Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ghostlight

The blog will be dark for the holiday break. Posting will resume in January.

ghostlightEvery once in a while it is worth getting away from the keyboard to take a break and shake the cob webs out of your brain. I'll be away for a few days during the holidays. Blogging will resume on my return in January 2009.

I won't have regular access to email while I'm away, but Twitter updates will continue. Comments will stack up in a block, and will be moderated when I can get online.

As always I welcome ideas for new topics so feel free to send them in.

2008 in review

It was a good year for the blog. In terms of readership, the blog is entering its second year of operation. There are readers in all 50 states and in 70 countries. In terms of Google Analytics data, for the 12 month period there were approximately 43,000 direct visitors and 64,000 page views. Thank you for your support.

The blog content is syndicated on Reuters and Forbes and earned a nice mention in the Wall Street Journal on Nov 16 as a credible source on nuclear energy.

In the meantime, here are the top four stories in terms of reader interest this year.

If you scroll down this page, you can read three special posts which wrap up the good and the bad for 2008, and a look ahead for 2009 for nuclear energy.

See you soon. Best wishes to all for the new year.

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Looking ahead to 2009

What's in store for the nuclear energy industry?

With the financial world in turmoil and a new president coming into office in January 20, the outlook for 2009 is anything but business as usual. In fact, the unstable natures of the U.S and global economies are causing anyone with large investment decisions to make to sit on the sidelines. However, globally, China and India are moving ahead with massive investments in nuclear energy positioned as key elements of government energy policy designed to boost their respective GDP. They are the two primary movers globally of new nuclear builds.

China

China plans to boost its already ambitious plans for building new nuclear power plants from the current target of 40 GW to a staggering 70 GW of capacity by 2020. That's a really short period of time for that massive a building program. Is it realistic? Even a command and control economy will face bottlenecks in supplies of materials, components, and labor.

While the numbers for nuclear energy are very large, an even bigger effort was announced on Nov 10. China announced a huge economic stimulus package aimed at bolstering its weakening economy and to helping fight the effects of a global economic slowdown. The New York Times reported Beijing said it would spend an estimated $586 billion by 2010 on wide array of national infrastructure

The package is the largest economic stimulus effort ever undertaken by the Chinese government and would amount to about 7% of the country’s gross domestic product during each of the next two years.

Expanding a growing nuclear energy base

According to Reuters, Huang Li, an official at the National Energy Administration, said efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are a key driver of the investment decision. China has huge air pollution control problems caused in part by its of coal fired power plants which account for over 80% of electricity generating plants.

China currently has 9 GW of installed nuclear fueled generating capacity at 11 power stations. Four more are starting construction with 3rd generation designs based on the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor at 1,200 MW each. Two more will start construction based on the Areva EPR at 1,600 MW each and Li said 12 GW are under construction using Chinese reactor designs.

Reliable power is a key goal

According to an official Chinese news report, Li also said that the drive for more nuclear power came from a severe winter in 2008 that paralyzed electricity generation because coal could not be delivered to existing fossil fueled plants.

Li added that if China adopts the expanded new plan for nuclear power plants, it will increase opportunities for international reactor vendors to do business there. Last year Areva, Westinghouse, and the Russian atomic energy export agency all inked deals for new reactors with China. A key element of the deals has been a demand by China for technology transfer so that it can eventually build its own version of the plants.

India

In October 2008 India's relationship with the global nuclear industry changed fundamentally after the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the international body that controls commerce in uranium for nuclear reactors, agreed for the first time to allow India to acquire nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors. In a closely linked event, the U.S. Senate voted 86-13 to allow US firms to export nuclear fuel and technology to India.

These two events have created tremendous opportunities for India to open the door to international investments in new nuclear energy infrastructure. Building a nuclear energy industry in India to support 20-40 GW of new power over the next two to three decades will take every bit of ingenuity and wisdom the nation can muster. It's more than a moon shot. It is a trip to Mars.

For India, now that the doors to uranium imports have been flung open, the country is likely push full steam ahead to join the global nuclear renaissance to power its economy and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at India's small, fragmented, and government-controlled nuclear energy industry, the key question is, "what must India do to get a fresh start with nuclear energy?"

According to an October 2008 assessment at the World Nuclear Organization, India has set a nuclear power development target of 40 GW over the next several decades. To achieve this objective, the country must tackle four key challenges.

· Build new nuclear reactors including cores, standardized reactor designs, and technology transfer from international vendors

· Acquire nuclear fuel
· Train an Indian workforce
· Upgrade transmission and distribution infrastructure

Competition for entry into India's nuclear market will be intense. The Russians have already inked a deal for four new reactors representing 4,400 MW of power at Kudankulam. French nuclear giant Areva, and U.S. firms Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi are also expected to seek market share in India's massive new build.

United States

The situation in the U.S. is much less clear cut. The U.S. is also facing key challenges. The number one issue is not the interest in building new nuclear plants, it is funding them. At last count at the NRC there were 17 COL applications submitted for 26 reactors. However, by the end of 2009 the NRC expects to have on hand 23 COL applications representing 34 reactors at 20 sites. Two reactors designs are certified and four are under review.

With a massive Wall Street credit crisis and banks toppling like dominos, getting investors to show up will be the key to success. Costs of new nuclear plants, which appeared for a while to be on an express flight to the stratosphere, have leveled off and may even fall thanks to plummeting demand for steel and concrete.

Another bright note to watch in 2009 is that the nuclear supply chain is ramping up with one uranium enrichment plant under construction and three more coming off the drawing boards. Two massive new centers for manufacturing of long lead time nuclear plant components were announced in 2008 and will become operational in 2009.

Loan guarantees may go begging

A paltry loan guarantee program authorized by Congress for $18.5 billion was massively over-subscribed to the tune of $122 billion. It is unknown whether the Department of Energy will have the nerve to pick winners and losers under the current program or punt and ask Congress to revisit the ceiling. An incoming Secretary of Energy comes from a science background and may be unprepared for the bare knuckle fights that occur in appropriations committees. The persuasive power of green groups, as represented by the President-elect's cabinet picks, may swing the balance in the first two years of the administration to renewable energy technologies at the expense of nuclear.

Even if Congress boosts the loan guarantee ceiling to meet demand, it is a questions whether anyone will bite. The program's incentives may go begging no matter what they are. No one in the current climate wants to sign up for a massive capital project with 20% of the funding uncovered by a credible guarantee. The catastrophic loss of stockholder value represented by plunging prices on the major U.S. stock exchanges will limit the ability of utilities to invest in new generation capacity of any kind.

Congress may have to take the next step and offer a massive revolving loan program if it wants nuclear energy to be a significant part of the nation's response to the threat of global warming. If not, then energy efficiency, and more fossil fumes, will be the order of the day.

STP faces investor fears

A good place to see how these issue are unfolding is in NRG's plans to build South Texas Plant (STP) units 3 &4. NRG has been courting the investors in the first two units to sign on for the next two. So far Austin, Tex. said no last year, but is now planning to take another look. Local anti-nuclear politics played a role in the initial decision, but the hard-nosed realities of supplying electricity are forcing the Austin City Council to re-visit what some say was a hasty decision.

A more thoughtful approach is unfolding with the City of San Antonio. There the city utility is postponing a decision by nine months whether to invest in STP's new units. It want to wait until it can see whether an aggressive plan including energy efficiency and solar power will close some or all of the expected gap in demand that would be satisfied by investing in electricity from STP.

The utility knows that even if everything goes as planned with energy savings, solar, and wind power, that it could still need another 800 MW of power and that demand could only be satisfied by either building a new fossil plant or investing in STP. The utility's CEO told the San Antonio news media it is keeping its options open to see what the incoming administration will do with energy policy. The entire deal could be complicated by the outcome of Exelon's hostile takeover bid of NRG.

Nuclear destiny at Bellefonte

The key test of congressional resolve, and the ability of a utility to predict and control costs, will come in with TVA's decision to proceed with its plans for the Bellefonte nuclear site. The giant utility has three options. The first is to build to two new Westinghouse AP1000s. The second is to finish construction of two partially complete reactors at the same location. The third is to go ahead with all four units.

What these options have in common is that any of them will require TVA to ask Congress to increase its debt ceiling from the current level of $30 billion. As of November, TVA had debt of $26 billion. The debate over willingness to fund, build, and deliver new nuclear power plants for the nation will be played out at Bellefonte and set the basis for nuclear energy policy for the nation.

Taking Missouri citizenship

If you want a mini-version of state aversion to coal fired power plants, watch the response of the Missouri "show me" legislature when Ameren comes in to ask it to overturn a law that bans recovery of construction costs while a nuclear plant is being built. The state passed such a law in a fit of anti-nuclear fervor in the mid-1970s.

Now Ameren is proposing and has filed a license application for a 1,600 MW Areva EPR, with a potential cost at $3,500/KW, of $5.6 billion. The utility has already spent $42 million on its license application to the NRC. Consumer groups and anti-nulcear organizations are intervening at the state Public Utility Commission which is obligated to follow existing law.

The battle over the new reactor in Missouri will be a signal of whether states want more coal fired plants, and more greenhouse gases, or whether they are willing to invest in clean energy plants with 60-year operational lives.

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Did the nuclear renaissance bloom in 2008?

The answer is yes with some caveats

In 2008 the nuclear renaissance finally began to bloom. In a six week period spanning September and October of this year, six plants have filed COL applications with the NRC and seven filed in the preceding six months for a total of 13 applications and 19 reactors. Add to that the five applications and eight reactors that filed in 2007 and you don't just have a "renaissance. "

What you have, collectively, is a spectacular statement of confidence in the future of nuclear energy. There was a lot of other good news for the nuclear industry in 2008. Here are some highlights listed by the calendar month.

January

The U.K. announced projects for four new reactors worth at least $4 billion each at sites in southern England and longer range plans for as many as 18 new reactors to slow the rate of increase in greenhouse gases.

The first week of the year was a busy time at the NRC. Areva filed for design certification of the American version of its new 1,600 MW EPR reactor. Mitsubishi filed for design certification of its 1,700 MW APWR reactor. As many as four utilities are lined up to reference the EPR in their COL applications (Calvert Cliffs, Nine Mile, Blue Bend, and Ameren) and one utility in Texas, Luminant, will later in 2008 file its COL for two reactors using the Mitsubishi design.

Texas is turning out to be the U.S. leader when it comes to new nuclear builds rivaling China in total megawatts in the pipeline. NRG, Exelon, and Luminant are driving the effort to supply electricity from nuclear energy to the nation's fossil fuel capital.

February

Detroit Edison announced it will file a COL for FERMI III and will eventually succeed in convincing the Michigan legislature to protect the utility's rate base in order to secure funding the for the plant.

Books by authors Gwyneth Cravens,"The Power to Save the World" and William Turner "Terrestrial Energy," which explain the benefits of nuclear energy to the general reader, are well received by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

April

In a record breaking day two utilities file COL applications with the NRC for four reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. Southern and South Carolina Electric and Gas both reference the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design.

Bruce Power rescues Energy Alberta's vision of twin nuclear reactors for the Alberta Tar Sands region but also has an eye on shipping electricity to U.S. markets in Montana. It references the as yet completed design of a new reactor from AECL.

Italy returns to nuclear energy after banning it and decommissioning its plants in the 1980s. While politicians are always more optimistic than engineers, utilities in Italy think the country will break ground for a new nuclear power plant within the next five-to-seven years.

May

Areva chooses Idaho for its new $2.4 billion uranium enrichment plant following a nearly year-long quest for a suitable site. Later in 2008 Louisiana Energy Services will announce it plans to double the size of its National Enrichment Plant which is already under construction in New Mexico.

GE-Hitachi's laser enrichment process, still in the R&D stage, got a boost from a $124 million, 24% stake by Cameco. The Canadian firm will also supply uranium to the project. A commercial facility equal in size to the Areva plant in Idaho is planned for Wilmington, NC.

June

Strathmore, a uranium junior mining firm from Riverton, WY, scores a deal with Japanese giant conglomerate Sumitomo to mine uranium at the Roca Honda mine in the Grants district of New Mexico and also build a mill there. The resulting yellowcake will be shipped to Sumitomo's utility customers in Japan.

July

Rolls Royce, which for decades has built nuclear reactor components for the U.K. naval submarine fleet, announced it would enter the commercial nuclear reactor business. Plans are in the works to partner with EDF on the U.K. nuclear build.

August

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) revealed plans for revival of its nuclear destiny at the Bellefonte site in Alabama with two new AP1000 reactors. Completion of two partially built reactors at that site is also being considered. In November TVA also announced that its $1.8 billion investment in the restart of the Browns Ferry plant in 2007 had been paid off in just eight months. The payback period originally had been expected to take eight years.

September

India entered the nuclear renaissance when the Nuclear Suppliers Group lifted a three decades old ban on selling uranium to that country, The approval came after India pledged to keep its civilian reactors under IAEA inspection and to uphold a voluntary moratorium on testing atomic weapons. The U.S. Senate also ratified India's nuclear deal opening the way for U.S. firms to sell nuclear reactor technology and fuel to India.

November

China's Huaneng Group launched the commercial implementation of its pebble bed modular reactor nuclear power project at a plant in Shandong Province. It is expected to have an installed capacity of 200 MW. Designs for small reactors are coming off the drawing boards at firms like NuScale Power, Hyperion, and Toshiba. The NRC is paying attention. Last July Chairman Dale Klein gave a speech asking the nuclear industry for input on licensing issues.

The nuclear supply chain ramped up with twin announcements of major new manufacturing centers for long lead time components by Areva and Northrop Grumman at Newport News, VA, and by Westinghouse and Shaw Group at Batobn Rouge, LA. Both projects are worth over $300 million each in new factory facilities.

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Not even close and no cigar

A few instances where things went haywire in 2008

spotlightCovering the global nuclear energy industry requires a certain amount of restraint. Otherwise it would not be possible to offer straight-faced reportage of some of the absurdities that crop up wherever people are involved in nuclear energy, whatever their intentions.

Here for your review is a spotlight on an highly selective list of things that went “bump in the night” in 2008. It takes real effort to get on the list as you will see from the stories that follow.

This is an edited version of an article published in Fuel Cycle Week V7 N308, December 17, 2008 by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

In the drink

The $1.4 billion refurbishment of Point Lepreau, New Brunswick’s only nuclear reactor is going to take a lot longer because two 107-tonne turbine rotors were briefly stuck in the mud under three meters of salt water in St. John Harbor. The two units are reported to be worth $10M each. According to the New Brunswick media sources, a barge carrying the two power generation components became top-heavy and flipped over dumping the huge devices into the brackish bay. No one was injured in the incident. Recovery operations have pulled the units back on to the shore where they are now drying out, but their condition at this time is unknown. It is likely the salt water did no favors to the factory-mint condition of the two rotors and turbine blades.

Hung out to dry

Alternative Energy Holdings Inc., (PINK:AEHI) which says it plans to build a nuclear power plant in southwestern Idaho, sued the anti-nuclear Snake River Alliance for libel after the group’s director called the penny-stock firm “a scam.” The thin-skinned AEHI also filed assault and battery charges against a Twin Falls foot doctor after he handed out anti-nuclear leaflets at a public meeting protesting the proposed plant. The slightly built podiatrist was convicted and is filing an appeal.

Unclear on concept

Former New York Gov. Elliott Spitzer wanted to shut down the two reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power station without having the faintest idea of where the replacement electricity would come from. He failed to accomplish his goal—then suddenly left office after an unrelated sex scandal. Entergy, the utility that owns and operates the plant, finally got its emergency sirens to work and pledged to spend $100 million over the next six years in plant, equipment, and safety system improvements.

Entergy put up with a lot of grief during its relicensing hearings, but got some unexpected relief when the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board took action against a citizens' group that had tried its patience to the breaking point. The agency said the Westchester Citizens Awareness Network (WestCAN) was barred from future proceedings because the counsel for WestCAN repeatedly disregarded agency regulations and instructions from the panel.

According to the MidHudson News for Dec 9, the NRC noted that the actions by WestCAN's counsel have "seriously disrupted the Board's efforts to meet its responsibility to conduct a fair, orderly and efficient hearing, has interfered with the other participants' efforts to use their own litigation resources efficiently, and has made our own review of the appellate documents and the underlying record far more time-consuming than necessary."

The Commission has also taken the rare step of ordering the NRC's Office of the Secretary to not accept any further filings from the lawyers for WestCAN, unless they meet all procedural requirements.

Sorry about that

Apologies abound in the Green Mountain state. Vermont State Senate leader Peter Shumlin called the CEO of the state’s largest employer, IBM, a “liar” for his support of relicensing cheap electricity from Vermont Yankee. IBM employs 6,000 people in Vermont due to the benefit of the low rates. Vermont’s governor later apologized to IBM to reassure the firm the state really wants to keep those jobs.

For their part the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant employees did everything they could to reduce public confidence in the plant. They dropped a cask of spent nuclear fuel when a crane failed and the plant suffered repeated and visually spectacular failures of the cooling system outfall pipes. No one was injured and no radioactivity was released from either incident.

The NRC ruled the cooling system breach was not “safety significant,” but some of Vermont’s citizens are not buying it. They shouted down Thomas Salmon, a former Vermont governor, when he tried to testify at an NRC hearing about relicensing the plant. The NRC apologized to him for losing control of the public meeting.

Anti-nuclear activists attacked the Vermont Public Service Board by bombarding workers there with plastic popcorn soaked in an obnoxious chemical. One worker was injured. The offices of the utility rate-setting agency are now closed to the public. No one from the Green Mountain Earth First group apologized for the incident.

Home-field advantage

Ontario’s provincial government scared off Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi for the new project at Darlington, leaving only AREVA and AECL in the bidding. With 30,000 AECL workers, who presumably vote, in Ontario, does Canada’s government care? Why would any bidder besides AECL show up on the firm’s home turf? Does AREVA know something AECL doesn't? [Update: see DBXL's comments, below, about these issues.]

What me worry?

Colorado homeowners bought large lots and built expensive trophy homes in a rural historic uranium-mining district in Fremont County near Colorado Springs and then acted surprised when a firm prospecting the old claims begin drilling within 500 yards of the subdivision.

Meanwhile, over in Telluride, seasonal ski enthusiasts with time on their hands are opposing development of a uranium mill located 40 miles to the west of their homes, which they fear would pollute their drinking water wells. In another amazing lapse of science and reason, they published information on a controversial web site about weapons grade-plutonium, which they implied could be found at the proposed mill site.

On the high plains of eastern Colorado, Ft. Collins residents of a self-described “green” city, 19 miles to the west and decidedly up gradient from a proposed ISL mine in Nunn, Colo., turned out in force to oppose it with claims about its alleged threat to property values. They appeared unmoved by explanations that if the groundwater of the remote geologic formations weren't already full of uranium, the mine wouldn’t be built there.

Three strikes you're out

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire spooked economic development groups in Richland, WA, when she talked with Areva’s chief executive officer about a possible uranium enrichment plant in Richland and “reiterated my concern about disposal of waste.”

In fact, the governor's lukewarm support, and stern lecture, about the $2.4 billion project convinced Areva the firm was not wanted in Washington. The plant is now being built in eastern Idaho which offered millions in attractive tax incentives and an overwhelmingly supportive political climate.

Gregorie was unapologetic about her appeal to the west of the Cascades green vote and a roundabout slap in the face to the folks in the Tri-Cities. She survived a close election in 2008 and was returned to office for a 2nd term. No love was lost in Richland. As far as they are concerned, the mighty Gregorie had struck out costing them the jobs that went with a $2.4 billion construction project.

Cancel my flight

GE Hitachi pulled out of bidding for three new nuclear plants in Turkey, the entire U.K. nuclear build, and the Darlington, Ontario, Canada, reactor tenders. Also, Exelon canceled its plans for twin ESBWR reactors for a "greenfield" site in Victoria, TX. Serious questions from the NRC as part of the design certification review for the ESBWR played a role in these outcomes although leaving the bidding in Turkey was probably a good idea (see next story).

One if by sea

Turkey, which dreams of energy independence from its large, resource-rich neighbor to the north, got a harsh reality check. The Turkish government published a tender for 4,000 MW of nuclear capacity, but refused to include provisions for the protection of proprietary technology, guarantees for sale of power for 15 years after startup, indemnification and the ability to have foreign workers run the plant until Turkey can train their own. Consequently 12 of the 13 potential contractors decided to forgo the bid. The only one to make an offer was Russia's Atomstroyexport. Turkey is rethinking its solicitation strategy and whether to award the contract.

Loose nukes

In a CBS 60-Minutes TV news report South African officials denied, a year after it happened, that a breach of sophisticated security systems by two teams of armed men at the Pelindaba nuclear site, which included shorting out a 10 KV electric fence, was an attempt to steal HEU. Officials called it a botched burglary. No one has been arrested for the break-in though several security guards were fired for what appears to have been an inside job.

The one apparent hero of the incident, Anton Gerber, decked two of the intruders when they crashed into the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and was well on his way to knocking out the daylights out of the other two men when they shot him. He survived his wounds and is now suing his employer over the injuries.

Overshadowed in the excitement is the report that another roving security team was alert and spotted the other group of four intruders. The guards opened fire under the standing rule that if you see someone at night inside the security fence, "it's not us" so shot first and ask questions later. They did and the four men fled into the night empty handed but not before shooting back. It isn't known whether anyone was wounded in exchange of gunfire.

Lucy, you've got some explaining to do

Aaron Tilton a former Utah state legislator, and former entrepreneur of nutritional supplements on the Internet, wants to build a 3000 MW nuclear power plant in Green River, Utah, to be guaranteed by the entire rate base for the Beehive state. The goal is to make up for the cancellation of a 900 MW coal fired power plant and to export most of the nuclear generated electricity to Los Angeles.

Tilton, who is now executive director of Transition Power, inked a controversial deal for 30,000 acre feet of water for the plant with fellow legislator Mike Noel who's day job is director of the Kane County Water District. No Utah ethics laws were broken though some people think Tilton and Noel have some explaining to do about who will benefit from the proposed plant.

Penny for your thoughts

German Chancellor Andrea Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats thought they had a plan to save Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants from being shut down: extend their operational life by diverting some of the profits from the sale of electricity into a fund to buy down the higher costs of wind and solar power. The plan would generate €40 billion (US$56 billion) over a period of 20 years.

But Social Democrat Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, speaking for a broad coalition that include the country’s green groups, called the plan “a return of the nuclear industry.” True. It just goes to show that the German greens are sticking to their principles even if it costs them $56 billion.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Obama's Energy & Environment Team

They can sing but can they dance?

dancePresident-elect Obama has picked a sterling team to head up the federal government's energy and environmental agencies. The group as a whole has outstanding credentials and all of them can sing from the same hymn book on the urgent need for change in energy and climate policy. The key question is this; once they get to Washington, can they do the dance of legislation with Congress as their partner?

Even more urgent are the twin challenges facing the incoming administration: the current economic crisis and a rapidly accelerating avalanche of unemployment. A key question is how the energy and environment agencies will be directed by the Obama White House to respond to these challenges.

Following his election, Obama said, "I do not underestimate the enormity of the task ahead." When he talks about the economy, he says clearly, "We're in an emergency." Given these broad strokes, what will he do with his energy and environmental portfolio to address these issues?

Energy - Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, was selected for the Department of Energy. He is the Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a premier science center with expertise in exactly the kinds of things the incoming president says he wants to have as part of his energy program. Under Chu's leadership the lab has developed into a world class center on alternative and renewable energy technologies.

Steven ChuDespite his top of the line science background, Chu (right) has little experience in Washington and may be unprepared for the bare knuckle fights over funding and policy that his agency will face in Congress. The Department of Energy (DOE) has a broad science mission which Chu will find easy to grasp and manage, but it also has daunting challenges in areas he does not know well. They include its nuclear weapons and nuclear waste programs.

The biggest headache will include the troubled and contentious Yucca Mountain project that Obama condemned during the campaign. In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expects Obama to kill it. The Nuclear Energy Institute says not so fast. This could be one of the first places where the energy rhetoric of the campaign meets the reality of congressional priorities.

Chu is nominally supportive of nuclear energy despite the fact his lab does little work with it. He signed on to a joint statement with other national lab directors last summer urging more federal money for nuclear R&D. His views on the issues of loan guarantees and support for the nuclear renaissance will likely come out in confirmation hearings. They will be important signals of where the Obama administration is heading with commercial nuclear energy.

See also Rod Adams extensive and positive take on Steven Chu's prospects at Atomic Insights

Environment - Obama picked Carol Browner (right) to fill a new position as White House coordinator of energy and climate policy. Her challenges are more diffuse, but the scope of potential impact is much greater because she will work in the White House. The key question is how much influence she will really have given all the competing voices for the President's attention on national and global climate and energy issues.

carol_brownerAs the former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, she has a strong supporter in former Vice-President Al Gore. It may be her selection was sealed in an important meeting Obama and Bieden had with Gore in Chicago last week.

At the White House she will face competing challenges for domestic policy. More importantly, she may become an international emissary repairing the damage the Bush administration has done to our nation's relationship with the rest of the world on climate change issues. Her experience over the past few years has prepared her for this role. After leaving the government, she became a partner with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in an international consulting firm with Fortune 500 firms as its clients.

Browner will have a huge portfolio that includes climate change, environmental regulation, energy conservation, and development of new, renewable energy technologies. She will be supported in this role by her former aide at EPA Lisa Jackson, who has been selected to now head that agency. Browner will also have to coordinate energy and environmental policy across the government.

She will be a key White House link to industry on energy and climate issues, which could be difficult given her previous role as a regulator of ozone and air pollution. Her high level position will require industry to listen to what she has to say, but Congress will have the lead voice in setting the legislative agenda. Her skills in dealing with the House and Senate will be tested on every issue that is on the Obama administration's energy and environmental agenda.

The bad news is that the New York Times labeled her an "acolyte" of former Clinton VP Al Gore. Is she a 'true believer?" Will she follow his 10-year agenda for rapid change to solar and wind technologies, at the expense of nuclear, over the next decade? Here's what the New York Times published Dec 11 in an analysis about her prospects.

Ms. Browner, an acolyte of former Vice President Al Gore, will have forceful support in the new Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, who will be the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who is returning as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Opposing their efforts will be many Republicans and some Democrats, as well as manufacturers, utilities, oil companies and coal producers who will bear the brunt of the costs of any steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the main culprit in global warming.

The answer to the question of the likelihood of her success, like others about the new energy and environmental team, will emerge in the first two years of the Obama administration. The good news is she's done political horse trading before during her stint at EPA. She's an experienced Washington hand. A well-honed and realistic sense of what's politically possible will serve her well.

National Security - Obama selected retired Marine General James Jones (right) as his national security adviser. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Dec 1, Jones said that energy will be at the heart of the national security mission and it will look a lot more like statecraft and a lot less like a green shift for the economy. That doesn't diminish the Obama administration's plans for green jobs, infrastructure, or alternative energy, but it does place these programs in an ordered list of priorities.

James JonesJones, who is the former Marine commandant, and who was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told the WSJ, "energy is a national security issue of the highest order."

Until he was selected for the national security post, Jones spent the past two years working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce developing a roadmap for bolstering U.S. energy security. It is not a compendium of Washington business as usual, which is more of everything without counting the costs or understanding the trade-offs.

Jones told the WSJ, "We are in a race against the clock and complacency is our biggest enemy." If we do not take this challenge seriously, America's economic prosperity, national security, and global standing will be at risk. The status quo . . . is a recipe for failure."

Jones does not have to be confirmed by the Senate and the majority of his interactions will be with other federal agencies that shape national security policy, such as State, Defense, and Treasury, in driving solutions to problems that impact U.S. global interests. He will also have to contend with the many intelligence agencies that advise the president.

Still, he's got a focus on energy issues, which will include fossil fuel supplies. It will also include how the U.S. deals with nuclear energy issues including Iran's drive in the area of uranium enrichment and the global expansion for peaceful use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.

No snap judgments

Jones clearly is the master when it comes to shaping Obama's priorities in areas of national security affecting energy policy. One hopes that he and Carol Browner, as peers, will be able to see eye-to-eye on their respective priorities. For Steven Chu, the important objective will be to keep his head above water in the turbulent waters of DOE's bureaucracy and provide leadership on Obama's green technology agenda as it makes its way through Congress.

It will take time to see who the pieces fit together and where the outcomes will be favorable for nuclear energy. It is important not to make snap judgments about this group based on their past work and associations. Congress is the key to success because new legislation and funding will be needed for almost all of the pieces of Obama's program. The dance of legislation will begin with the President's State of the Union address in January. Watch this space.

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