House Postpones Witch Hunt While Nuclear Industry Awaits Results of Latest Power Play

The Salem Nuclear Power Plant is in New Jersey, not Salem, MA, but you get the idea. (photo: peretzp)

In case you were wondering what it was all about–“it” being the dealings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission actually making the popular news for a few months–the House Committee on Energy and Commerce indefinitely postponed its Thursday hearing on the “politicization of the [NRC] and the actions and influence of Chairman Jaczko.” Gregory Jaczko, of course, announced his resignation on May 21, and President Obama nominated Allison Macfarlane as his replacement three days later.

Though stressing that his committee would keep an eye on the NRC, “including a full review of the inspector general’s pending report” on the “breakdown in collegiality at the commission,” Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) did not schedule a new hearing.

And there is no apparent update from Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and, until about the third week of last month, one of the loudest and most persistent critics of workplace morale at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Before Jaczko’s resignation, Issa, too, was promising more hearings. Instead, Issa has turned again to attacking loan guarantees for renewable energy projects (and so, attempting. . . again. . . to make Solyndra an issue in the presidential election)–which also serves his masters (as in, largest campaign contributors) in the nuclear industry just fine, thank you.

Meanwhile, things are suddenly moving on the Senate side. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has given a more public blessing to the suspected private deal discussed here during the weeks leading up to Jaczko’s move. Because Dr. Macfarlane is considered an opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Senator Reid has agreed to put aside his vocal objections to a second term for NRC commissioner Kristine Svinicki and advance both nominations toward confirmation as a pair. (Stopping Yucca, of course, has been one of Reid’s top priorities throughout his political career.) California Democrat Barbara Boxer, whose Environment and Public Works Committee will conduct the hearings on the NRC nominees, has sidestepped her own strong objections to Svinicki, and now says both the current and potential nuclear regulators should be considered before the end of the month.

So, there you have it–matters supposedly related to oversight of the nuclear industry and the safety of the American people have quite visibly taken a back seat to influence peddling and classic beltway horse-trading. In an era where even cynical deals are rarely struck, some might hail this move to quickly restock the NRC as something resembling bipartisan compromise (as if that were an end in itself). But success is not measured by the number of commissioners collecting government paychecks, it is seen in the actions of regulators who actually regulate.

In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, and in the presence of countless problems at a multitude of aging American nuclear plants, there is, indeed, much regulating to be done. But when one member of the NRC is forced out for vainly advocating the most minor of safety improvements, while another commissioner is rewarded with reappointment for consistently supporting the nuclear industry, the chances of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulating much of anything seem slim. It effectively defines “regulatory capture,” and practically guarantees that, no matter how fair or interpersonally gifted Dr. Macfarlane might be, the NRC will do little to police nuclear power.

As has been noted here on numerous occasions, the regulatory system is broken. Scientists, citizens, and lawmakers cannot “assume we have a can opener” and pretend a process exists to make commercial nuclear power clean and safe. The NRC may–may–have been created to provide oversight, but, in reality, it works instead to provide cover. Without an honest and active regulatory body, there is no credible argument for a “nuclear renaissance“–there is only the promise of another nuclear disaster.

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The Thing That Couldn’t Die: Yucca Battle Continues in Congress and in the Courts

(low resolution movie poster reproduction via wikipedia)

In the 1958 cult horror classic The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a young lass out water-witching (of all things) discovers a curious and ancient box–one that, whether you follow the conventions of the genre or the entreaties of the film’s internal expert, should obviously remain closed.

But, as these things are wont to go, greed and ambition get the better of a few mere mortals, and the box is breached, revealing the intact–and living!–head of a sorcerer executed hundreds of years earlier. The wayward wizard then uses his telepathic powers to manipulate some of the more foolish, godless humans to unearth the rest of his body so that it might be reunited with the head and realize the full force of its destructive powers.

It is hard not to think of this black and white bubbe meise while reviewing the most recent chapters in the battle over the future of the partially excavated, purportedly moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in southwestern Nevada.

As noted here last month, the life and death of the Yucca project was at the center of a public face off between President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who just happens to hail from–and represent–the Silver State. Although the administration has sided with Reid on cancelling work on Yucca Mountain, Obama’s move to re-appoint Kristine Svinicki to another term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–over the vocal objections of the Majority Leader–registered with Yucca watchers like stirrings from the grave. Svinicki, after all, has been a staunch proponent of the Yucca project since she worked at the Department of Energy. . . writing the support documents for the Yucca nuclear waste repository. This week’s official re-nomination of Svinicki by the White House seems to say that rumors of Yucca’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.

Or at least that is what the nuclear industry and its army of lobbyists, captured regulators, and purchased politicians would have you believe.

As Republican members of Congress try to exert pressure on Reid and Senator Barbara Boxer (whose committee has jurisdiction over the NRC) to quickly confirm Svinicki, two states with heaping helpings of nuclear waste have gone to court to make sure that the Yucca repository is kept, if not on track, at least on life support.

Last week, lawyers for South Carolina and Washington State went before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing that while the government hadn’t allocated any more money for Yucca, there was still some money in the project’s budget, and even though it wasn’t going to get anything anywhere close to finished, the NRC and the Department of Energy were obligated to spend it. Congress had, after all, passed measures designating Nevada as the future home of the country’s high-level radioactive waste, and the law is the law.

The government, in turn, has argued that not only would it be throwing “good money after bad,” since the DoE has withdrawn the licensing request for Yucca Mountain and the White House has not put any funding for completing the facility in the next budget, the roughly $10 million remaining would not be enough to again wrap up the project when no more money is allocated.

The leftover $10 million, it should be noted, is not only a drop in the bucket when compared with the $90 billion projected cost of developing Yucca Mountain or the $10 billion already spent, it is only half the $20 million it cost to fund the project each month it was active.

As previously examined, the nuclear industry desperately needs Yucca Mountain, or some answer to long-term waste storage, if it ever hopes to expand, or, realistically, even continue to operate its existing fleet of antique reactors. Current moves reveal the strategy of atomic energy advocates to try to keep Yucca alive, however tenuously, in expectation that the political climate might change enough to revivify the cash-hungry corpse that is not just the Nevada dump, but the entire US nuclear power industry.

House Republicans–and some Democrats, too–are playing their part. In April, a majority of the House Appropriations Committee concluded that the Obama administration’s moves to shutter Yucca were “counter to the law,” and then they put your money where their mouths were:

The committee bill [provides] DOE with $25 million to work on a solution to storing commercial nuclear waste, but only if it is directed at Yucca Mountain. Also, the bill would bar DOE from spending any funds to eliminate the option of Yucca Mountain as a waste site.

So, you’re saying you want the radioactive waste to go where now?

Interesting little side note: the Appropriations Committee is chaired by Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the state that is home to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the nation’s only operating uranium enrichment facility providing fuel for commercial nuclear reactors (oh, and a contaminated, toxic mess). And the Ranking Democrat on the committee (who also supported the Yucca provision) is Norm Dicks, whose great state of Washington is a litigant in the Yucca Mountain lawsuit (described above) and the address of Hanford, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

The Senate, as those who have read this far might have guessed, has a different take on the Yucca line item. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s Energy and Water Development Subcommittee didn’t include Yucca Mountain in its appropriations bill. Instead, Feinstein’s language directs the DoE to explore moving nuclear waste to temporary, aboveground storage sites.

Of course, the porous, dank Yucca repository and unstable, vulnerable aboveground casks are both unsuitable solutions to the existing and long-term high-level radioactive waste storage crisis, but with the House in GOP hands and the Senate under Democratic control, the assumption might be that neither option will ever come to fruition. And the assumption might be that the story ends there.

But it doesn’t. Not even temporarily.

Again, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” depends on a place to move the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste generated every year. The way it is stored now is expensive, the way it is stored now is dangerous, and, perhaps most urgent to the industry, the way it is stored now is pretty much full. Something has to give.

While some states hit the courts and the House moves to restart Yucca, the president has picked a fight with Harry Reid on what is generally recognized as the Senator’s signature issue. And House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R CA-49, a district that includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) continues to fan the flames under Gregory Jaczko, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman who was once a Reid staffer and has sided with the Senator and the White House (at least as its position was delineated prior to last month) in the battle to close Yucca Mountain.

Should attempts to unseat Jaczko succeed, he will almost certainly be replaced by a commissioner more friendly to the industry and, thus, to the Yucca site. Should the Democrats lose control of the Senate in November, Reid will lose his Majority Leader post, and with that will go the power to control the budget and the fate of Yucca Mountain. But even if the Democrats hold on to a Senate majority, Reid’s position as its leader is not guaranteed, and Obama’s willingness to challenge him on the Svinicki nomination underscores that uncertainty.

And without Reid in power, there is serious question as to how long president Obama would stand by Reid’s protégé Jaczko.

And there is yet another wrinkle–there is actually a second pot of money set aside for development of a radioactive waste storage facility. It is money collected by the nuclear industry in the form of surcharges on electricity consumers’ utility bills. It is estimated to now total about $21 billion (or maybe as high as $29 billion)–again, not enough to finish building the Yucca repository, but more than enough to keep hope alive, as they say.

But if Yucca is not going to be built, then state regulators, in a lawsuit separate from the one previously described, say that the government should stop collecting the surcharge. And Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has introduced legislation to give back to nuclear energy consumers most of the money collected.

It shapes up as a potential win-win for the nuclear industry. On the one hand, it is one more pressure point on the federal government to, shall we say, shit on Nevada or get off the pot–to restart Yucca or lose a good chunk of money needed for any permanent waste facility. On the other hand, if money is refunded, and if future surcharges are cancelled, it is another way to artificially deflate the price of electricity generated by nuclear plants, and another way to hide the true cost of nuclear power.

Hiding the true cost of nuclear power is, of course, essential to perpetuating the myth of a nuclear renaissance–in fact, it is essential to sustaining the industry as it limps along now. The price of long-term high-level waste storage is but one part of the equation–one part almost always ignored by nuclear adherents–but it is a crucial one. The cost of storing waste at the various nuclear power plants is not only noticeable to the industry’s fragile bottom line, the potential dangers inherent in on-site storage are problems plant operators would rather belonged to someone else.

Yucca Mountain would seem the easiest prescription for this headache. One could say the industry needs Yucca to sustain its influence the way the evil sorcerer head needed a body to fully exercise its powers. But unlike the case of the torso-less thaumaturge (spoiler alert!), nuclear waste does not disintegrate when it comes in contact with a crucifix. The roughly 300,000 tons of high-level radioactive garbage that lies scattered across the US will remain deadly dangerous for at least another 100 millennia–and each operating nuclear plant adds to that terrifying total by about 20 tons each year. Without a government-funded waste repository, nuclear power simply could not continue to live–and that is why, to the nuclear industry, Yucca Mountain is something that cannot die.

Obama Sides with GOP Against Reid in Battle over Nuclear Regulator

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.”

* * *

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.