Saturday, March 17, 2007

Boise House Democrats oppose GNEP

With no nuclear jobs in their districts, there are no consequences for 'nay' votes

Democrats in the Idaho House of Representatives from Boise were the core of the opposition to SENATE JOINT MEMORIAL NO. 107 which was introduced earlier this month to show support by the State of Idaho for new nuclear programs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Passed by a vote of 56 'ayes,' 9 'nays' with 5 absent, six of the nine 'nays' were from Boise Democrats (Bock, Chew, Henbest, Killen, King, LeFavour) Two other 'nay' votes were also from Democrats in Lewiston (Chavez) and Moscow (Ringo). One Republican from Emmett (Thayn) also voted against the measure. No legislators from eastern Idaho or the Magic Valley from either party voted 'nay.' For whatever reason eight of the nine 'nay' votes on what was essentially a "feel good" piece of legislative hand waving came from Idaho House Democrats.

This is kind of a puzzle because non-binding resolutions like this one, which have no legal or fiscal impacts, are usually rolled through the state legislature with voice votes especially when new federal money and the jobs that come with it are on the table. That's what happened in the Idaho Senate. The legislature also took more substantive action this year on six energy bills dealing with ethanol and biodiesel production.

Legislators could be worried about the impact of GNEP on the Idaho Settlement Agreement which prohibits the import of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors to Idaho. Environmental groups have pointed to this issue as a major reason not to support GNEP.

Rep. Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise) told the news media she wants to know how the GNEP program will affect the cleanup of nuclear waste that's already in Idaho. It's a good question and one that was addressed at the Idaho Falls GNEP EIS hearing last Thursday by a joint statement from 17 eastern Idaho mayors. They asked DOE to work with the State of Idaho to resolve the current impasse.

Nuclear issues generally don't get much positive play in the Idaho legislature. The reason is contention over compensation for people exposed to radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. From 1950 to 1962 residents of the US who were downwind from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in Nevada were subjected to radiation fallout. The federal government has provided payments to some who have suffered from identified illnesses through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).

The Idaho Legislature believes that twenty-one counties currently covered were exposed to a lesser extent than most Idahoans which has four of the highest exposure counties. A study by the National Academy of Sciences, of 3,071 counties, concluded the fallout caused or would eventually cause tens of thousands of cases of thyroid cancer. Idaho's congressional delegation has lined up with the legislature on this issue.

The legislature wants equitable payments for Idaho's "downwinders." If this is the reason there are "nay' votes against new nuclear programs in Idaho, then why were 6 of the 9 'nays' from Democrats in Boise (Ada County) which is not one of the impacted counties? Using this logic only Thayn's 'nay' vote makes sense since Emmett, ID, is one of the four highly impacted areas in Idaho.

Maybe the opposition from House Democrats was based on other reasons? Perhaps there is a collective opinion that they think GNEP or new nuclear programs of any kind are a bad idea? Maybe it was just that the resolution passed by a voice vote in the Senate two weeks earlier and the House Democrats wanted yet one more reason to oppose the will of the Republican majority? House Democrats get steamrolled more often than not so the question is whether any "nay" vote as a group a good one? That's probably too simplistic? Maybe they're upset about something else entirely and just took out their frustrations with these votes? We'll never really know since record of the House Journal for March 13, 2007, does not include debate on the measure.

One things is clear and that is with this vote Idaho Democrats in Boise have sent a message they they do not understand paycheck politics. For a political party that says it supports the working man, these votes sent a distinctly different message. With thousands of jobs at stake in Idaho in terms of the impact of new nuclear missions at the Idaho lab, Boise Democrats in the House voted as bloc against these interests. All State legislators in the House from eastern Idaho voted 'aye' on resolution. Jerry Shively, a House Democrat from Idaho Falls, praised the resolution in an email letter to voters in his district. He said, "This is a great victory from where the state has been in the past."

Maybe it is because few, if any, of these new nuclear jobs will be in the districts of Boise House Democrats? The Idaho lab employs 8,400 people, accounting for 2.7% of all jobs in Idaho, but you can count the number who work in the Boise area on one hand. So 'nay' votes by Boise area legislators against new nuclear programs for the Idaho lab most likely have no immediate consequences in the home districts. Only Micron, which makes computer chips, and the state government itself, are larger employers. Both of them are in Boise so maybe the equation is loss of the lab is no big deal to Boise given the presence of these other job generators?

Even so the payroll taxes from thousands of nuclear jobs in eastern Idaho pay for Idaho State government energy programs Boise Democrats do like such as support for wind energy, ethanol, and biodiesel, which might not get funded if these jobs go away. The Idaho lab contributes nearly $85 million annually in taxes to the State. If we assume a job with the State of Idaho costs the taxpayers an average of $100,000 including payroll, support, and other "overhead," then the taxes from the Idaho lab directly support 850 state employees, more or less.

Here is the language the Boise Democrats voted against in SJM 107;

GLOBAL NUCLEAR ENERGY PARTNERSHIP - Stating findings of the Legislature and expressing support of the goals of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, encouraging the Bush Administration, the United States Congress and the Department of Energy to commit and provide the funding necessary to complete the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative, which is critical to the long-term well-being of the United States, and concurring that Idaho is the most suitable and preferred site for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and other advanced nuclear and energy security research.

Go figure. If anyone has a clue about these votes you are welcome to post a comment to this blog entry.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Idaho aligns its stars for GNEP

We can build it. You should come!

Over 500 people turned out in Idaho Falls tonight for the scoping meeting on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). It was characterized by a remarkable alignment of state and local political leaders.

Idaho lined up its political luminaries in a visible constellation of stars to support GNEP. Spokesmen for the entire Idaho political delegation, all of its senators and congressmen, the governor, the legislature (voting 55-9 in favor in the House), as well as 17 mayors and commissioners from 10 counties stood up one-after-another as groups to read letters of support into the hearing record.

The standing room only crowd stacked five deep in the hotel conference center contained every community leader who could get there from the counties surrounding the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

More of an enthusiastic celebration of the area's commitment to nuclear energy than a government hearing, the evening’s sentiments were perhaps best represented by Idaho Falls city council member Ida Hardcastle who said, basically, about GNEP, “We can build it. You should come.”

A spokesman for Rep, Mike Simpson, (R-Id) told the hearing that GNEP deserved support because, “burying barely used nuclear fuel is like putting gold back in the mine.” John Grossenbacher, the INL Laboratory Director, echoed these comments remarking that “GNEP is long overdue. It must be a part of any realistic energy policy.” Greg Crockett, a local attorney and community leader also noted that GNEP represents, “a return to logic in the management of nuclear fuel.”

In one of the few policy related comments of the evening, Jared Fuhriman, Mayor of the City of Idaho Falls, speaking with 16 other mayors from cities surround the INL standing at his side, asked DOE to “resolve the Idaho Settlement Agreement of 1995 to allow GNEP to come to Idaho.” The agreement in its present form prohibits the import of spent nuclear fuel to Idaho and focuses on cleanup of buried nuclear waste on the Arco desert.

Ray Furstenau, the official from the Department of Energy Idaho Operations Office, who opened the meeting, told the crowd their turnout “beat Hanford.” The audience in the room burst into spontaneous applause. This was a far different crowd than I’ve seen at some government hearings on energy-related environmental impact statements. The usual scenario is one of outraged citizens hurling environmental invective at befuddled government officials.

It was not the case here. Many speakers emphasized their multi-generational presence in Idaho and relationships to the lab. They talked about parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren who all live in eastern Idaho, and they said they would not support GNEP if they thought there was any risk to their extended families.

Two hours after the hearing began dozens of people were still lined up to give their statements to the hearing officials. If DOE wants to count community support as a factor in making a decision where to site GNEP's plants, they got what they were looking for in Idaho Falls.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

GNEP groups asks DOE for more time on EIS

A broad coalition of 31 communities and national organizations have asked the Department of Energy to extend the time frame for public input by 60 days on the environmental assessment of potential sites for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

The letter states "it is important that the public comment period for scoping be extended to allow the public, states, tribes and other government agencies reasonable opportunity to scrutinize the detailed site reports."

The scoping period is scheduled to end April 4, while the siting study is due for submission by May 31. The groups are concerned the environmental process could tie itself up in procedural knots if the timing issues aren't settled now. The detailed site reports need to be part of the larger programmatic document according to the letter to DOE.

Two for Texas, Six for Iran, and One for N. Korea

Two for Texas

TXU has placed two orders for new nuclear reactors.

US energy giant TXU has chosen Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' (MHI's) advanced pressurized water reactor (US-APWR) design for its new build plans. Comanche Peak in Texas is a likely site for two new reactor units.

MHI made the announcement today that TXU had finally selected the US-APWR and would begin preparation of a combined Construction and Operating Licence for new plants which would be submitted to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year.

TXU was said to be considering 2000-6000 MWe of new nuclear capacity at up to three sites, but it remains unclear how many US-APWRs the company is really considering. Nikkei Business Daily reported that an order would be worth $5.2 billion, which would equate to two of the 1700 MWe units at the industry-standard cost of $1500 per installed MWe.

Six for Iran

The six members of the UN Security Council have reached an agreement in principle on a second round of sanctions against Iran for failing to halt its uranium enrichment program.

The new measures agreed to by ambassadors from the six countries includes an embargo on Iranian arms exports and an asset freeze on more individuals and companies associated with Tehran's nuclear and missile programs. It would also call on governments to make no new commitments of grants, financial assistance, or loans to the government of Iran. The latter is probably the measure with the most bite since it would affect Iran's ability to obtain investments in the upgrade of production from its oil fields.

One for N. Korea

North Korea is committed to closing its main nuclear reactor within a month as long as Washington meets a promise to drop financial sanctions, the chief U.N. nuclear inspector said Wednesday after a one-day trip to Pyongyang.

International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei offered an encouraging assessment of the month-old nuclear disarmament pact, saying North Korean officials told him they were "fully committed" to implementing the deal to shut the reactor and welcome back U.N. inspectors.

At the State Department, spokesman Tom Casey said US officials had promised North Korea that they would "resolve or produce a final ruling" on the financial sanctions by mid-month.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Russian nuclear deal with Iran coming apart

What's the fee on a bounced check for $25 million?

For a while the Russians must have thought they had a great wedge issue going to gain diplomatic leverage with the West. The game they played was called build a nuclear reactor for Iran, water down UN Security Council sanctions against Iran for pursuit of weapons grade uranium, and supply high tech arms all in one neat package. There is one problem with the strategy. Iran is turning out to be a deadbeat when it comes to paying the bill for the reactor.

Wire service reports today that Russia is postponing the shipment of nuclear fuel rods for Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station. The reactor was supposed to power up in September 2007, but that date has been pushed back until the current impasse is resolved. It isn't clear why Iran hasn't paid its bill or when Russia would consent to continue work on the plant.

The Washington Post reports Iran wants to make payments in euros, not dollars, which Russia has refused to accept without renegotiating the contract. Also the WP reports that the contract has become unprofitable and Russia may want to extract additional financial and political concessions.

Sergei Novikov, spokesman for Russia's federal nuclear agency Rosatom, told the Associated Press the launch date would be postponed by at least two months because the Iranians had made no payments since Jan. 17.

"The funding is two months behind, and that means a corresponding delay in schedule. The fact remains: there is no money, and it's impossible to keep construction works going without money."

Iran hasn't come up with a progress payment in several months. The Russians are understandably ticked off that they've been taken for granted. It looks like a classic case of injury and insult. Not only did the Russians not get hard currency payments, they also look foolish. They said as much in a statement from the Russian agency responsible for the project. Moscow accused Iran of exploiting its diplomatic goodwill while also not paying for the reactor project.

What's even more interesting is Iran has urged Russia to speed up the fuel delivery, but Russian officials said it would only be delivered six months before the plant's launch. Iran wants the uranium fuel to strengthen its hand in international talks. It could avert a U.S. military strike by stockpiling it at nuclear facilities and other sensitive locations. "Once it gets the nuclear fuel, Iran will gain new status in talks with the international community," the Russian daily Kommersant said today. The paper said the delay in provisioning the nuclear fuel rods could be extended into 2008. The paper also noted that Iran can't complete the plant without Russian engineering expertise.

The Russians may be using the issue of delays in progress payments to reposition themselves relative to round two of UN sanctions against Iran's recalcitrant position on uranium enrichment. Maybe it has dawned on the Russians that it is not a good idea to have a nuclear power with medium range rockets on its southern border and that the value of an alliance with the West to prevent that outcome is more important than reaping shorter term gains in trade with Iran.

The AP quotes Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russian in Global Affairs magazine, who said that the fracas over Bushehr signals that the Kremlin was ready to subscribe to a stronger set of U.N. sanctions.

"Russia has grown tired of Iran's intransigence," he said. "It appears that Russia and the West have come closer to formulating a common stance on Iran."

In another bizarre note wire services reported that Iran issued a banknote Monday with an illustration of an atomic nucleus and electrons in orbit symbolizing nuclear power, placed on a map of Iran. The 50,000 Iran riyal note is worth just over $5 on the foreign exchange market, and the country said six million notes were released into circulation through its banks. Fortunately for the Russians this stuff isn't hard currency.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

IAEA halts technical aid to Iran's nuclear programs

Iran says it will continue pursuit of its uranium enrichment program, but wants to talk to the UN Security Council

The BBC reports the UN's nuclear agency, the IAEA, has approved cuts in technical aid to Iran, in line with UN sanctions which were imposed in December. Meanwhile, tough talk in diplomatic circles continued as a second round of sanctions is being considered against Iran for failing to halt it uranium enrichment program.

The IAEA 35-nation board of governors, meeting in Vienna, Austria, this week agreed to cut its technical aid projects linked to Iran's nuclear energy programs. UN sanctions forbid transfers of technology or expertise that might be of use in producing nuclear fuel. The sanctions were imposed over concerns Tehran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the allegation. The IAEA doesn't believe them. In a formal statement on March 5th, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said,

"We have been going through the verification process for the last four years and unless Iran is able to provide answers to the Agency about our concerns, then we will continue to be in a position where we have to reserve judgment about their program."

That's diplomatic speak for "we think you're lying through your teeth and you're gonna have to come clean to change our minds." None of this touch talk has so far had much impact on Iran's public face. Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, criticized the decision to cut aid to technical projects and said it would not affect its uranium enrichment work.

"None of these projects are related to the enrichment program. The enrichment program will continue as planned."

The projects stopped by the IAEA include nuclear power planning and reactor fuel development. Projects involving radio-pharmaceuticals and isotopes for medical, agricultural and humanitarian purposes are not affected. Only two other countries – North Korea and Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein – have previously been denied nuclear aid because of fears over possible diversions for military use.

This could create more than just a problem for Iran about technical exchanges. Iran's solo pursuit of enriched uranium, absent access to mature nuclear safety expertise, could lead to a "criticality incident" in which an unwanted sustained nuclear chain reaction occurs at one of Iran's underground nuclear plants. If Iran suffers such a catastrophe, it could set off political fallout throughout the region.

There are grounds to worry. The New York Times reported in early February Iran was having trouble ramping up the large number of centrifuges needed to produce enriched uranium. The Times reported on February 12th, that in a speech where he was expected to announce significant technical progress,

"President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped short of making a promised announcement about ''good news'' in the country's nuclear progress, raising speculation that domestic political pressure and technological glitches may have put off a milestone in the government's efforts to begin mass enrichment of uranium."

In a related development Iran's foreign ministry said on Sunday March 11th, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to brief the U.N. Security Council about his country's civilian nuclear plans. It sounds like the prospect of further sanctions, and the Bush administration's build up of the US Navy's presence in the Persian Gulf, might be getting Iran's attention.

The Washington Post reported on February 20th the carrier USS John C. Stennis _ backed by a strike group with more than 6,500 sailors and Marines and with additional minesweeping ships _ has arrived in the region. It joined the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower after President Bush ordered the build-up as a show of strength to Iran.

In yet more tough talk French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told a news conference in Abu Dhabi this week that new sanctions should be imposed on Iran for failing to meet Security Council's demands. A draft of new measures being considered against Iran would expand a list of people, firms and groups whose assets would be frozen or with whom trade would be restricted, such as Iran's state-owned Bank Sepah. In what passes for "put up or shut up" language in the world of diplomacy, Douste-Blazy said,

" . . . the expanded sanctions are meant to show Iran that it has two choices: either isolation or suspension of all sensitive nuclear activities."

The loss of 10s of billions of dollars in trade credits and access to international banking networks could put a severe strain on Iran's oil-based economy. Cracks in the domestic political situation are starting to appear which may account for Ahmadinejad's desire to appear before the security council. On the other hand, he may just want an opportunity to grandstand before the UN to beef up his support at home. Iran's domestic political situation isn't a monolith and there are elements in leadership roles within that country who are realists and may want to act to deal with a limited set of choices that involve scaling back or halting their current nuclear program.

For its part the UN Security Council still has its eye on two important capabilities Iran seeks - (1st) to build a nuclear weapon, and (2nd) to deploy a missile which can accurately deliver a nuclear payload 1,000-1,500 miles from its launch site. Iran has such a missile which they got from North Korea. Keeping them from putting a nuclear bomb on one is at the top of a lot of agendas.

No consensus on GNEP say Domenici, Bingaman

Two senators from New Mexico are approaching and the wind begins to howl

UPI reports the two leading US Senators have written a letter to their colleagues on the Senate Budget Committee warning there is "no consensus" on the legislative path forward for the Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP). Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and Pete Domenici (R-NM), the ranking member there, say the nuclear power and waste plan isn't doing well.

"There is, as yet, no consensus among the members of the committee on this program. While some of our members strongly support it, others believe it is unwise and untimely."

This should come as no surprise to anyone since Bingaman has been a critic of the Bush Administration's FY2008 budget request for GNEP since it was submitted last month. On the other hand, Domenici has been a supporter of the program.

It is a big deal if both Senators agree the program could be in trouble. Both Senators are from New Mexico which houses two of the nation's most significant nuclear R&D laboratories. This makes them opinion leaders in the Senate on nuclear matters. Domenici serves on the Senate Budget Committee. Bingaman does not.

There are two potential GNEP sites in New Mexico (Hobbs, Roswell) which received funds from the Department of Energy for site scoping studies. There are two GNEP Sites in Idaho as well. One is in located at Atomic City, ID, and the other expected to be at the Idaho National Laboratory site nearby on the Arco desert. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, also a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said in 2006 and again in 2007 he supports GNEP nuclear programs at the Idaho lab. Idaho Senator Larry Craig is seen in this video expressing his support for the GNEP program.

An interesting side note is that the proposed site at Roswell, NM, and the one in Atomic City, ID, are both sponsored by EnergySolutions of Salt Lake City, UT. Also, Utah Senator Bob Bennett is a member of the Energy & Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee as are Larry Craig and Pete Domenici. It seems there are some significant Republican votes there for GNEP if the program can get a place in the Senate's FY2008 budget resolution, assuming the Senate passes one. Neither Idaho Senator Mike Crapo nor Utah Senator Orin Hatch are on either the budget or appropriations committees. Bear in mind a Senate vote for for GNEP funding is not necessarily an endorsement of any specific site. Site scoping studies aren't due to DOE until May 2007.

The legislative history for GNEP on the House side isn't impressive except in a negative sense. In May 2006 the House Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Subcommittee, under the leadership of Ohio Representative David Hobson, slashed $100 million from the Department of Energy's $250 million request for the GNEP program. The subcommittee wrote that that no funds be allowed for design work. The subcommittee also authorized a peer review of the proposed reprocessing technologies by the National Academy of Sciences before design of any demonstration plants can begin.

"[T]he Committee has serious reservations about GNEP as proposed by the Administration. The overriding concern is simply that the Department of Energy has failed to provide sufficient detailed information to enable Congress to understand fully all aspects of this initiative, including the cost, schedule, technology development plan, and waste streams from GNEP."

The Bush Administration is asking for $405 million for the GNEP program in 2008. This week's letter to the Senate Budget Committee is a shot across its bow. Unless the White House and the Department of Energy shore up support for the program in the Senate, expectations for funding could be significantly diminished as a result.