Sunday, July 15, 2007

Chuck DeVore launches nuclear ballot initiative

California State Assemblyman isn't just tilting at windmills

A California republican state law maker isn't taking "no" for an answer from the state's Energy Commission nor from his Democratic colleagues who shut him down in a committee vote earlier this year. Rep. Chuck DeVore thinks the future of energy in California is driven with nuclear reactors and he's signed up with a group of Fresno businessmen to put the issue on the July 2008 ballot. If he's successful, it will lift the 31-year old ban on nuclear power plants, and possibly pave the way for a new nuclear plant in the heart of the state's farm belt.

DeVore has the backing of a group of Fresno business leaders who are seeking to build a $4 billion, 1,600-megawatt nuclear reactor in Fresno. There's only one nuclear firm in the global market building a plant of that size, and that's AREVA's EPR which the firm is aggressively marketing to the U.S. nuclear industry. The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC signed a letter of intent earlier this year with UniStar Nuclear Development LLC, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy in Baltimore, to design, build and operate a plant.

The Fresno group says its proposal could bring thousands of well-paying jobs to the region. For the plant location, the group has targeted about 3,000 city-owned acres south of Fresno. They've also hired a top nuclear expert from Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL).

Chuck DeVore, who is from Irvine, CA, 259 miles south of Fresno, has filed the initiative with the State Attorney General. He is shooting for the July 2008 ballot, but will first need to collect about a half-million signatures, an effort that will cost at least $2 million according to election experts. The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group has not determined how much they might spend on what could be an expensive ballot campaign.

In April 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "skepticism abounds" about nuclear power among environmentalists and in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature. However, the Chronicle reported that polls show that California voters are quickly changing their views on nuclear power in light of global warming. The numbers from the poll offer encouragement to DeVore and his team. The Chronicle reported . . .

Some public opinion polls indicate the focus on saving the environment has had an impact on the public's perception of nuclear power. In a July poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 39 percent of Californians surveyed said they supported the building of additional nuclear power plants, while 52 percent opposed the idea. A year earlier, the results were 33 percent in support and 59 percent opposed. Opinions have shifted even more dramatically among likely voters. Last summer, that group was split down the middle at 46 percent on each side of the issue. In 2005, the result was 37 percent in support and 55 percent opposed.

John Hutson, the Fresno group's leader, told the Sacramento news media that election spending decisions will be made based on the results of a voter opinion poll the group expects to complete later this summer. "At that point see how aggressive we'll become," he said. Members of Fresno Nuclear Energy include Al Smith, president and chief executive of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Smittcamp, president of a Fresno-based beverage and canned-fruit company.

The Fresno business group and DeVore hopes to lure some environmental support, though most groups, like the Sierra Club, favor alternative energy like solar power. Support from environmental groups, even with the threat of global warming, is unlikely. DeVore also hopes to get the backing of organized labor, which could benefit from construction jobs if new plants are built. That's more likely.

In the 1970s then Senator Ed Muskie cobbled together a national coalition of building trades unions and environmental groups to pass the Clean Water Act on the premis that thousands of sewage treatment plants would be built with billions in new funding under the new law. The law was passed and billions were spent. It remains one of the great examples of how to get very different groups to come to the same table.

Opposition doesn't stop with grass roots groups. In April 2007, the California Assembly's Natural Resources Committee killed the DeVore bill to lift the nuclear plant moratorium. Major environmental groups were not convinced by his argument that nuclear plants will reduce greenhouse gases.

"DeVore's bill is completely unrealistic," said Bill Magavern at the time. He's a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "Nuclear power is too expensive and too dangerous, and we'd be much better off investing our resources in safer, cleaner and cheaper technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a much lesser cost."

Environmental groups in California say they will be ready for the election initiative. Dan Hearst, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California-based anti-nuclear watchdog group, said using the environment as an argument for nuclear power is simply "shameful." "These are people who have been on the dark side on everything and are now callously trying to drown us in radioactive waste,"

Neither DeVore nor the Fresno group are like to see themselves as Darth Vader type minions of the evil nuclear empire. To DeVore, nuclear power is a necessity to meet the state's energy needs and also its ambitious environmental goals. In 2006, Gov. Schwarzenegger pledged to cut the state's carbon emissions by 25% by 2020. DeVorse says nuclear plants are better designed and safer than the past.

"We need to move beyond fear and we need to move into fact, and the fact is that we will not have the energy to power the California grid and meet the very aggressive carbon dioxide reduction targets. We cannot do both without nuclear power being part of the equation. The only thing that will stop us will be if the voters say we don't want nuclear power in California."

These are brave words, but DeVore will need more than the passion of Don Quixote to win a ballot initiative even if it is a year and $2 million in the future. The election papers have to be complete by November 2007. In the 1990 movie Hunt for Red October Captain Marko Ramius asks his chief engineer about getting more power to propel the submarine faster to its destination. The engineer answers, "105 percent of the reactor is possible, but not recommended."

DeVore's real problem is the improbability of his initiative. With 31-years of political history against him, his situation is similar to that of Seaman Jones on the fictional submarine Dallas in the same movie. The Chief of the Boat tells Jones he's hearing things when he reports an ultra-quiet Russian sub. "Y'know, I seen me a mermaid once. I even seen me a shark eat an octopus. But I ain't never seen no phantom Russian submarine. "

If anything the Fresno group, DeVore, and, the possible influence of reactor groups in the background, are not phantoms. Still, Chuck my advice is you'd better start moving those political fuel rods now if you want to be on the ballot next summer.

Nuke dynasties wax, wane in Russia and U.S.

Congress halves the GNEP pie

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have drastically cut funding for the Bush Administration's grand nuclear plan for spent fuel reprocessing and advanced reactors. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) was proposed to be funded at $400M, but was cut by the House to $120M and in the Senate to just $242M. If the conference committee splits the difference, funding in 2008 will be about $180M or a 55% cut from the budget request.

Clearly, Congress is not buying the GNEP plan and seems bent on turning a major energy facility construction program into an R&D program. Both the House and Senate Appropriations' committee reports identified too many loose ends and uncertainties to fully fund the program. Biting criticism from science groups and environmentalists added to doubts about eventually spending billions on nuclear fuel reprocessing and advanced reactor technologies. The eleven communities which signed up as potential GNEP sites will have to see what the Department of Energy does about their applications given the funding cuts.

Dennis Spurgeon say hello to Sergei Kiriyenko

Unlike the situation with GNEP in the U.S., the Soviet Union has just create a state-sponsored nuclear behemoth. The Kremlin as established a state nuclear energy holding company with the mouth-wrenching name of AtomEnergoProm (AEP). It will be responsible for everything that glows in the dark in Russia from uranium extraction and enrichment to reactor development, operation, and the back end of the nuclear cycle. Vertical integration is being taken to new heights with the $25B giant that plans to become a player in global nuclear markets over the next eight years. Nuclear energy reportedly accounts for 17% of Russia's electricity, but the new state corporation plans to increase it to 25%.

Russia plans to export its nuclear technologies to countries that want new reactors for generating electricity. Target markets are likely in Southeast Asia where western firms see too many risks to insure profits. Russia also plans to be a leading global supplier of nuclear fuel. It is estimated to have 5% of the world uranium reserves and plans to boost production to five times the current 3,400 tons a year by 2020.

Russia intends to use the new state nuclear corporation to boost its use of electricity which will free up natural gas for export to Europe. However, unlike the gas giant Gazprom, the new nuclear group will not accept foreign investment.

Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) has been appointed as chair, while his deputy, Vladimir Travin, has been appointed as a director. In addition, the deputy head of the government staff Igor Borovkov, as well as Rosatom deputy directors Tatiana Elfimova and Ivan Kamenskikh, have also been appointed as directors.

Secrecy and sloppiness make trouble for the NRC

Where the news media is used as a 2 x 4 to get the agency's attention

It's been a tough week or two at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which finds itself getting slapped around for being on one hand two secretive and on the other too lax. The NRC found itself in the media spotlight for keeping information secret about a spill at a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Tennessee and for issuing licenses to buy nuclear materials to what turned out to be a bogus firm staffed by GAO gumshoes operating in West Virginia.

Information not volunteered about a spill in Tennessee

According to the New York Times a factory that makes uranium fuel for nuclear reactors had a spill so bad it kept the plant closed for seven months last year and became one of only three events in all of 2006 serious enough for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to include in an annual report to Congress. Yet were it not for the efforts of Gregory B. Jaczko, one of the five NRC commissioners, no one would ever have known about it because the agency stamped its report "official use only" thus cutting off public knowledge about the spill.

Two Michigan Democrats in the House are leading the charge to get the NRC to stop hiding its documents with the 'official use' stamp in the name of national security. Rep. John Dingell, Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bart Stupak, who chairs the Oversight Committee, sent the inevitable letter to the protesting that the NRC went "far beyond" the needs of national security.

The plant where the spill occurred makes specialized nuclear fuel for defense purposes, but the incident raises questions about how open the NRC will be for commercial nuclear plant licensing processes or the follow-up plant oversight. Another inevitable development is that a spokesman for the NRC says the "Official Use Only" policy is now under review.

GAO plays "gotcha" with the NRC

Here's another novel idea in the world of the Washington media spin cycle. Send out a bunch of investigators from the General Accounting Office to pose as a business that buys and uses nuclear materials for commercial purposes. Dummy up enough information to get a license from the NRC suitable for buying the radioactive materials and order same. Then get a scanner, some computer software, and throw in a few magic markers to alter the license to buy very different stuff perhaps suitable for use in a terrorist's "dirty bomb." Once you've proven the NRC isn't doing its job, get a publicity hungry U.S. Senator to blast your findings to the news media. Can anyone in Washington spell the word "irresponsible?"

The NRC's lapses include not bothering to check that the company actually existed. The GAO bogus company operated from a post office box. The New York Times points out in 34 states, local regulatory authorities handle license applications. In Maryland, the GAO team sent a similar application for a license to buy construction equipment that relied on a radioactive source. Maryland officials said they wanted to inspect the bogus company’s offices and storage yard, so the phony company had to withdraw its application. Even so GAO and Senator Norm Coleman made their point that getting materials for a dirty bomb is easy as pie.

At least no one jumped in the reflecting pool

The technology of a dirty bomb isn't much more than a radioactive source and an explosive. You don't need much of either to make a nasty mess and frighten a lot of people plus possibly take some prime property out of service due to contamination issues. The cost benefit ratio favors the terrorist. See John Robb's book "Brave New War" for a better discussion.

The whole business is a classic Washington "send up." Senator Coleman burned the NRC in such a public and humiliating way that the tribal knowledge there will remember it for years the way people in DC remember a former senior senator who jumped into the reflecting pool with a stripper. Clearly, the Senator does not anticipate a future career in the nuclear industry.

Oversight or in your face. Choose one?

All states should be required to have a program to control access to radioactive devices or the NRC should be funded by Congress to run one for them if they don't. This is what Congress did with air pollution control programs in the 70s. The interesting experience for states is that once they got a feel for having the feds run the show on the ground in their states, the legislatures came around pretty fast to organize and fund their own show. This pushed the feds back to an overisght role which was far less intrusive for states and the regulated businesses.

NRC is now locking the barn door since Senator Coleman's horse has bolted for all to see. It's unlikely that terrorists will benefit directly from the GAO sting. NRC would benefit from having a dialog with everyone who does business with radioactive sources to report unusual transactions.

Do you want fries with that?

Reasoning by analogy -- years ago I worked for a distributor of chain saws -- the kind you cut wood with. The devices were shipped in two boxes. One was for the gas motor unit and the other was for the blade and chain. One night we were robbed of 40 units, but in the tradition of "stupid crooks," they only took motor units. We put out the word to other distributors in a six-state area to be on the lookout for anyone who wanted to buy 40 blades and chains. Sure enough someone did and they were caught. We got our merchandise back and the crooks went to jail. It follows that if NRC had a presence in every state, either through a state program or direct federally funded, you could have this kind of surveillance without too much trouble.

Now if NRC really is a hidebound bureaucracy, they are not likely to think this creatively so maybe getting roughed up by Congress is the only solution left. If so it's too bad because Dale Klein, NRC's Chairman, is highly regarded. That said I still think this so-called "sting" was over-the top. My two cents plus two bucks gets you a medium coffee at Starbucks.