Archive for the ‘NRC’ Category

Update on Yucca Mountain: Abeyance Annoyance

Photo by musicalwds. Some rights reserved.

An August 3rd Order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in abeyance Aiken County, N.C. et al., v. NRC, a case seeking to mandate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to act on the Department of Energy’s long-pending license application to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. The NRC is resisting, according to one of the concurring judges, “on the ground that it does not have sufficient appropriated funds to complete action on the license application (even though it has appropriated funds available to at least start).”

However, the judge continues, “[compelling the NRC] now would entail significant expenditures of government resources […and] Congress’s upcoming appropriations decisions could well affect whether those expenditures are necessary.” Therefore, in granting the abeyance, the Court asks that the parties “file, by no later than December 14, 2012, updates on the status of Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations with respect to the issues presented.”

In a recent memo, Law Firm Van Ness Feldman has a succinct recap of the project’s background – including the recent Order, as well as speculation on possible outcomes. You can also see other Green Mien posts on the Yucca Mountain saga here.

House Continues Commitment to Yucca Mountain Depository

The House Wednesday allocated an additional $10 million to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2013 for the commission to complete a review of the permitting process to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a nuclear waste storage site. Many members of an irked House said they believed the NRC did not need the funding to complete the permit, but were taking action to force the NRC to fulfill its legal obligations under a 2002 law approving the Yucca site.

As we have posted in the past, the apparent cancellation or postponement of the decades-long project, with the NRC refusing to complete the Department of Energy’s permit application to use the site, has been dogged by accusations of messy political maneuvering and stalled by opposition from the Obama administration. The DOE has spent $12 billion on Yucca so far.

The House, with overwhelming support, passed the amendment to the Energy and Water appropriations bill to ensure that the NRC is unable to use funding as an excuse to effectively cancel the Yucca Mountain project in evasion of previously passed laws. Representatives pointed out the projects’ long history of support in Congress, which has acted 32 times to pursue Yucca Mountain as a repository.

Thirty-three states host 143 million pounds of nuclear waste locally, and Representatives from nuclear-heavy states have taken the lead on Yucca. In addition, Washington and South Carolina have argued to the US Court of Appeals that the NRC must rule on Yucca’s potential as a waste site.

National Nuclear Garbage Can Part II: The Courts

Yucca Mountain. Photo by GPN, some rights reserved.

About a year ago, we posted on the debate surrounding Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Approved by Congress in 2002, the Department of Energy submitted a license application in 2008, and spent $12 billion on the project. Since then, the project has stalled. The agency withdrew its application, and the 2011 federal budget included no funding for the repository project.

Our previous post (with more background details) discussed the GAO study reviewing the termination of the program, that found the DOE botched many steps along the way, and that restarting another repository project would add twenty years and cost billions more. In its apparent haste to abandon Yucca as a repository, the Department sold property associated with the project and lost years of staff and contractor expertise.

Now, Washington State and South Carolina, states with a large amount of nuclear waste, are suing the federal government, saying the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a legal obligation to rule on whether Yucca Mountain is a suitable burial spot – something it has declined to do.

Theoretically, there is still potential funding for a nuclear waste-disposal project. The government has collected $29 billion from utilities for disposal of nuclear waste, but it is unclear if Congress will appropriate that money for a nuclear repository. The NRC still has $10 million for the licensing process at Yucca.

Andrew Fitz, a Washington State assistant attorney general arguing to a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, claimed an NRC ruling on the suitability of Yucca as a repository is necessary for the development of any national nuclear waste site, and that the agency is abdicating its duty. An NRC lawyer pointed out that reviewing the DOE’s application with no prospect they would pursue the project would simply be a waste of the $10 million (the New York Times has the full story here).

A Times article from last May on the politics of the program’s cancellation makes some of this mess a little less confusing, but even if Washington and South Carolina’s legal challenge is successful, we probably shouldn’t cross our fingers for a centralized repository for the 143 million pounds of nuclear waste being stored locally near reactors in 33 states.

The Agencies Align for Nuclear

Secretary Chu. Photo by NNSA News. Some rights reserved.

Last Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved Southern Co.’s construction of a nuclear reactor near Waynesboro, Georgia, the first new reactor to be approved since the 1978 construction of the Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina. (The Hill covers the approval in more detail here). The story of the next year’s accident at Three Mile Island and its drag on the nuclear industry has been well told, and in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, an Obama-mandated task force calling for sweeping improvements to the NRC’s “patchwork” of regulatory requirements threatened to extend what has been decades of regulatory delays. Combined with financing problems, the industry has struggled to build new reactors. On both fronts, this week’s developments point to good news for the industry.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, touts NRC’s approval as recognition that nuclear energy can contribute to a low-carbon future and a diversified energy supply, while critics say that the project should face additional scrutiny and environmental review after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Those events have prompted the NRC to consider new rules to better protect the country’s 104 reactors from earthquakes and floods, but did not deter the Commission, which voted 4-1 in favor of approval. The Commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, was the lone dissenter, highlighting that reactor operators have made no assurances they will incorporate lessons learned from Fukushima into their operations.

The government also has an instrumental role in financing the new plant. The Energy Department announced this week that it is finalizing an $8.3 billion taxpayer-backed loan to build the reactors. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that though the project still has to meet a number of conditions, the loan is nearing final approval, as reported in this article from The Hill. No surprise to anyone following the story behind another government-backed loan to an alternative-energy company, that company’s subsequent bankruptcy, and a year-long House investigation, the DOE’s loan is not without its own controversy.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, in his opposition to the plant, pointed to anger over a $535 million loan to California solar firm Solyndra, which House Republicans of the Energy and Commerce Committee have been investigating for more than a year, alleging that administration officials missed warning signs and mishandled taxpayer funds. Markey wants the Committee to open an inquiry into Southern Co.’s new loan, noting that it is worth fifteen times more than Solyndra’s ill-fated loan, and describing it as “exponentially riskier.” Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Florida, who heads the oversight panel, says the renewable energy loan guarantees that his panel is investigating are at a higher risk than the “proven [nuclear] industry” with its “established record.”

While the tentacles of politics are wrapped around every bit of this story, it illustrates some of the major hurdles alternative- and clean-energy projects face in the future, from regulatory uncertainty to evaluating risk in financing such projects. The Green Mien has posted about significant progress in financing clean energy, but we predict that Knowledge Mosaic’s tools in navigating the regulatory landscape will not prove obsolete anytime soon.

NRC Report Champions the Benefits of Wastewater

Photo by Pam_Broviak. Some rights reserved.

As the National Research Council made clear way back in 2001, “In this new century, the United States will be challenged to provide sufficient quantities of high-quality water to its growing population.” According to a new report authored and released by the NRC’s Water Science and Technology Board (made up of sixteen government officials, researchers, and industry specialists), approximately 12 billion gallons of used water is discharged each day into oceans, rivers, and groundwater by American municipalities, when this wastewater could be easily “captured and reused.”

As climate change and population growth force the need for more stringent water conservation methods ever higher, this new report argues that the current practice for disposing of this used water is to treat it by recycling it back through larger bodies of water, when in fact this “natural treatment” step may be entirely unnecessary, when this water could be put to immediate use in bolstering out national water supply.

The New York Times points out that in some areas of the U.S., local governments are already implementing such measures. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has been using un-treated wastewater for decades across a broad spectrum of uses (none of which involve any human consumption, which seems to be the biggest hang-up for the American consumer, a POV that was considered in the parameters of the NRC report). Ten percent of total water use in this district employs recycled water, whereas this figure stands at less than three-tenths of 1 percent nationwide.

Despite the obvious benefits, and though the study concludes that there are no significant risks in these potable reuse water projects (finding no comparable differences between common drinking water sources and potable reuse water), the legalities of enforcement of these standards on a larger federal level are somewhat dicier. The EPA is on shaky ground enforcing national water reuse standards under the Clean Water Act, and so, at least for now, the decision to reuse wastewater seems to rest on a district-by-district-level. I’ve linked to the full version of the NRC report above, and you can read a nice summary of the report here.

The Future of Nuclear: Small Reactors

Photo by Ayumu Kawazoe. Some rights reserved.

On Friday, we posted about the fate of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and its safety and reliability issues. Today, we turn to the future of nuclear power, as envisioned by the Department of Energy: small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). That the Yankee plant in Vermont generates 35% of the electricity used in the state without emitting greenhouse gases is an outcome the DOE wants to encourage across the country.

These small reactors draw on the engineering expertise that was developed for the reactors powering naval vessels, and could be made in factories and shipped to sites with small electricity grids. Their economy of mass production would reduce capital cost and construction time, not to mention an easier permitting process. Utilities could have the flexibility to increase production by adding small reactors to their grid over time.

On Friday, the DOE released a draft Funding Opportunity Announcement to gather input from the industry to establish cost-shared agreements and support the design and licensing of SMRs. With the goal of deploying two reactors by 2022, the Department aims to back what it describes as “first-of-a-kind engineering [and] design certification and licensing.” Serving as a model for this plan is the certification of Westinghouse Electric’s new AP1000 reactor, which was developed with funding from the Energy Department.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu portrays the move as a way to advance America’s competitive edge in developing clean energy technologies as well as a step toward the United States regaining leadership in nuclear power. Forbes reports that this leadership has moved toward Asia recently, as startups – notably the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower – foreign governments, and industry giants alike have been working on small reactors in nuclear-friendly countries such as China, India, and Russia. Chinergy is building the most advanced modular project in China, a joint venture in South Africa is developing what is called a pebble bed modular reactor, and a corner of Siberia hosts four small units of a unique “graphite-moderated boiling water design.” The World Nuclear Association’s website describes current trends in small nuclear reactors.

Federal Judge Prevents Vermont From Closing Nuclear Plant

Vermont in January might be better known for increasing the potential energy of individuals. Photo by yourcoco. Some rights reserved.

Earlier, we wrote about Vermont’s plan for clean energy. That plan has come up again this week, but this time in federal court. A federal judge has ruled that the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon (on the Connecticut River near Massachusetts), per the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 20-year lease extension, can continue operating despite the state legislature’s efforts to shut it down.

In the trial, Entergy argued that the state was trying to close the plant due to safety concerns through a state law that requires lawmakers to approve license extensions like the one the NRC granted to the Yankee plant in March 2011 – but both the plant’s owner, New Orleans-based Entergy, and Vermont agree that regulation of nuclear safety is solely the jurisdiction of the NRC.

Judge J. Garvan Murtha of United States District Court in Brattleboro, Vermont, found that legislators, in remarks “too numerous to recount” were primarily concerned with radiological safety. The state maintained that Vermont Yankee did not fit into its energy plan, and that it was likely to become unreliable.

Vermonters, turned against the plant since Entergy bought it in 2002, have reason to suspect unreliability. Rotting wood led to the collapse of a cooling tower in 2007. After several plants around the country leaked radioactive water into the soil, Vermont Yankee executives told state lawmakers and regulators in 2009 that the plant had no underground pipes that could lead to such leaks – just months before a radioactive isotope of hydrogen was discovered leaking from under the plant. And it is no help that Vermont Yankee is nearly identical to Fukushima’s No. 1 reactor.

The ruling was not unexpected, but it highlights an increasingly common conundrum. Of the referendums states have held recently to force the closing of nuclear plants, none have passed. In other instances, states have successfully prevented nuclear plants from operating through executive-branch accords, as the New York Times reports in their article on the Vermont ruling. So while the nuclear energy regulatory framework is not being challenged, green energy groups, the nuclear industry, and anti-nuclear groups are poised to confront each other over the issues raised in the case, the first installment of which will be Vermont’s expected appeal.

NRC regulations can be found on our Laws, Rules, and Agencies Materials page.

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