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.

Score One for Big Nuclear: Kaptur Bests Kucinich in Ohio Primary

Davis-Besse and its critic, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D OH-9). (photos: NRC & Rep. Kucinich)

Fifteen-term House veteran Marcy Kaptur has defeated seven-term incumbent Dennis Kucinich in Tuesday’s primary for Ohio’s 9th congressional district. Rep. Kucinich previously represented OH-10, but was forced to compete with Kaptur when Ohio lost two seats in the last census. Republicans in the Ohio State House (with the blessing of US House Speaker–and OH-8 Representative–John Boehner) merged two Democratic strongholds into a new 9th district that included parts of Kucinich’s Cleveland base, but was dominated by Kaptur’s old Toledo constituency.

With nine-tenths of precincts reporting, Kaptur leads Kucinich, 60 to 39 percent.

Both members of the progressive caucus, Kucinich and Kaptur have been on the same side of many issues–each has a 95 rating from the AFL-CIO and a 100 percent score from the ACLU–but, as John Nichols points out, they had their differences, too:

Kucinich, who for many years voted with opponents of reproductive rights, switched his position before the 2004 presidential election and ran this year as the more socially liberal contender. Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House and a champion of many feminist causes, was ranked as “mixed choice” by NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Kucinich was also a stronger critic of America’s military follies, and pointed out that Kaptur, the Democrats’ number two on the powerful Appropriations Committee, should have pushed harder for cuts in defense spending.

But for readers of this column, one of the clearest dividing lines between the two Ohio pols was drawn earlier this year when Kucinich and Kaptur both attended a public forum on the future of one of America’s most troubled nuclear plants. The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, near Oak Harbor, Ohio, rests inside of Kaptur’s old OH-9, just east of Kucinich’s current district, and, well, it’s had some problems:

[In November 2011] a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . .

That repair program is still nowhere near completion. And all of this was on top of acid leaks years earlier that caused some of the worst corrosion ever seen at a US reactor–a lapse that cost plant operator FirstEnergy some $33 million in government fines and civil penalties.

But with all that on the table, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission still gave its thumbs-up to a reactor restart in December. Then, one day after the OK, FirstEnergy admitted it had withheld news of new cracks discovered on a different part of Davis-Besse a month earlier. But FirstEnergy said it had only hidden that information from the public–the NRC had been clued in. So, the nuclear regulator knew of the latest problems and still gave the go-ahead to a restart.

And the reason we know all of this is because of Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

An ardent critic of Davis-Besse for years, Kucinich called for a public meeting with the NRC and FirstEnergy before the new Ohio district lines were announced. And it was at this meeting in early January where some of the latest news was revealed–along with the contrasting positions of Kucinich and Kaptur.

As was reported here the next day, both House members were in attendance, and Kucinich made his position clear, saying his fight was with the NRC and FirstEnergy, not Kaptur:

“The cracking is not architectural, it’s structural,” Kucinich said. “FirstEnergy finally admitted this tonight. It’s an issue of public trust. FirstEnergy did not give the public, media or us a true picture of what really happened at the start.”

Rep. Kucinich has repeatedly stated that the Davis-Besse reactor should not have been allowed to restart until plant operators and regulators could explain why the reactor building was cracking and prove that the problem had been arrested. To date, neither of those criteria has been met.

Kaptur, for her part, tried to finesse it–if you can call this finesse:

“I came to assure the people that I am a proponent of public safety, I am convinced the NRC did its job this time, and I also want to see advanced energy production that’s affordable and see the plant increase employment,” Kaptur said. “We have to live in the 21st century . . . not the 20th . . . which is what Davis-Besse is providing. I know what [Kucinich] believes, but I’m in my 30th year as a public servant and I think I’ve learned something in that time.”

Again, as noted in January, the jobs claim made little sense, and the idea that a light water reactor from the 1970s represents living in the 21st Century makes even less. Kaptur’s concern for public safety is a hard match for a facility that has been the site of two of the five most dangerous US nuclear events since 1979.

As for “affordable,” it always bears repeating:

[N]uclear power–with its construction costs, costs of operation, costs of fuel mining and refining, costs of spent fuel storage, accident clean-ups, tax breaks, rate subsidies and federal loan guarantees–is one of the most phenomenally uneconomical ways of producing electricity ever conceived.

Kaptur’s faith in the NRC was also not borne out by the facts. As explained here, the government regulator relied on industry assurances of Davis-Besse’s safety, summing up their supposedly convincing findings this way: “Concrete has a tendency to crack.”

Davis-Besse, in fact, is one of best examples of the cracks inherent in the US nuclear regulatory system, and we know this to a large part thanks to steady pressure applied by Ohio’s own Dennis Kucinich.

* * *

Next January, Kucinich will no longer be a member of Congress, and the House will lose one of its most vocal critics of this country’s dangerous and dirty nuclear boondoggle. If past is prologue, Kaptur cannot be expected to pick up her departing colleague’s fight, so when the next accident happens at Ohio’s Davis-Besse plant–and it is almost certain there will be a next accident–Kaptur will be partly responsible.

But it would be unfair to hand her all the blame–she is, after all, a formidable Democrat in her own right, and she was just fighting to keep her seat. That Ohio is losing two congressional seats is due to population shifts, but that the GOP was in charge of drawing up Ohio’s new districts, that they control the state legislature and the governorship–not to mention the US House of Representatives–that blame can be shared by Kaptur’s colleagues in the Democratic leadership, as well as the Obama administration, for it was the White House and congressional leaders that squandered the mandate of 2008 and created the space for the Republican resurgence in 2010.

This is not the place for a lengthy analysis of the rise of the Tea-O-P, but it is interesting to note that one issue where Kaptur has made a name for herself is in speaking out against the bank bailouts. And, in opposing Wall Street and the banksters, the 29-year House vet sounded markedly different than President Barack Obama or even then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi did during the 111th Congress. If Obama and Democratic leaders had chosen to sound an emotional chord more like Kaptur’s, one has to wonder if the losses in Congress and in state houses across the country would have been nearly as dramatic–and so one has to wonder where redistricting would be with more Democrats in control.

And, it is perhaps more ironic than emblematic, but it still deserves mention: Kaptur’s Republican opponent in November will be none other than pantomime populist Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, hero of the tea-stained right.

With the recently announced retirement by Rep. Norm Dicks (WA-6), Kaptur could take the gavel at Appropriations, should the Democrats retake the House. Even if she is just Ranking Member, her status and power will rise. She can wield that power in many ways–and some might even be good–but it is doubtful she will give nuclear oversight even a fraction of the attention exhibited by the man she beat Tuesday night.

Nuclear industry acolytes might be applauding the end of the electoral career of a persistent critic, but atoms aren’t Tinkerbelle; no one can clap loud enough to make nuclear power’s numerous problems go away. Kaptur’s defeat of Dennis Kucinich might seem like Big Nuclear’s win–and maybe in the short-term it is–but without more vocal and visible watchdogs like the Ohio Representative, everyone loses in the end. Everyone.

Nuclear Regulator Adds Heat to 2012 Congressional Race

Congratulations go out this first week of the new year to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for giving Democrats in Ohio’s 9th congressional district a reason to come out and vote in their March 6 primary. . . and for giving residents from Toledo to Cleveland, not to mention those in a large swath of southern Michigan, something to keep them up at night.

As previously reported, the NRC waited till very late on a December Friday to announce a restart of the Davis-Besse nuclear facility, located near Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie. Davis-Besse, of course, has a rap sheet as long and as disturbing as any power plant in the country:

. . . a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . which will in no way be completed before the end of the year.

This was all on top of dangerous acid leaks discovered years earlier that caused what was called the worst corrosion ever seen at a US reactor. For their lack of attention to this little detail, Davis-Besse operator FirstEnergy was fined $5.45 million by regulators, and the company agreed to pay another $28 million in civil penalties.

All of this was public information before the NRC signed off on the December restart. But then:

[O]n December 7, one day after the reactor restart, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s operator, admitted that they had withheld news of new cracks on a different part of the structure, which were discovered in November.

But, hey, FirstEnergy said that they only had withheld this information from the public, and that they indeed did report it to the NRC–which, as was observed at the time, raises some serious questions about the honesty, independence and competency of that body.

Well, one month after the commission gave its latest blessing to Davis-Besse, the NRC arranged a public meeting to explain its decision.

Wait–that’s not quite right. Representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and FirstEnergy were at a public meeting December January 5 at the request Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D), who currently represents Ohio’s 10th congressional district, which lies to the east of Davis-Besse.

And there’s the rub. A victim of a population shift and a gerrymander by state Republicans, Kucinich’s district is disappearing in the next Congress. After much consideration, Rep. Kucinich recently announced that he would try to win back a seat in Congress representing Ohio’s 9th district, thus setting up a primary against House veteran Marcy Kaptur, the Democrat who has represented OH-9 for 29 years.

It should be noted that Kucinich has been on the Davis-Besse case for a very long time, and had called for the public meeting before the new district lines were drawn. But, as fate would have it, both Representatives Kucinich and Kaptur appeared at Thursday’s event.

Kucinich stated that his fight this January night was with the NRC and FirstEnergy, and not with Kaptur, but the contrast was there all the same:

“The cracking is not architectural, it’s structural,” Kucinich said. “FirstEnergy finally admitted this tonight. It’s an issue of public trust. FirstEnergy did not give the public, media or us a true picture of what really happened at the start.”

Rep. Kucinich has repeatedly stated that the Davis-Besse reactor should not have been allowed to restart until plant operators and regulators could explain why the reactor building was cracking and prove that the problem had been arrested. To date, neither of those criteria has been met.

Despite this uncertainty, Rep. Kaptur, whose district includes the troubled nuclear plant, supports the course currently set by the NRC and FirstEnergy–at least that seems to be what she’s saying:

“I came to assure the people that I am a proponent of public safety, I am convinced the NRC did its job this time, and I also want to see advanced energy production that’s affordable and see the plant increase employment,” Kaptur said. “We have to live in the 21st century . . . not the 20th . . . which is what Davis-Besse is providing. I know what [Kucinich] believes, but I’m in my 30th year as a public servant and I think I’ve learned something in that time.”

The Davis-Besse plant is said to account for about 800 jobs–though, since none of the players is proposing the decommissioning of the reactor, it is not clear how delaying restart until safety issues are addressed would change the employment picture. As for living in the 21st Century instead of the 20th, perhaps Kaptur has forgotten that Davis-Besse broke ground in 1970, and came on line in 1978. Its light water reactor design is older still.

As for believing in public safety, beyond the recent fire, the two reactor head replacements and the numerous unexplained cracks, Kaptur probably should be reminded that the plant in her district is the site of two of the five most dangerous US nuclear events since 1979.

As for “energy production that’s affordable,” even a casual reader is by now aware that nuclear power–with its construction costs, costs of operation, costs of fuel mining and refining, costs of spent fuel storage, accident clean-ups, tax breaks, rate subsidies and federal loan guarantees–is one of the most phenomenally uneconomical ways of producing electricity ever conceived.

And, as for the NRC doing its job–“there is a high level of assurance that the reactor building is safe,” said Cynthia Pederson, a regional director with the NRC responsible for the Midwest. But Pederson also confirmed that their investigation into the cracks is ongoing, and most notably, that the NRC is relying on FirstEnergy to sort it all out:

The commission signed off on restarting the plant following several tests and after its owner, FirstEnergy Corp., assured it that the cracks don’t pose a threat.

The commission has given Akron-based FirstEnergy until the end of February to find out what caused the cracks.

Until the cause is known, there’s no reason to order closer inspections at other plants with similar concrete shields, Pederson said.

It’s possible that the cracks have been around for a while, she said. “Concrete has a tendency to crack,” she said.

“Concrete has a tendency to crack”–how is that an acceptable “finding” from a representative of the regulatory agency responsible for guaranteeing the safety of nuclear reactors? Pederson, in her statements Thursday, has made it quite clear that her agency has no idea why the Davis-Besse containment structure is cracking, or whether it has stopped cracking, and that the NRC has relied on the operator’s assurance that the cracks “don’t pose a threat.”

Remember, this is the same operator that previously had to pay out over $33 million in penalties for a previous lapse in judgment, and has just been caught concealing knowledge of additional cracks.

And beyond those structural cracks, Davis-Besse has, time and again, revealed the troubling cracks in the system. Looking at the history of this Ohio reactor–let alone the history of atomic power across the country–the federal agency responsible for policing the nuclear industry has instead proven itself the patsy. FirstEnergy has proven itself untrustworthy, yet the NRC has said that it trusts them, and that the public should trust them, too.

And now, by coming down on the side of FirstEnergy, Marcy Kaptur has volunteered her constituents as participants in this trust exercise, as well. Rep. Kucinich chooses to trust evidence over faith–and that evidence says Davis-Besse is not just an accident waiting to happen, it is a series of accidents, some still in waiting, some now evolving. With the terrifying results of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident still very much developing, it seems naïve if not criminal to give the nuclear industry the benefit of the doubt.

So, this first week of 2012, the Kaptur-Kucinich race already has a clear issue. Residents of Ohio’s 9th, you have a clear choice.