Saturday, December 22, 2007

INL gets good funding news for 2008

Rep. Mike Simpson says there are challenges ahead

-- Update 12/30/07 --
John Revier, Simpson's Deputy Chief of Staff, provided the latest on INL's funding numbers for 2008. See below. Complete numbers and legislative language also found here.

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson had some good news, and some practical advice, for an audience of Idaho Falls business leaders this week. Simpson said the now complete congressional appropriation process had been good for the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In fact, he said, it was one of the better years for the lab, and he listed some of the funded line items that matter most to the nuclear energy research facility.

The fifth term congressman also had a cautionary note pointing out the reform of nuclear weapons labs like Los Alamos will create "grueling competition" for federal dollars in the coming year. Simpson is a member of the House Appropriations Committee which puts him right in the middle of the fight.

Bringing home the bacon

He told the business and community leaders, and the lab's leadership, they need to get back to Washington to tell their story. That's what they did this year and it paid off. Top nuclear items funded for 2008 include; [corrected 12/30/07]

  • $116M for NGNP at INL
  • $117M for development of INL's nuclear facilities including a $9.8 million increase to support the Advanced Test Reactor as a "user facility"
  • $135M for DOE 2010 program up $21M from President's request

Simpson said Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-IN, chairman of the House Appropriations Energy & Water subcommittee, is "pro-nuclear" and supports development and construction of a high temperature gas cooled reactor (HTGR) in Idaho. Also, he supports development of ATR as a "user facility." The one other piece of good news Simpson reported is that Congress supports further consolidation of the PU 238 program in Idaho which is used to make nuclear batteries for NASA's deep space missions.

The Idaho Cleanup Project, which is separate from the INL's nuclear R&D work, received $513 million, a $9 million increase. The 7-year, $2.9 billion cleanup project, funded through the DOE's Office of Environmental Management, focuses equally on reducing risks to workers, the public, and the environment and on protecting the Snake River Plain.

While Simpson didn't say it, the clear message is that these funding increases show Idaho's lab enjoys bipartisan support on the energy & water subcommittee and that the lab's leadership and business leaders must work both sides of the aisle to keep the funding flowing.

Congress kicked GNEP to the curb

But bi-partisan support for advanced nuclear programs only goes so far. Although the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is also important to the lab, Simpson says Congress did not support GNEP funding "because DOE does not have a vision for it." The final funding level was halved from the President's request. Another reason GNEP was cut, Simpson said, is that industry is not onboard with GNEP because it has nothing to do with the commercial future of nuclear power.

Democrats will need to recognize the role of nuclear energy

Simpson praised the work of the INL generally, and said nuclear energy is really important as a means to address global warming. He cautioned not everyone agrees and pointed out Democrats have a problem supporting nuclear energy because the environmental movement is part of their political base. In response to a question, he said Hilary Clinton will lose votes in the primaries if she says anything pro-nuclear.

However, Simpson noted that Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace, now supports nuclear energy. Simpson asserted that, "the U.S. uses 25% of world's energy, but also creates 25% of the wealth. I think the two might be related." He expressed the hope that when the presidential election is over, that the new administration will have a reasonable approach to nuclear energy.

Community support is a crucial element for funding

Simpson, who was speaking at a quarterly breakfast meeting of the Partnership for Science & Technology (PST), a pro-nuclear group in Idaho Falls, said that community support is one of the best ways to bring new nuclear projects to the Idaho Falls area. The INL is one of the largest employers in Idaho.

Earlier in the meeting Lane Allgood, Director of PST, reported Idaho Falls turned out 750 people at a GNEP hearing in Idaho Falls last March. He said that Idaho Falls had more positive community response that any other DOE community. Simpson told Allgood and the audience to "keep it up." Perhaps more than any other comment, this one says Simpson's message is clear. You must be tenacious in your advocacy for the future of the INL. If you're not others can and will eat your lunch.

That audience included local political leaders, the DOE field office manager, the INL lab director, and executives from most of the contractors that work for the lab. Simpson told them his advice is that there are a lot of countries that want to get nuclear energy projects going because of global warming and that the INL should reach out to them.

Watch out for wing nuts

Simpson also cautioned that 2008 "will not be a productive year" in Congress because it is a presidential election year. He said political parties always shift gears to draw in their most ardent supporters during the primary season and this encourages the "wing nuts" in both parties. He said there are 30 or so on each side of the aisle and some of them don't want a government that works.

He said on balance he is encouraged by the 300 or so members of Congress who know there are common sense things that government ought to do and that these representatives want to get work done.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Hundreds turn out over Idaho nuclear plant

Idaho Statesmen says 400 came to public meeting in Payette

Residents and activists pose tough questions to the developer, but some see benefits to the area. Will MidAmerican build a nuke plant in Payette County?

Edition Date: 12/21/07

Full text at:

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

DOE scraps GNEP spent fuel plants in PEIS

If they're not in the PEIS,
then they're off the table for site decisions next June

The Department of Energy is unbundling its GNEP alternatives under the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). Previously, all three types of massive nuclear fuel facilities were included in the review. However, in a statement posted on the agency's website this week, DOE said,it was taking out the two biggest facility types and will only consider the third type, which is an R&D focused advanced fuel facility.

If the two large spent fuel facilities are not in the PEIS, then they can't be considered in the record of decision expected to be made by DOE next summer. In effect, this decision to take the two facility types out of the EIS takes them off the table for the program as a whole, at least for the next few years. Given the draconian cuts Congress made to GNEP for FY2008 in the Omnibus Appropriation bill just passed this week, it looks like DOE is reading the political tea leaves and scrapping these elements of the program.

DOE's decision limits siting of the advanced nuclear fuel facility to "DOE facilities" which in effect means national laboratories like the Idaho National Laboratory, Savannah River Plant, and so on.

Here's DOE's statement

The Department of Energy received more than 14,000 comment documents during the scoping period for the GNEP PEIS. Consideration of these comments resulted in the addition of several programmatic alternatives (i.e., alternative fuel cycles and technologies). In addition, DOE reconsidered its proposals regarding specific facilities in light of scoping comments and other considerations. As a result, DOE has eliminated the project-specific proposals for the siting, construction, and operation of a nuclear fuel recycling center and an advanced recycling reactor from the GNEP PEIS. DOE will not make any decision based on this PEIS regarding sites for these facilities. The only project-specific proposal analyzed in the GNEP PEIS is for an advanced fuel cycle facility to be located on a DOE site. The GNEP PEIS will include the option to move forward with this facility.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nuclear loan guarantees get green light from Congress

Predictably green groups see red

Federal loan guarantees for energy projects finally made it to the finish line in Congress this week. After a dismal start last year on a muddy track, nuclear and renewable energy technologies get a mostly equal share of the purse.

In the Omnibus Appropriations Bill is expected to be approved by Congress this week, and signed by the President, Congress directed the Department of Energy to provide $20.5 billion in loan guarantees to nuclear power projects over the next two years. The combined coverage of loan guarantees for renewables ($10B), coal ($6B) and coal gas plants ($2B) indicates Congress split the different between nuclear and non-nuclear energy sources.

The two-year deadline to apply for the nuclear loan coverage is going to put the pedal to the metal for any number of utilities and merchant plants that were thinking of submitting a COL to the NRC after 2010. Anyone thinking about building a nuclear power plant probably needs to get in line now. At the same time it will likely flood the NRC with new applications and send the current 42-month review period into extra innings.

Significantly, $2 billion of the $20.5 billion nuclear total is earmarked for uranium enrichment investments. It is seen as a victory for USEC, a financially troubled uranium enrichment company developing a new centrifuge-based production plant in Ohio. This is a clear "earmark" and shows that while Ohio Democrats and Republicans are unhappy about GNEP, they are gung ho in support of a struggling home town nuclear plant.

Victory lap for nuclear loan advocates

The measure is a victory for utilities, like Constellation, which have made clear they won't build new nuclear plants without federal loan guarantees. The measure is a big disappointment for many environmental groups who bitterly opposed it and even mounted a national campaign of rock concerts with top music stars to oppose the measure. Speaking of music, the measure is also a swan song of sorts for the Senator Peter Domenici who is retiring. In a press release he said,

"Loan guarantees are an excellent way for the federal government to support development of clean energy technology at little cost to taxpayers. Attracting investors for clean energy projects is challenging, so we should do what we can to help get their projects off the ground, just as we have done many times throughout history with new technology."

Utilities or merchant plants that want to to use the guarantees have to pay fees that reimburse the government for administering the system. The federal government will not help a nuclear investors repay their loans unless a company failed.

Environmental groups unhappy despite having a share of the winnings

Environmental groups most likely are very happy with $10 billion for renewable energy or energy efficiency; but less so over $6 billion for coal plants that employ new methods of reducing carbon; and $2 billion for plants that gasify coal, which is a method for producing liquid fuels. The New York Times reported the nuclear loan guarantees drew sharp attacks from environmental groups.

Clearly, what the environmental groups are upset about is that they didn't get the $20.5 billion in financial coverage for their own renewable projects. Appropriations politics is never a 'winner-take-all' proposition and this is just another example of how the House and Senate divided up the energy assistance pie.

Also, using the provisions of the final DOE regulations on loan guarantees, published in October, at 80% of the cost of a new plant, $18 billion in loan guarantees will cover at most just six new 1,000 MWe nuclear power plants. That assumes that costs, as measures in $1,000s per kilowatt, remain below $3,000.

The Washington Post reported that some of the harshest criticism of loan guarantees came from budget experts, not environmentalists. The proposed bill says fees from companies seeking loan guarantees would cover the cost of those guarantees.

Peter Bradford, a policy adviser and former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that the fees are "a pittance compared to the taxpayer exposure" and that "scoring the loan guarantees at zero is financial chicanery of a low order."

Bradford said electricity customers "spent tens of billions of dollars saving nuclear power plant owners from large losses, even bankruptcy" during the 1990s. "The loan guarantees arrange the next multibillion-dollar rescue before the fact and charge it to taxpayers instead of customers," he added.

What the Post did not point out is that Bradford is a board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is a leader among environmental organizations opposing nuclear energy as a strategy to address global warming. The newspaper characterized him as a budget analyst, but he's really a policy advocate for an anti-nuclear group despite his prior experience, or perhaps because of it, at the NRC.

However, when it comes to global warming, even the coal guys get the message. Jim Owen of the Edison Electric Institute told the Washington Post, "If you look at climate change, getting some new nuclear reactors into the ground is going to have to be part of any reasonable calculus."

Congress kicks GNEP to the curb

Democrats trade nuclear funding for domestic priorities
Hat tip to Nukes of Hazard

Congress released today its joint House-Senate omnibus appropriations bill, the FY 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

GNEP took a significant hit. The bill funds the program at $179 million, $216 million below the President’s request, and roughly halfway between the House level ($120 million) and Senate level ($243 million). House and Senate Democrats, facing a losing battle with Republicans over funding for domestic programs, whacked GNEP in an effort to support funding for domestic programs. The House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, nevertheless, had some harsh words for “the controversial initiative.”

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP): $179 million, $216 million below the President’s request, for the controversial initiative to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and burn long-lived radioactive materials. This project will cost tens of billions of dollars and last for decades but it continues to raise concerns among scientists and has only weak support from industry.

The National Academy of Sciences published a report earlier this year that raised significant questions about the science behind the program and questioned the government's rush to build multi-billion dollar advanced nuclear fuel facilities. NAS said the program should be scaled back and it appears Congress has taken that advice.

The Federation of American Scientists, which somewhat triumphantly noted the demise of the GNEP funding, has this caution about the prospects for passage of the massive appropriations bill.

This bill was agreed by the joint Senate-House conference committee and must be voted on the floor and is subject to amendment. Once a bill gets this far, however, amendments are hard, although certainly not impossible. And, finally, keep in mind that President Bush might veto the whole thing. If that happens, the Congress might just give up and fall back on a continuing resolution, which means the country just goes back to last year’s budget. But since last year we also had a continuing resolution, a second continuing resolution would put the country back to its Fiscal Year 2006 budget, which included money for GNEP.

In essence if Congress fails to come to terms with the President over the entire budget bill, the GNEP program will continue to operate at its FY2007 funding level perhaps until well into 2008. If Congress and the President come to terms, the lower funding level will be a major headache for everyone involved in the program including national labs.

Now there is also the matter of those 13 GNEP site proposals which are positioned in 11 states including two in Idaho. A combined site, with both spent fuel recycling and new fuel fabrication, could cost $15-20 billion assuming it was all built out over a period of perhaps as long as a decade.

Public support for the massive construction program waxes and wanes depending mostly on the predisposition of communities to nuclear energy. In Idaho Falls last March the support was almost entirely positive, but in northern Illinois and southern Ohio, two other proposed GNEP sites, residents said the current state of nuclear stewardship wasn't to their liking and they didn't want any more of it. In Tennessee, Rep. Zack Wamp, who's district includes the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, surprised his constituents by saying he wanted no part of GNEP's back end of the fuel cycle interfering with the science culture of the place.

Samuel Bodman, DOE Secretary, is still committed to making site selections in June 2008 even though it appears the cupboard will be bare when it comes to funding them.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Isotope maker restarts after controversy

CEO resigns following a global medical meltdown

Hat tip to Ruth Sponsler at We Support Lee

[Updates 12/19/07, 01/08/08 below]

Users of nuclear isotopes worldwide can breathe easier this week following action by the Canadian parliament to re-start AECL's 50-year old Chalk River, Ontario, reactor. It is the source of more than half of the medical isotopes used in North America.

The plant had been shut down by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The regulatory agency objected to continued operations after new backup emergency pumps and electrical systems were found to be incomplete more than a year after the work was ordered to be done.

The isotope crisis began on Nov 18 when a scheduled shutdown of the AECL owned-and- operated reactor was continued past the original restart date of Nov 23. Difficulties arose Dec 6 when CNSC found that the two safety upgrades claimed by AECL to be done were in fact still incomplete. The first upgrade is two new backup cooling pump motors needed to ensure the continued forced circulation of cooling water if the normal pumps failed for any reason. The second upgrade is a back-up diesel generators to start the back-up pumps.

Once the reactor was shut down Dec 6, it cut off global supplies of widely used medical isotopes including molybdenum-99 and technetium-99 which then put lives at risk. A medical meltdown of international scope and impact took place. The reactor provides medical isotopes for 25 million diagnostic and treatment procedures annually, which is estimated to be more than one-half of the global supply of these isotopes.

The Ontario Medical Association released a statement that the delay would cause medical complications for 50,000 Canadians and 160,000 Americans. Japan reportedly gets 20% of its medical isotopes from the reactor.

Dr. Alexander McEwanm, President of the Society for Nuclear Medicine, said in a statement the Chalk River delays raise the question of why the U.S. doesn't have its own reactor to produce medical isotopes. He told Reuters the U.S. is too dependent on foreign sources.

MDS Nordian, the closely held Ottawa-based supplier of radioactive isotopes, told Bloomberg Dec 5 delayed sales would cost it more than US$9 million.

AECL appealed to the CNSC for permission to restart early without completing the mandated upgrades, which it said would take an additional 16 weeks. Work was done on only one pump and the upgrade to the emergency electrical system was still incomplete.

CNSC said the failure to finish these safety improvements put the reactor in violation of its operating license. It disagreed with AECL’s claim that enough work was complete to authorize re-start of the reactor and resume production of isotopes. The regulatory agency refusal to grant permission for early restart transformed the issue from one of technical compliance into a major political headache for Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper.

At this point the Canadian parliament took action at Harper's request overruling the CNSC and ordering the early restart of the reactor while needed upgrades were being installed. Harper, quoted in the Canadian press, said, "It is in the public interest to get this reactor back online and get these medical isotopes produced. There is no threat to nuclear safety. There is threat to human life."

Harter told parliament the government had independent advice there was no threat to public safety from the reactor. CNSC's oversight of the reactor will be suspended for 120 days.

Harper made it clear in his comments he'd lost confidence in Linda Keen, head of the CNSC, but she retained her position. Not so for AECL's chairman Michael C. Burns, who resigned on Dec 15. He'd been appointed by Harper in 2006. Political observers said the resignation occurred because Harper believed he'd been "blindsided" by incompetent management of the affair by AECL. Burns will be replaced by Glenda Carr, an Ontario electric utility executive. The province has been considering buying two new reactors from AECL and this appointment may favor the deal.

On Dec 13 AECL said it had begun work to restart the reactor and promised full operations making needed isotopes by Dec 16th. Deliveries are planned to reach customers two-to-three days later.

Update 12/19/07

In a wide-ranging interview with the Toronto Globe & Mail, Michael Burns, the former head of AECL who resigned during the isotope crisis, said the "dysfunctional relationship" between AECL and the nuclear regulator was "an accident waiting to happen." Despite his poor choice of words, hardly the right syntax to reassure a rattle public, he insisted that at no time was there a risk to public safety requiring the reactor to shut down for a prolonged period.

He also criticized Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Regulatory Commission for being "too rigid for the good of the whole system. A regulator plays an important part in the system but there is some give and take. And rigid positions on either side usually cause trouble."

Burns said that the AECL and the regulator were "at each other's throats" over safety issues for months. Theirs was "a dysfunctional relationship that had to be fixed," he said.

"I gave the government a plan and I predicted that it could possibly cause fatal damage to AECL if it wasn't fixed. I don't like to say I told you so, but it was an accident waiting to happen. The two teams just came to an impasse, a compromise wasn't reached and a major problem arose. There was no safety issue here. This was a battle of wills."

Well there you have it. Hundreds of thousands of medical patients made uncomfortable, tens of millions of dollars in costs, and losses, and what it comes down to is a battle of egos heedless to any sense of accountability to the public. Ms. Keen is faulted for failing to consult outside her narrow regulatory world view when facing a global medical emergency. Mr. Burns gets low marks for management and an apparent inability to see this freight train coming down the track in broad daylight.

Update 01/08/08

Canada government will fire nuclear watchdog

Reuters reports the Canadian government plans to fire the country's top nuclear regulatory official after she insisted on shutting down a crucial reactor that makes radioisotopes for cancer tests and treatment. The reactor makes more than two-thirds of the global supply of medical isotopes

In November Parliament ordered the Chalk River reactor be restarted for 120 days. The law overruled the decision of Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. She said the closure was needed because work was still incomplete on needed backup cooling pumps and their emergency electrical systems.

A commission spokesman confirmed a news report which said Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, the top Canadian government official in charge of nuclear energy, had written to Keen in December. Accordng to the report, Lunn told Keen in the letter he planned to fire her. It inluded this quote reportedly from the letter.

"These events cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgment required by the incumbent of the office of president. These doubts have led me to question whether you should continue to serve as president of the commission.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who strongly criticized Keen for her conduct, said after the reactor was started up that he would address the root causes of the problems. AECL head Michael Burns subsequently quit his post after being criticized by Harper for "poor management" in handling the isotope crisis. It now appears that Keen's head is the next to roll. It may be the last since Keen and Burns were reportedly completely at loggerheads over the issues involved in the crisis. For her part Keen failed to consult with Lunn before shutting the reactor down precipitating a world wide crisis due to the immediately shortage of short-lived radioisotopes produced by the reactor.