite the serious problems cited by DOE, Parsons quickly pushed for DOE to conduct its ORR—typically one of the final steps in the startup process—even though the contractor had completed only a handful of required corrective actions.

Two days after receiving DOE’s critical review of its ORR, “Parsons declared to DOE that they were ready to start the DOE ORR,” the memo said. “This was highly unusual since they had only completed 5 of the 21 pre-start corrective actions from their ORR….

“The scope of the planned corrective actions [is] also very narrowly focused (e.g., revise two radiation protection plans),” the memo added. “DOE management has expressed serious concerns with the above and plans to issue direction to Parsons imminently.”

Despite the tensions over SWPF startup suggested by the DNFSB memo, both DOE and Parsons said last week they were cooperating smoothly on resolving the problems, and that they still expected to meet the current deadline for starting up the plant in the first quarter of 2020.

“The contractor ORR objectives that had challenges were in the areas of fire protection, work planning and control, radiation protection and emergency preparedness,” DOE confirmed in a statement to The Energy Daily Wednesday. “At the department‘s request, Parsons submitted a corrective action plan to address the areas where objectives were not met.

“DOE and Parsons are working collaboratively to ensure the actions proposed by Parsons address the areas identified by the contractor ORR. The next step in the SWPF readiness process is the DOE ORR. DOE still expects the startup of SWPF to occur in spring 2020.”

Parsons issued a statement Thursday saying it will “deliver an operational Salt Waste Processing Facility to the Department of Energy in the first quarter of 2020, consistent with all previous obligations and negotiations. We are closely aligned and working collaboratively with the Department of Energy to address the contractor operational readiness review team’s findings. The Parsons team and the SWPF facility is on-track for the Department of Energy’s operational readiness review next month.”


Originally published by The Energy Daily

David Blee: A Triple-Crown Winner

By Tim Echols

Vice-Chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission

It was the France-Atlanta 2011 event at Georgia Tech where I first met David Blee. I moderated a panel on nuclear reprocessing, and Blee gave a keynote right after my panel.  I knew nothing about him, but that chance meeting started a nuclear-policy mentoring relationship.   He passed away recently. Here are three things I learned from David Blee.

First, there wasn’t any question I could ask him about nuclear energy, spent fuel, federal policy or future technologies that he didn’t have an immediate answer to.  He had been on the inside in both the legislative and executive branch of the federal government.  He had traveled the world visiting plants, speaking at conferences, eventually organizing conferences, and fact-gathering.  And because I’m an advocate at heart like David, we hit it off well.

Second, David was so direct, and that took some getting used to.  I remember wearing my “Commissioner name-tag” up in Washington and he told me I looked like a realtor and needed to “take that thing off” at events there. He had a sharp wit and didn’t hesitate to call you out on anything he found odd or out of place. If I did anything remotely unprofessional, he let me know it. Yet, as a young commissioner learning about federal policy, he sensed my hunger to learn and made many opportunities around the world available to me. He was loyal to me and his bluntness only made me a better person and official.

Finally, David was optimistic. I guess his work in the Thoroughbred Horse industry helped make him that way.   He believed that the United States could win again in the nuclear energy race.  He was the grand champion of advanced reactors and assembled groups of people around the world to talk about them.  He showcased the latest technologies and reminded me why Georgia finishing Plant Vogtle was critical on so many levels.  And probably most important, he believed in me.  That meant the world.

His institutional knowledge and political prowess will be missed.  RIP David Blee.


Tim Echols is Vice-Chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Llewellyn King: David Blee Man of High Purposes, Great Effectiveness

By Llewellyn King

January 1, 2020

David Blee could have been anything he wanted to be, so long as the job involved people. David, who died suddenly and tragically early at 66, was dynamic in everything he did — and he did nothing better than people. He could lead them, inspire them, cajole them, entertain them, and just offer the best company possible.

Bright red-haired and gregarious, David combined his people skills with high purposes. His highest purpose was providing for his wife Mary Elizabeth “Mary Biz” and their three children. But his other purposes were promoting the nuclear industry, Thoroughbred racing and breeding, and opera. He was the founder and chief executive officer of the United States Nuclear Industry Council (USNIC) in Washington; vice president of the famed Runnymede Farm in Paris, Ky., a board member of the Kentucky Equine Education Project and co-chairman of its political action committee; and secretary of the Opera Camerata of Washington.

David, who died on Dec. 29 in Lexington, Ky., was in the middle of these great enterprises when his life was cut short by a severe reaction days earlier to an antibiotic prescribed to treat a minor infection, according to family members. He maintained two homes: one near Runnymede Farm and the other, the family’s primary residence, in Washington, the scene of many of his triumphs.

If you walked into a room full of people — there for a meeting or a party, a musical performance, or somewhere you would encounter a gaggle of people who appeared spellbound – in the center you would find David, listening, as much as talking, but always somehow commanding the conversation. He was superb company; among the most companionable of people.

David was also a one-man lesson in how to get things done. When he founded USNIC 15 years ago, he opened what amounted to a second front in his efforts to promote nuclear energy and its benefits. He concentrated on the nuclear supply chain and reactor technology, particularly new technologies and small modular reactors. He worked with the national laboratories and often ran conferences in conjunction with them. I was on hand for advanced reactor sessions at Argonne, Oak Ridge and Idaho.

David graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with a degree in economics. But politics captured him, and he worked on Capitol Hill for Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and later he became an assistant secretary in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Energy.

The critical union between politics and technology was incubated in David’s mind and it was to become the foundation of USNIC. He knew everyone on Capitol Hill — or so it seemed if you walked there with him — and he knew all the entrepreneurial people in nuclear engineering and business. He was wise in what might not have seemed wise at the time.

David did not fight the old, tired fights about nuclear power; the kinds of arguments which have bedeviled the technology. You would not find him debating critics, correcting misinformation, or muting his arguments to please a fringe constituency in the industry. David was about exploiting what worked, what would work, and what could work with the right shove.

He worked for the industry, particularly with what in the trade is known as “new build,” and avoided wars of attrition for what could not be saved.

David spread the reach and success of USNIC globally, taking trade delegations of American nuclear entrepreneurs to markets in Europe, Asia, even Africa.

The creation of USNIC was an auteur performance. As its CEO, he offered a vivid example of how one person can make a big difference with a small, lean organization, nimble and unfettered.

Early in the life of USNIC, David asked me to be the front person at the meetings, chairing them and leading discussions. I soon realized that he was better at it himself. He knew the industry and the players and was a performer par excellence, never dominating but always moving things forward wisely and humorously.

At the end of USNIC’s grand annual dinner in Washington, David would ask me to deliver what he called “the charge:” a few words of bellowed enthusiasm to send the revelers away, believing that the morrow would be a brighter day. The real charge in so much was, of course, delivered by David Blee, leader extraordinaire.

His memory burns on with incandescent heat and beauty. Charge!


Executive Producer and Host

"White House Chronicle" on PBS;
Columnist, InsideSources Syndicate;
Commentator, SiriusXM Radio;
Founder/Host, ME/CFS Alert on YouTube


USNIC: Regarding the passing of USNIC founder, president & CEO David Blee

Statement by
The U.S. Nuclear Industry Council
December 31, 2019
Regarding the passing of USNIC founder, president & CEO David Blee.

Washington, D.C. – The United States Nuclear Industry Council (USNIC) announced today that its founder and leader, president and chief executive officer, Mr. David Blee died suddenly this past weekend due to medical complications stemming from an adverse reaction to medication he was taking at the time.
For over 15 years since its founding and that of its predecessor organizations, David has been at the helm of USNIC and has been instrumental in guiding and leading industry efforts to win support for nuclear power in the U.S., and internationally. He was a tireless champion and was highly respected and admired by all for his efforts.
Hon. Bud Albright, the USNIC Chairman and former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, stated that "the loss of our friend and able leader, David, leaves our hearts hollow. He was a good man.  Few have his ability to navigate the corridors of Washington and consistently advance worthy goals as capably as he. We shall miss him terribly, and as he would want, we shall continue to advance innovation, progress, and the application of advanced nuclear energy technology for the betterment of the world."  Hon. Albright also reported that the USNIC board has met and has developed a plan to ensure USNIC's continuity and continued advocacy for the U.S. nuclear industry.
David's public service experience included his current appointment to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Civil Nuclear Trade Advisory Committee and past appointments as a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy and Director of Public Affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy – and as Chief of Staff to former U.S. Senator Connie Mack while Hon. Mack was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Prior to founding USNIC and its predecessors, David Blee was an Executive Vice President for NAC International, a U.S.-based energy services and technology company, where he directed the company's Worldwide Consulting Group and Marketing & Business Development portfolios. Mr. Blee was previously a Senior Vice President for the strategic communications firm Robinson, Lake, Lerer and Montgomery.
The son of a Central Intelligence Agency officer who headed divisions in India and the former Soviet Union, David was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and lived 11 of his first 14 years overseas, including six years in India. He graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with a degree in economics but was soon drawn to politics and public service. David held numerous positions in government and industry over a career spanned several decades but as USNIC's leader he came to focus on efforts to revitalize the nuclear power industry. USNIC plays a key role in many facets of nuclear technology and commerce, and he was widely known as the industry's chief advocate and promoter inside and outside the halls of government.
In addition to his responsibilities as a nuclear industry leader, David was an avid horse racing industry enthusiast and a dedicated and loving husband and father. David Blee died on December 29, 2019 in Kentucky and was 66 years old. David is survived by his wife, Mary Elizabeth, and three children – Cooper, Elizabeth and Augustus Blee; brothers Richard, John and Robert and twin sister Elizabeth.
For more information Contact:
Caleb Ward

The United States Nuclear Industry Council (USNIC) is the leading U.S. business consortium advocate for new nuclear and promotion of the American supply chain globally. Composed of over 80 companies USNIC represents the "Who's Who" of the nuclear supply chain community, including key utility movers, technology developers, construction engineers, manufacturers and service providers. USNIC encompasses eight working groups and select task forces including an Advanced Reactors Task Force. For more information visit

Former Arizona Regulator Among Top Candidates To Replace Powelson at FERC

Energy Daily, July 20, 2018 | By Jeff Beattie

Sources say the Trump administration is working quickly to replace outgoing GOP Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Robert Powelson, with former Arizona energy regulator Doug Little under serious consideration and other candidates including NRG Energy executive and former Energy Department general counsel David Hill, former Wisconsin energy regulator Ellen Nowak and Bruce Walker, assistant secretary of DOE’s Office of Electricity.

Another candidate that has been discussed is Travis Kavulla, past president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and vice chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission, the sources say. Powelson stunned FERC stakeholders June 28 by announcing he will leave the commission in mid-August, after just a year at the commission, to become president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies. 

At that time, Republicans will lose their 3-2 majority at FERC, evening the commission out at two Democrats and two Republicans, until Powelson’s replacement is approved by the Senate.

However, Senate Democrats may be inclined to block a vote on a GOP replacement for Powelson, and may not relent until they can pair that nominee with a Democratic appointee to FERC—the usual path for confirmation of appointees to key federal regulatory agencies in the politically riven Senate. The first opportunity to name a Democrat to FERC will come in June 2019 when Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur’s term expires.

Such a delay in getting a third Republican vote at FERC could pose problems for FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre’s efforts to advance key initiatives because LaFleur and Richard Glick, the commission’s other Democrat, have strongly dissented on several decisions pushed through by FERC’s GOP majority. 

And with the prospect of partisan deadlock clearly looming after Powelson’s departure, McIntyre now has little time left to move his agenda.

In particular, FERC is unlikely to finish a comprehensive review of its natural gas pipeline permitting policies before Powelson departs, McIntrye acknowledged to reporters following the commission’s monthly open
meeting Thursday. 

Pipeline permitting has recently split the commission on a partisan basis, with LaFleur and Glick saying FERC should begin assessing the greenhouse impacts of new pipelines in deciding whether to issue permits, a view FERC’s Republicans do not share. 

More broadly, FERC’s Democrats have raised questions about efforts by the commission’s Republican majority to speed reviews of proposed pipeline projects. While McIntrye has launched a review of FERC’s 19-year-old policy statement on how it evaluates pipeline applications, Democrats are pushing for tougher assessments of new projects, including whether FERC should continue to rely heavily on shipper contracts signed by affiliates of pipeline developers as indicators of market need.

FERC is also likely to deadlock on a controversial case involving how regional transmission organizations should accommodate state-subsidized power plants in their wholesale markets, a stubborn problem for FERC that has led to several court conflicts.

On June 29, FERC’s GOP majority proposed a two-pronged plan designed to assure that the subsidized plants do not suppress wholesale prices in PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for most of the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest. Glick and LaFleur dissented strongly on a variety of grounds.

FERC gave parties 60 days for comment on its plan for PJM, meaning that FERC is likely to be deadlocked at 2-2 on next steps in the proceeding until Powelson’s replacement arrives.

As for the possible replacement, sources say some of the people under consideration made their interest known and others’ names were forwarded to administration officials. Two industry sources said Little is under serious consideration for the FERC slot.

Little joined DOE last year as deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental and external affairs after more than three years at the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), including a year as chairman in 2016. At the
ACC and elsewhere, he was a strong supporter of fossil-fueled baseload power plants, which could give him a leg up with Trump, who has pledged to keep financially ailing coal plants and nuclear plants open.

Upon taking the job at DOE, Little told the Arizona Capital Media Services that he was joining the Trump administration to maintain “fossil baseload generation.”

One industry source pointed out that Little also has an advantage as a western-state candidate for FERC who could balance out a commission filled with eastern-state commissioners. That could please the several western state senators on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which reviews FERC nominees.

Little’s nomination also would place a former state energy regulator on the commission, a background that is common among FERC commissioners and crucial to helping FERC through tricky federal-state jurisdictional debates over energy markets.

On Wednesday, NARUC passed a resolution urging Trump to appoint a state energy regulator to FERC, noting that past administrations have frequently done so.

All in all, Little “is a Trump guy, from a western state, with a state regulatory background—that is a pretty strong resume for what would fit FERC right now,” said one source.

Hill, meanwhile, is a familiar Washington hand, having served as DOE general counsel from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush and more recently at NRG Energy, one of the nation’s biggest merchant generators. According to his LinkedIn page, Hill recently transitioned to a senior advisor role at NRG after having served as executive vice president and general counsel for more than five years.

Nowak joined the Wisconsin Public Service Commission in 2011 and was named chairman by Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2015. She has served as Wisconsin’s secretary of administration since March, and earlier this year was one of Walker’s candidates to fill a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, although she was not chosen. 

Walker might offer a relatively quick and smooth confirmation process in the Senate, having won approval by the chamber only last fall to head up DOE’s electricity office. That would be attractive to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) because it would help restore FERC’s Republican majority relatively quickly. One of FERC’s current Republicans—Neil Chatterjee—is a former McConnell aide.

Walker previously served as vice president of asset strategy and policy for National Grid–US, and director for corporate emergency management at Consolidated Edison, among other positions.

As always, the wild card for an open commission seat is whether a highly placed senator wants to promote an aide to the job. Before Chatterjee and Powelson were appointed, an aide to Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patrick McCormick, was widely seen as a likely nominee to the commission. That never happened, however.

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

Energy Daily, June 18, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE

Two senior senators have shown initial interest in a new radioactive waste disposal plan proposed by a start-up firm backed by former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, nuclear experts and several Silicon Valley figures that says it has adapted hydraulic fracturing technologies to more efficiently carve out underground disposal facilities capable of safely confining spent reactor fuel and other dangerous waste.

Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s clean air and nuclear safety subcommittee, and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), ranking Democrat on the panel, recently asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission whether private firms can get a license to build a disposal facility to help solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem. Currently, only the Energy Department is seeking such a license.

While the senators declined to comment on the reasons for their inquiry to NRC, well-placed sources confirmed to The Energy Daily last week that they were asking on behalf of the startup, Deep Isolation, which is backed by Chu and other scientists based at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley.

Deep Isolation says it has adapted horizontal drilling techniques used in oil and gas “fracking” operations for the purpose of nuclear waste disposal. Unlike straight, mile-deep “boreholes” that DOE has contemplated as disposal paths for certain wastes, Deep Isolation plans to drill down a mile and then turn its drills horizontal for an additional mile or more, vastly increasing space available for waste emplacement.

Others backing the startup include Per Peterson, a Berkeley nuclear engineering professor and former member of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Nation’s Nuclear Future; Heritage Foundation Founder Ed Feulner; and Will Glaser, a co-founder of Pandora Radio, all of whom are serving as advisors.

Deep Isolation’s chief technologist is Richard Muller, a UC-Berkeley astrophysicist and climate scientist. The co-founder and CEO of the start-up is his daughter, Elizabeth, a former policy advisor to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a non-profit land temperature and climate science laboratory.

The company says its approach could help solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem, which has festered for decades with DOE having made little progress in building the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Congress named Yucca in 1987 as the nation’s sole repository for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related high-level radioactive waste (HLRW). But Yucca has been blocked for years by Nevada officials, who call the project unsafe.

NRC can license private companies developing facilities providing interim storage of nuclear waste or spent fuel, as distinct from disposal facilities. NRC is currently considering license applications for storage facilities in New Mexico and West Texas by two companies.

But for waste disposal, current law is silent on whether NRC can license a private entity’s disposal facility, assigning that job to DOE by saying the DOE secretary “shall” seek a license for final repository.

In a March 19 letter to NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki, Capito and Whitehouse asked if NRC was legally authorized to accept a license application for a waste disposal facility from a “private entity.” Alternatively, they asked if NRC could accept a private entity’s license if the entity was a DOE contractor.

In a June 6 response, Svinicki said the answer was “no” under both circumstances.

“Regardless of whether a private entity is a DOE contractor, the NRC may not license that entity to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste…,” she said. “The NRC is not authorized to license any entity other than…DOE to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel and [HLRW].”

However, Svinicki left open one possibility for Deep Isolation under current law: Enter an arrangement with DOE such that DOE seeks a license with Deep Isolation alongside developing the disposal facility.

“DOE may…enter into a contract with a private entity to prepare, or to support preparation of, such an application on behalf of DOE…,” Svinicki said.

Capito and Whitehouse are nuclear power backers, with Whitehouse supportive of advanced nuclear technologies to help combat climate change. However, it is not clear whether either senator was working directly on behalf of Deep Isolation or, as heads of the subcommittee with NRC oversight, asking the question on behalf of another lawmaker.

But in an interview Friday with The Energy Daily, Elizabeth Muller said “we are grateful for the clarification” from NRC as to private entities and NRC licensing, and said the company is considering all options.

“Two years ago we were told that a private company could not do disposal of nuclear waste in any case…,” she said. “It’s certainly not going to be easy, but there is some interest; it might be [possible] through regulatory clarification…[or] through legislation and we are grateful for these conversations at all levels.”

In a video on Deep Isolation’s website, Chu said of the company’s plan: “What they are proposing is very intriguing and it sounds like it really could be practical.”

In the interview Friday, Richard Muller said the company envisions drill-holes at least eight inches in diameter, wide enough to accommodate a single spent fuel assembly from a boiling water or a pressurized water reactor, one at a time. Deep Isolation has developed a proprietary, non-corrosive canister for the fuel assemblies, which it is seeking to patent, he said.

According to the company’s web site, Deep Isolation envisions one of its 2-mile-long drill-holes holding eight years of waste produced by a boiling water or 33 years of waste produced by a pressurized water reactor.

The use of boreholes for nuclear waste storage is not a new idea, and has been studied in the United States, Sweden and Russia. One problem is that waste, once emplaced, was seen as irretrievable, a problem if a policy decision was made to recycle spent fuel.

But Richard Muller says Deep Isolation’s system can retrieve waste using methods patterned after those commonly used in fracking operations when drillers pull out damaged equipment or sensors.

Importantly, Deep Isolation’s system has another commonality with oil and gas fracking—the shale rock formations that fracking operations are designed to split apart, releasing oil and gas.

Muller says Deep Isolation intends to drill into shale formations and to store nuclear waste within or below the formations, leveraging drillers’ knowledge about drilling in shale. And Muller says shale rock’s effectiveness in trapping oil and gas reserves over long periods of time should help Deep Isolation make the case that shale can also safely entomb nuclear waste.

A clear obstacle that Deep Isolation might face is community opposition. Under President Obama, DOE attempted a “deep borehole” program that, if successful, would have provided a vertical disposal pathway for small volumes of HLRW. However, initial DOE efforts to site a test borehole for simulated waste were spurned by communities in three states and the project was cancelled in May 2017

However, Elizabeth Muller said Deep Isolation’s approach and technology are entirely different.

She says the company plans to present the “option” of a drill-hole to communities that already host nuclear waste or spent fuel.

“We are a looking at taking the waste that has already been generated and securing it near its current location,” Muller said. “We are getting it out of the community—we are putting under a mile of rock,” she said.

“That is a somewhat easier ‘ask’ than for a community to provide [disposal] for waste that has been generated somewhere else,” she said.

Muller said the company has developed a siting team that is refining the company’s approach. Among those working with Deep Isolation appear to be some associated with DOE’s recently cancelled “consent-based” program seeking volunteer communities to host waste storage, as well as the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Nation’s Nuclear Future

Muller said Deep Isolation has raised about $4 million and is seeking additional investors.

Energy Daily: Southern Co. Seeking To Use China Test Data For New Nukes

March 21, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE

Southern Co. plans to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for waivers of license requirements in order to skip certain operational tests of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors it is building in Georgia and to substitute tests completed or underway on AP1000 units in China, a move that would save money and time for a project that is delayed and over budget, according to documents filed with the NRC.

Southern Nuclear Operating Co. notified NRC of its plans to seek the license amendments in a January 31 letter and discussed its plans with commission staff in more detail during a March 8 public meeting on the two AP1000 reactors under construction at its Alvin Vogtle nuclear plant.

In a written presentation for the meeting, Southern did not explicitly say why it was seeking to rely on Chinese testing, but suggested it met the spirit of NRC requirements for tests that are required only for the first projects to build new types of reactors, or in some cases for the first three such projects.

Those tests are designed “to further establish a unique phenomenological performance parameter of the AP1000 design features…that will not change from plant to plant, [and] are performed for the first plant only,” says Southern’s presentation. “Because of the standardization of the AP1000 design, these special tests (designated as first plant only tests) are not required on follow plants.”

Under Southern’s current NRC license to build and operate the new Vogtle Units 3 and 4, the testing is supposed to take place at the new plants. But under the new proposal, Southern would use testing already conducted or underway on AP1000 reactors under construction by Chinese utilities in Haiyang, Shandong province; and/or at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China’s Zhejiang province. China’s State Nuclear Power Technology says it expects both Sanmen Units 1 and 2 to come on-line this year, and that Sanmen Unit 2 recently successfully completed pre-operational testing.

In its March 8 presentation, Southern identified the “pre-operational” tests for which it hopes to sub in Chinese results, and said it will later identify the operational tests for which it hopes to do so.

The pre-operational tests for which Southern will seek license amendments are a refueling water storage tank heatup test; reactor vessel internal vibration testing; “core makeup tank test heated recirculation tests”; and an automatic depressurization system blowdown test.

“[Southern Nuclear] would like to credit testing completed on the China AP1000 units,” the company said.

Asked why Southern was seeking the license amendment, a spokesman for Southern’s utility subsidiary Georgia Power said: “Everything we do regarding the construction of Vogtle 3 and 4 is to ensure that the units are completed safely and correctly, and license amendment requests are a regular part of the construction process. License amendment requests are submitted to the NRC based on construction needs and timeline.” Georgia Power co-owns two reactors at Vogtle and the two under construction.

“Southern Nuclear plans to submit a license amendment request with the NRC in the coming months to provide the technical basis for utilizing tests on the AP1000 units in China in order to reduce risks and gain efficiencies for the Vogtle 3 and 4 units without impacting public safety,” the spokesman said.

Southern’s presentation makes no mention of how its proposal might affect the budget and schedule of its new reactors project.

However, it comes at a time when the company and its partners are under heavy pressure keep a lid on costs and to stay on schedule. The project is already several billion dollars over-budget and years behind its initial schedule, and nearly collapsed following the March bankruptcy of Westinghouse, previously the project’s primary construction contractor. Westinghouse bowed out of the Georgia project and a similar new reactor effort in South Carolina after incurring several billions of dollars in losses on those efforts.

Owners of the South Carolina project scuttled it last July. Southern and its public power partners—Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power and the city of Dalton, Ga.—decided in August to continue. In December, Southern won permission from the Georgia Public Service Commission to do so, but the commission also clamped down on Georgia Power’s ability to earn from the project, which is now expected to cost roughly $25 billion.

Beginning in January 2020, Southern will earn a return on equity (ROE) of 8.3 percent on the project, down from 10 percent currently. A year later, the utility’s ROE will drop to 6 percent.

David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project, suggested Southern’s plan to use the Chinese testing data would pose difficulties for NRC.

“I’d not want to be in the NRC reviewers’ shoes,” he said.

“If the plants were built on an assembly line, spot checking a reactor would shed insight on the quality of the other reactors rolling off the same assembly line,” said Lochbaum, a frequent critic of NRC and the nuclear industry. “But spot checking one reactor from an assembly line on a different continent built by a different owner and overseen by a different regulator might or might not shed light on the performance of the reactor off a different assembly line in a different country.”

To demonstrate that the Chinese tests results are appropriate for its project, Southern said its formal license amendment request will show the “adequacy” of China’s quality assurance program governing first-of-a-kind testing; the “acceptability of [China’s first of-a-kind test] results; and the “applicability of [China’s first of-a-kind test] results to Vogtle 3 & 4.”

Southern said it will break its license amendment request into two phases—covering pre-operational and then operational tests. The company said that strategy would enable it to submit the first request while certain “Chinese first-of-a-kind tests are being completed and/or vetted.”

Southern’s presentation suggests it has done significant work on its upcoming license amendment request, including completing its assessment of the quality assurance program for the Chinese testing programs and assessing China’s “test execution for pre-operation tests” at the Sanmen project.

The Sanmen and Haiyang projects are part of an aggressive nuclear power expansion in China, which is trying to match exploding demand for electricity with zero-emission nuclear rather than high carbon-emitting sources like coal. On March 7, China’s National Energy Administration said it expects five new reactors to come on-line this year, while construction begins on six to eight new ones.

LLEWELLYN KING: Why Doesn’t Elon Musk Thrill Us Like Tech Frontiersmen of Old?

By Llewellyn King

I present to you the strange case of Elon Musk. Whatever he does, his detractors, or at least his minimizers, seem to control the narrative.

When his Falcon Heavy rocket — the largest and most sophisticated flying today — blasted into space on Feb. 6, there should've been a national outpouring of unabated joy.

Yet it only briefly edged out the news coverage of the GOP memo, emanating from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), and its Democratic counter-memo. The greatest show on earth had it all: a rocket you could watch ascending, shedding its reusable stages and flying away, whimsically, with a sports car for a payload. 

It was a showcase of American technology and know-how. It was a clear statement that the individual can still triumph in the United States.

President Trump acknowledged the achievement, which was probably hard for him because he and Musk don't see eye to eye on global warming or much else. Musk’s visions are wildly futuristic, like populating Mars, while Trump is a man firmly rooted in the glories of the United States as an industrial power tethered to past strengths. Also, awkwardly, Musk is an immigrant who might've been kept out under Trump's policies.

But the general indifference and in some circles antipathy to Musk, goes far beyond politics. We embraced Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as tech heroes, the faces of the future. Musk less so or not at all; maybe because we've narrowed our view of what is exciting tech to the internet and its collaterals.

Although he made his first $500 selling a game program when he was 12, and his first billion as a founder of PayPal, Musk’s real claim to fame is as an engineer and physicist. His Tesla electric car may not survive as the industry leader, but today it is out front.

His rocket may not be the future of heavy-lift space vehicles, but it is the leader today: cheaper and with reusable stages. His SolarCity is not alone in seeking convert idle roofs to electricity sources, but it is a big player. And Musk’s batteries, though disappointing at the outset, may yet make grid-free houses a reality.

Yet Musk’s detractors are legion and effective. I know quite a few and they range from an electric company chairman (who accused him of lying and denounced him to me in the most vociferous tones), to financial seers (who question the viability of any of his companies), to conservatives (who believe that he's misused government funds, and his “private” company owes everything to government support). The transportation industry, almost to a man, believes Musk’s plan for an underground, people-mover vacuum tube is nuts.

I, too, have been in the ranks of the detractors, at least in part. I sought to have him correct a whopper about nuclear versus solar power. He had his sums wrong by a factor of hundreds.

Yet you have to love Musk for thinking on a scale that hasn't been seen for over half a century. He is a throwback to the great builder-engineers of the past: men who built the bridges, canals, dams and railroads, and electrified the United States.

As a nation, we used to be devoted to the big, the bold and the futuristic. Now, we've developed sophisticated ways of defeating big projects. 

After the 1960s we lost our passion for the big idea and the big machine, from nuclear power plants to big civil engineering. The late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) lamented this lack of courage to go big on a project. Westway – the highway for New York City's West Side — was defeated partly to protect the striped bass in New York Harbor. Moynihan said, “There is a kind of stasis that is beginning to settle into our public life. We cannot reach decision.”

I don't wish to live on Mars, I don't want to be whisked in a tube from Washington to New York. I'm even undecided whether I want to ride in space — but try me.

I don't know whether Musk will go broke, whether he'll overreach or whether he'll give the whole world a new frontier. But until (and if) a better dreamer comes along, I'm glad we have him reaching for the planets.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.