In a move that could be seen as election-year expedience, a friendly nod to the nuclear industry, or a sign of a coming battle with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Obama administration announced Thursday that it would nominate Kristine Svinicki for a second term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Reid had gone public just a day earlier with his objections to Commissioner Svinicki getting another five-year appointment when her tenure expires at the end of June.
Svinicki, a George W. Bush appointee to the NRC, is considered a staunch ally of the nuclear industry, and, according to Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, “is amongst the worst of the NRC Commissioners when it comes to implementing Fukushima lessons learned for safety upgrades at US reactors.” Svinicki voted for the rubberstamp relicensing of Vermont Yankee’s GE Mark I reactor, and then pushed hard for NRC staff to finalize the paperwork just days after identical reactors experienced catastrophic safety failures at Fukushima Daiichi, and she has continued to fight new requirements for nuclear plants based on lessons learned from the Japanese disaster.
Prior to her time on the NRC, Svinicki served in the Department of Energy’s Washington, DC Offices of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, and of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, and also served on the staff of then-Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), whom Kamps called “one of the most pro-nuclear US Senators of the past 15 years.”
During Svinicki’s time at DoE, she worked extensively on support documents for the proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But in testimony during her 2007 Senate confirmation hearing for her NRC post, Svinicki was asked by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) if she worked “directly on Yucca”–and Svinicki replied, “I did not, no.”
This obfuscation–or “lie” as Reid has called it–is the official inflection point for the Nevada Senator’s objection to Svinicki’s re-up, but the full story has several layers.
Don’t open that mountain, Fibber
The proposed waste facility at Yucca Mountain has been a thorn in the side of Nevada politicians for decades. Harry Reid has made stopping the Yucca project his life’s work, and with the elevation of his former aid, Gregory Jaczko, to the chairmanship of the NRC, and the decision by the White House to defund further development of the site, it seemed like the Majority Leader had accomplished his goal.
But there is no current substitute for the Yucca site. The US nuclear power industry continues to produce thousands of tons of toxic waste in the form of highly radioactive “spent” fuel rods. That waste is currently stored around the country, on the grounds of the nation’s reactor fleet, in “spent fuel pools,” which require a steady power source to keep cooling water circulating, or once the spent fuel is a little older, in what are called “dry casks”–massive concrete coffins of a sort–and neither of these was intended to be anything but a temporary solution.
The nation’s fuel pools are already filled beyond their intended capacity. That makes them hotter, and, so, more dangerous. The higher temperatures and greater concentration of radioactive fuel mean that pools that suffer a power loss are in danger of boiling off their water faster–and without the cooling liquid, the cladding on the fuel rods can melt and catch fire, sending vast amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. In fact, it is the damaged spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi reactor 4 that currently has those watching the Japanese crisis most concerned.
Dry casks are considered safer than liquid storage, but can only be used once fuel has had a chance to cool for years in pools. Further, some of the nation’s casks are already showing cracks, while others have moved during earthquakes.
The bottom line is that nuclear power plants cannot refuel without a place to put the old rods, and with onsite storage space exhausted, a long-term solution is needed. If the nuclear industry is to pursue license extensions for its 104 aging reactors, not to mention seek to expand that number with new construction, it needs a facility like Yucca Mountain, and it needs it fast.
But Yucca Mountain is not only opposed by all major Nevada politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, it has proven to be a tremendously bad place for nuclear waste. The volcanic formation is more porous and less isolated than originally believed–there is evidence that water can seep in, there are seismic concerns, worries about the possibility of new volcanic activity, and a disturbing proximity to underground aquifers. In addition, Yucca mountain has deep spiritual significance for the Shoshone and Paiute peoples.
So what’s a nuclear industry to do?
One avenue might be to unseat the men most responsible for killing the project.
New coup review
Kristine Svinicki was at the center of attempts to oust Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko that went public late last year when Svinicki and the three other commissioners serving with Jaczko sent a letter to the White House complaining about their chairman’s management style. Central to the complaint, the way in which Jaczko used his authority to recommend that the Yucca project be terminated.
Also in the letter, the allegation that Jaczko was verbally abusive to female NRC employees, including Svinicki.
The complaint prompted hearings in both the House and Senate, with rather predictable, partisan results. Republicans, especially in the House, used the time to berate Jaczko and defend the nuclear industry, while Democrats tended to back Jaczko and highlight his focus on improved nuclear plant safety, especially in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. And while the White House voiced tepid support for its NRC chief, it seemed at the time like Jaczko owed at least some of his job security to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But this part of the story is not over. There has already been one Inspector General’s report on Jaczko’s management, and another is due later this spring. The GOP-led House has also scheduled more hearings on this for the end of May.
Elections have consequences
While Svinicki’s performance as a nuclear regulator ranks poorly–even among a long line of industry-captured NRC commissioners–it is her work on Yucca Mountain and her role in the attempted ouster of Greg Jaczko that factor most prominently in the brewing standoff between President Obama and Senator Reid.
In a move that might be seen as funny if it weren’t so intertwined with nuclear safety, a small parade of Republicans took to the Senate floor this week to praise Commissioner Svinicki–not so much as a nuclear-friendly regulator, but as a whistleblower:
Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) charged that Svinicki was being delayed because of “retribution.”
“She has had the courage to step forward and has blown the whistle on the chairman,” Murkowski added, “and the chairman happens to be a good friend of Sen. Reid. So the question should be put to Sen. Reid: Why is he not allowing her to advance?”
Republicans, it seems, see this as a chance to counter the current “war on women” election-year narrative by showing their support not for a good friend to a friendly industry, but for an abused working woman. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put it this way:
McConnell accuses Democrats of retaliating against NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for taking part in an organized effort to oust NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko last year.
“Commissioner Svinicki stood up to this guy, who somehow managed to avoid being fired in the wake of all these revelations, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the agency, and to protect the career staffers who were the subject of the chairman’s tactics,” said McConnell on the Senate floor Wednesday. “And now, for some mysterious reason, she’s being held up for re-nomination.”
President Obama, however, moved to undermine the GOP. . . by siding with them:
The White House plans to renominate a Republican member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, forestalling a potential fight with Senate Republicans over whether she would be tapped to continue serving after raising concerns with the panel’s Democratic chairman.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained it this way: “The president will renominate Ms. Svinicki. He doesn’t want to have a break in service in June when her current term expires.”
Now that actually is funny–and like all good humor, it’s funny on several levels.
First, rather than facilitating the work of the nation’s top nuclear regulator, Svinicki has worked hard to weaken the NRC’s oversight role. From the previously noted quickie relicensing of Vermont Yankee, to consistent votes against requiring upgrades recommended by the commission’s post-Fukushima taskforce–even for yet-to-be-built reactors–to her role in the time-consuming coup attempt, Svinicki has made the NRC demonstrably less effective.
Second, remember what body has to hold hearings on Svinicki’s nomination, and then hold a vote to re-confirm her? That would be the Senate. And remember who runs the Senate? That would be Harry Reid–the same Harry Reid who just one day earlier had publicly registered his strong opposition to Svinicki. If the White House were really concerned with a speedy confirmation and no interruption in service, wouldn’t it have been better to coordinate a pick with the Majority Leader, rather than pointedly show him up?
Third, a “break in service”–the absence of one commissioner for some amount of time–should that occur, would not stop plant inspections. It would not stop enforcement of current safety regulations. No, the only thing a missing commissioner might delay is the approval of new reactors or the relicensing of old ones.
Still, this could be seen as classic “no drama Obama,” distilled in the crucible of an election, were it not for the consistent influence of the nuclear industry on the Obama administration. The evidence is as unavoidable as the presence of radioactive cesium in your broccoli–and just as unsettling. From the nuclear industry’s hefty contributions to Obama’s campaigns, to generating giant Exelon’s ties to Obama and confidants like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod; from the president’s pledge of billions in loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction, to his appointment of nuclear industry insider William Magwood to the NRC; right through to Obama’s inclusion of atomic power in his smorgasbord of an energy policy at a time when much of the industrialized world is turning away from nuclear, the move by the White House to back Republican Svinicki isn’t just a political bugaboo. . . it’s a feature.
And while keeping Kristine Svinicki in place would be a nice amuse-bouche for Obama’s nuclear godfathers, nothing would satisfy the industry quite as much as Harry Reid’s head on a plate. For even though Nevada’s other Senator, Republican Dean Heller, also opposes the Yucca Mountain repository, he is not in either side’s leadership, and does not wield the power that Reid does. And without Reid in leadership to backup his former aid, it is likely Gregory Jaczko would be forced out as NRC chair.
And without Reid or Jaczko in the way, the path to reopening Yucca–as well as the path to relicensing a bevy of 40-year-old reactors with few new requirements–would be as clear as a Cherenkov blue pool.
Watch this space
As for now, of course, Harry Reid is still very much in place, and so is Greg Jaczko. The fight to hold the Senate for the Democrats, and, if that is accomplished, the fight Reid will have to remain as majority leader, are still down the road. First up is the battle over Kristine Svinicki.
On one side, you have Reid, along with Senators like Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders–all theoretically part of Obama’s power base, all realistically representing states Obama needs to win in November.
On the other side, you have the Senate Minority Leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Wyoming’s junior Senator, John Barrasso–all partisan Republicans, all from states Obama won’t likely win this fall, nor will he need to.
If you were thinking in purely electoral terms, how would you handicap this fight?
But because Obama has renominated Svinicki, and because the president has opened up a public rift with his party’s Senate Majority Leader, it would appear more than simple election year vote counting is going on here. Is it just another case of Obama “going along to get along” with a GOP that has never had much interest in getting along with him, or is this another example of a president that campaigned on a green, alternative energy future showing that his real investment is in the dying, dirty and dangerous technologies of the past? Or is this about a coming showdown between Obama and Reid?
The choices are not mutually exclusive. Like that slogan Obama insists on calling an energy strategy, the answer could be “all of the above.”
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Important Reminder: This Sunday, April 22, at 5 PM EDT/2 PM PDT, I will be hosting Firedoglake’s book salon. This week’s book is The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World’s Most Dangerous Fuel, and we will have authors Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop online answering questions. There is much to discuss about the history of nuclear mythmaking in this book, please join us.