Saturday, January 5, 2008

GNEP might not be dead yet

DOE comments published in Morris, IL, raise questions

Hat tip to Rod Adams at Atomic Insights Blog

In the great comedy send up of horror flicks Young Frankenstein, there is a terrific scene in which the dwarf Igor, player to perfection by Marty Feldman, tells Dr. Frankenstein, played with equal brilliance by Gene Wilder, about the status of series of brains preserved in glass jars. The brains are labeled by the date of the deceased, and proceed along a path of older to younger dates. At the end of the scene, Feldman manages to make the movie audience jump right out of its seats with a punch line about "not dead yet." Worse, the wrong brain is then placed in the monster.

So it seems also the GNEP program is not dead yet which has some people in Morris, Il, jumping up out of their seats as well. Even more to the point, a Morris, IL, newspaper may have been talking to the wrong brain at DOE or so it seems.

Just before the December holidays the Department of Energy quietly put a notice on its GNEP web site that took out consideration of most of the site specific proposals for spent fuel recycling centers. DOE said that it would only consider DOE national laboratory sites (ID, IL, & SC) for GNEP facilities in a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS). Keep this acronym in mind.

As reported on this blog and elsewhere if the 11 proposed GNEP sites are not in the PEIS, then they cannot be considered for a site specific decision next June when the Secretary of Energy makes up his mind where one is to go. The regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) govern major federal actions for all federal agencies. Once you take a site off the table for the your PEIS or subsequent site specific documents, it is out of the running.

Minor could be major in Morris and elsewhere

However, in Illinois a Department of Energy spokesman told the Morris Daily Herald this week, “This is a minor redirection of our path forward - in our progress forward."

There's a lurking problem with that language. It is unlikely the 11 sites that found themselves out in the cold consider the PEIS change to be "minor."

Even more interesting is a quote from DOE spokesman Brian Quirke, who is cited by the newspaper. Now what follows could be a tempest in a teacup or it could be a problem. It's just not clear what the government is trying to say. For his part, Mr. Quirke goes to great lengths to explain things, but it doesn't seem to work.

“If we decide to go forward, then we will be conducting another environmental process to take a much closer look at specific sites to determine the potential environmental impact at each of those sites."

If he means federal laboratories like Argonne, which isn't very far, as the crow flies, from Morris, IL, then he's 100% consistent with the DOE announcement. Morris,IL, is one the proposed GNEP sites which submitted a siting study, but it's off the table based on the December PEIS web notice. So far so good.

If, on the other hand, DOE means to re-open the site selection process, such as the Morris, IL, site or others, without having first covered its bases in the PEIS, then the fat will be in the fire. It will open up the entire program to an intervention from third parties who will point out the NEPA process has been bypassed and a successful lawsuit will surely thwart the government's objectives. Bad idea. The evidence for this is pretty thin right now, but there is enough confusion in what the government told the newspaper that mis-perceptions could cause problems.

PEIS may pickle the policy process

Brian Quirke, the DOE spokesperson, said a new round of site-specific hearings on GNEP sites will be made and concurrently, DOE will make a major policy decision on recycling of spent nuclear fuel. [emphasis not in original]. If he means that, then the policy process has some things to sort out.

Quirke is quoted in the paper saying three things.

1. The PEIS is a decision about recycling spent nuclear fuel.

“The decision whether we should recycle has always been the most important decision being made, and the PEIS is part of that process, not the entirety of it."

This is a major policy issue. Should DOE seek legislation and funding to support a change like this? Based on the newspaper's report it looks like the PEIS is out ahead of congressional headlights. Maybe DOE already feels it has the authority to proceed? Perhaps that's buried somewhere in the PEIS documentation? Inquiring minds want to know.

Admittedly, it is difficult to explain a monster document like a PEIS, which are by their nature high level documents, but they are not the best foundation for a policy shift of this nature. Much broader public processes are needed to leverage a change like this. This appears to be what Quirke is saying, but will he be understood?

2. The PEIS has always been focused on that decision.

“But, this decision about whether to recycle has always been the premiere decision we're trying to make."

There are a lot of people in 11 states who thought the decision was about down selecting from 13 sites to three and they were pretty excited about it. The applicants for GNEP sites figured the decision to recycle spent nuclear fuel was already a done deal. The logic is that if the government is handing out money, $10.5 million for 13 site studies, then it follows DOE must believe it has the legal authority to execute the project once the NEPA process is done.

For instance, EnergySolutions told a public meeting in Idaho Falls, ID, in April 2007 that if their proposed site near Arco, ID, were to be chosen, the scope of the work could be as much as $20 billion. In Idaho Falls, more than 700 people turned out for the GNEP hearing to support the program. By comparison, anti-nuclear activists turned out in Morris, IL, to oppose it.

It looks to some like the government was trying to make a major policy change and simultaneously kick start the facility construction process. One of the concerns expressed by Congress and the National Academy of Sciences is that DOE is moving too fast with the program. The PEIS is still a legitimate process, and needs to be completed, but a lot more work is needed to make the case for the facilities themselves.

3. Once the PEIS is done there will be site-specific EIS.

“If we decide to go forward, then we will be conducting another environmental process to take a much closer look at specific sites to determine the potential environmental impact at each of those sites"

That's completely in accord with NEPA requirements, but where is the DOE announcement about the next steps in the process? It leaves open the questions about schedule, locations, and the scope of these new site specific environmental impact statements. Ambiguity in perceptions about government intentions, especially with nuclear facilities, almost always leads to difficulties with the public. There's an opportunity to avoid them, but will the government take it?

Two problems, no waiting

First, the PEIS seems to be headed towards supporting a decision by the Department of Energy to start recycling spent nuclear fuel without the wind in its sails of major appropriations to fund the facilities. Congress halved GNEP funding for 2008 to less than $200M which basically converts the vast vision of $20 billion in GNEP facility construction to a laboratory scale R&D program and funding of paper design studies.

Second, the PEIS has downstream process steps that DOE has apparently committed itself to without publishing so much as a road map or schedule. Maybe it plans to do so in the near fuure, but the newspaper story has ink today.

Like the quiet announcement on the GNEP web site, DOE seems to be making its intentions known in out-of-the-way quarters like the Morris, IL, newspaper. It's not a good way to start the new year. The government could avoid some confusion by doing more to explain where it is headed with the GNEP program. DOE should get the right brain in the picture and soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

RE: "is a minor redirection of our path forward"

So, for someone in the know (djysrv) where does that leave the eleven other sites not in the PEIS? Any potential chance of sneaking back into the site selection process?