Archive for the ‘Nuclear’ Category

Obama’s State of Union will likely hit on a number of energy policy themes: climate change, promotion of offshore drilling, clean energy. The President’s statements on climate change were previewed in his January 21 inaugural address, when he declared “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.”

The 2007 Supreme Court ruled the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses under its existing Clean Air Act authority if it finds a scientific basis that such emissions pose a danger to public health. This summer, a Republican-led federal appeals court ruled that the EPAs compilation of the science of climate change was overwhelming and compelling, thereby requiring the Agency to act.

Obama has already used this authority to implement ground-breaking greenhouse gas emission rules for cars and trucks, and has proposed rules for new power plants that rule out the construction of conventional coal power plants. Tonight’s State of the Union will likely propose new rules over existing power plants.

And this is where Southern’s $100,000 contribution to Obama’s 2013 Inaguaration may become a factor. Southern Co was the only utility to make a contribution.  Obama’s climate change rules for cars were developed with auto industry support – previewing a framework for how rules over existing power plants may play out. In 2009 Obama was content to let the House take the lead in putting together climate rules to ensure there’d be shared responsibility among the legislative & executive branches on economy-wide legislation that was sure to be controversial in some circles. While Obama quickly abandoned succeeding Senate efforts to draft a companion bill after concluding that the cap ‘n trade approach was too politically risky, Obama pivoted in his 2011 SOTU around a clean energy standard that promoted nuclear and natural gas that had very similar emissions reduction targets as the Waxman Markey bill.

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The following is a repost of my National Journal Energy Experts blog

Electricity policy faces enormous challenges—three different federal agencies (EPA, DOE, FERC) and 10 Congressional committees wrestle with oversight over electricity markets, new generation sources, air and water emissions issues, and energy efficiency initiatives. Resolving the current political stalemate requires an acknowledgement that maximizing investment in a decentralized electricity structure has to be a significant part of policy going forward. And we must recognize that while constitutional rights within our Democratic Republic often clash with companies’ need for efficiency, preserving those rights must be our priority.

Not only are capital cost barriers of proposed new nuclear and coal-fired units significant, but so are the associated transmission infrastructure upgrades needed to move the power from new sources to population centers. Trying to build any new type of large infrastructure system designed to accommodate our centralized power system has traditionally run into NIMBY opposition, which lately has been characterized as Not on Planet Earth (NOPE). Population density in the US has increased 105% from 1950 to 2010—from 42.6 people per square mile in 1950 to 87.4 people per square mile in 2010. With more people living per square mile than ever before, Americans’ Fifth Amendment Constitutional right to due process guarantees that large projects will continue to be delayed. Congress’ unwillingness to grant the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ultimate authority over transmission siting leaves permitting at the state level, where property owners will continue to hold sway over project developers. Meanwhile, the plummeting cost of solar photovoltaics, advances in micro-wind turbines, and continued permitting successes of geothermal are providing more opportunities for distributed renewable energy generation. It’s more efficient to site millions of rooftop solar systems than permit just a handful of new coal/nuclear stations with hundreds of miles of needed transmission.

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This week National Journal reports that former Senators Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. and Trent Lott, R-Miss “are working together on a blueprint for energy legislation” through their role as co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Strategic Energy Initiative, and plan to release it in January. NJ notes that “their effort could gain traction: Both are held in high regard by their former colleagues, and the BPC is a serious player in the energy debate.

What NJ fails to mention is that both Dorgan and Lott are also lobbyists getting rich taking special interest money from a who’s who of major energy corporations, which raises the question: will their energy blueprint serve as yet another veiled, sophisticated sell for their high priced energy corporate clients? When does their respected “high regard” begin and their shilling for their corporate clients end?

Lott’s Breaux Lott Leadership Group represents ExxonMobilEntergy, GE, energy trader Goldman Sachs, National Propane Gas Association, Plains Exploration and Shell Oil. In addition, the Breaux Lott group is a subsidiary of lobbying giant Patton Boggs, so you should also include PBs list of energy clients: ATP Oil & Gas, the Mining Awareness Resource Group, Oil States International and the oil giant TOTAL.

Dorgan co-chairs Government Relations for Arent Fox, where his corporate energy clients include oil companies Denbury Resources & Noble Energy.

I’m sure there will be some good recommendations in the Lott-Dorgan energy report. And I’m sure there’ll be policies that will be controversial. At the end of the day, we just don’t know what made it into the blueprint because of policy merits or the special interest paycheck.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @tysonslocum



Nuclear waste cannistersRadioactive waste has often been referred to as the Achilles heel of nuclear power. It should be. It poses a threat to human health and our environment for hundreds of thousands of years. To date, a safe and viable way to permanently isolate it has not been identified. However, this dilemma has not kept nuclear out of the U.S. energy portfolio or dampened the zeal for a new generation of nuclear reactors by the industry and its congressional allies. A recent court decision, the termination of the Yucca Mountain geological repository and lessons from the Japan nuclear crisis present new arguments for why radioactive waste should be a chief reason we abandon nuclear power once and for all, but it is still might not be enough.

Getting around the waste issue

The dilemma of what to do with the high-level nuclear waste generated by reactors has always been divorced from the licensing process. In fact, those participating in licensing are not allowed to raise concerns about the waste that would be generated by a proposed reactor because of a generic rule set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1984 that is based on the so-called Waste Confidence Decision.

The main tenets of the Waste Confidence Decision are based on the assumptions that radioactive wastes generated by nuclear power plants can be safely disposed of, a permanent disposal site will eventually be available, and radioactive wastes can be safely stored onsite past the expiration of existing facility licenses until a permanent disposal site is available. But when it comes to waste that remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, assumptions are a reckless gamble.

A federal court agrees.

No confidence

On June 8, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Waste Confidence Decision is inadequate and that the commission has failed to fully evaluate risks associated with its regulations on the storage of spent nuclear fuel as required under the National Environmental Policy Act

In other words, the reasonable assurances that have served as the rationale for allowing the use of an energy source whose byproduct poses a serious danger to human health – and because of its toxicity and longevity, must be permanently isolated from our environment – are not valid.

In response, 24 groups challenging both new reactor licenses and license renewals for existing reactors filed a petition urging the NRC to respond to the court ruling by freezing final licensing decisions until it has completed a rulemaking action on the environmental impacts of highly radioactive nuclear waste in the form of spent, or “used” reactor fuel storage and disposal.

On July 8, 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complied with the group’s request, stating, “in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.”

Contrary to initial reports, however, this doesn’t mean that there will be no new reactor until policy-makers decide the next course of action on nuclear waste management, Nor does it mean that existing reactors whose licenses expire will have to stop functioning.

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Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to confirm Allison Macfarlane as the new chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Republican Kristine Svinicki to serve a second five-year term on the commission. The full Senate is sure to follow suit. But with their confirmations secure, many questions still remain.

Can Macfarlane restore harmony at the NRC?

Macfarlane’s nomination came in the wake of commission chair Gregory Jaczko’s resignation.  His announcement on May 21 may help bring closure to an ugly period of upheaval at the NRC, but it also illustrates a disturbing precedent. In October, Jaczko’s fellow commissioners, in a letter to the White House, alleged that Jaczko had bullied and intimidated staff. The letter resulted in an internal investigation and several congressional hearings to scrutinize Jaczko’s commission leadership and management. While the allegations have not been substantiated, Jaczko’s history of standing up to the nuclear industry and strong safety voting record suggest an orchestrated effort to remove Jaczko from the NRC.

Can Macfarlane restore harmony at the NRC? During her opening remarks at last week’s confirmation hearing, Macfarlane said she will push to “make the agency more open, efficient and transparent.” Later she promised “a strong commitment to collegiality at all levels,” saying an agency empowered to protect public safety, such as the NRC, “requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity.”

Would Svinicki have been confirmed independent of Macfarlane?

Svinicki’s reappointment comes just days before the expiration of her first term.  The strong opposition of the clean-energy community and Democratic leadership to a second term could have held up her re-nomination; however Democratic opposition to Svinicki was defused by Republicans’ agreement to approve Macfarlane’s appointment. This type of political horse trading has no place in determining the body of regulators responsible for maintaining the highest possible protection for the public against the dangerous of nuclear power.

Clean-energy advocates’ opposition to Svinicki’s re-nomination is well founded. Commissioner Svinicki has repeatedly voted against safety measures that could have improved protection for both the public and environment. She has not earned a second term and therefore should not be allowed to retain her position as part of negotiated deal. The stakes are too high.

Will Svinicki continue to block safety reforms?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still in the process of implementing recommendations made by Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima. In December, Svinicki voted against the task force’s   recommendation to consider all the post-Fukushima safety upgrades to be mandatory for the “adequate protection” of nuclear power plants.  Svinicki’s pro-industry voting record after the past five years, including impeding implementation of post-Fukushima safety reforms, does not  provide confidence that the commissioner will support the necessary reforms to improve nuclear safety.

New leadership at the NRC will be tasked with not only implementing the lessons learned from the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, but boosting public trust in an agency responsible for safeguarding our nuclear fleet. Returning Svinicki to the commission would impede these critical goals.

While it remains to be seen what kind of commissioner she will be, Allison Macfarlane’s experience in the field of nuclear safety and waste management makes her a good candidate to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On the other hand, we already have seen the poor performance of Commissioner Svinicki. She still has a lot to answer for.

Photo courtesy of NRCgov




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