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U.S.: Washington continues to pretent nuclear emperor is wearing clothes

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Michael Marriott

The Fukushima accident has exposed a deep and growing gulf between the people of the United States and U.S. policymakers. How this plays out over the next couple of years likely will determine the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

On one hand, the public—after several years of at least lukewarm support for new nuclear reactors—has turned solidly against new reactor construction, against taxpayer support for the nuclear industry, and is increasingly skeptical about the operation of existing reactors.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released April 20, for example, 64% oppose new reactors versus 33% supporting them. Strong opposition was even more striking: 47% strongly oppose new reactors, only 20% strongly support them. The opposition runs across party lines, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents all against new reactor construction.

Other recent polls show that about 75% of the public opposes taxpayer loan guarantees for new reactors. One might think this overwhelming public sentiment might cause a similar re-examination of the issue by policymakers. But in Washington, being tone-deaf to public opinion appears to be considered a virtue (consider, for example, Republican insistence on dismantling the Medicare program in the face of 70-80% opposition).

In official Washington, support for nuclear power remains strong. In mid-March, even while his Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman was recommending that U.S. citizens within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of Fukushima evacuate (an area five times larger than U.S. standards), President Obama reiterated his support for nuclear power as a “clean” energy source and repeated his call for US$36 billion more in taxpayer loan money for new reactors.

Congressional hearings have produced a parade of Congressmembers and witnesses asserting that “it can’t happen here, U.S. reactors are safe;” ignoring the fact that the Fukushima reactors were General Electric Mark I designs, 23 of which happen to be operating in the U.S. now and 22 of which already have been relicensed to operate another 20 years.

Just days after the accident began, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—also apparently deciding there is nothing to learn from Fukushima--authorized a 20-year license renewal for the most controversial reactor in the U.S., Vermont Yankee, which the State of Vermont has vowed to close when its initial license expires next year. Vermont Yankee, of course, is a GE Mark I of the same vintage as the Fukushima reactors. Fortunately for the people of Vermont, the State is likely to prevail in legal battles to close the reactor.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a longtime nuclear critic, introduced a bill in Congress to improve nuclear safety by setting new requirements for backup power supplies, among other measures, but so far has been able to rustle up only a handful of co-sponsors. And with Republicans in charge of setting hearing schedules, it is highly unlikely hearings will be held on the issues or that the bill will go anywhere. Markey is also pressing hard to force implementation of a law that passed in 2002 requiring stockpiling of potassium iodide near reactors—and even that effort, to implement a law Congress passed and was signed by President Bush, is finding opposition.

On the Senate side, the first post-Fukushima nuclear legislation that will be considered is most likely to be a bill to encourage development of new “small modular reactors” in the U.S., with the government offering to pick up half the price tag for the design work. (see box)

And over at the Environmental Protection Agency, a program to provide enhanced radiation monitoring for Fukushima fallout reaching the U.S. has been ended—despite the fact that the accident hasn’t ended and, especially in Hawaii, radiation levels significantly above legal limits have been detected in milk. Move along, nothing to see here….

But even as official Washington continues to pretend the nuclear emperor is wearing clothes, the reality is that Fukushima is already having and will continue to have its inevitable impact.

NRG Energy already has backed out of its plans to build two new reactors at South Texas, which were to be financed by a combination of U.S. Department of Energy and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) loans. One of NRG’s partners in the project was Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), which no longer has the financial means to participate, and Japan’s new stance on nuclear power makes the already questionable JBIC loans exceedingly unlikely. Another NRG partner, Toshiba, is officially attempting to continue the project, but can’t obtain a license or build them on its own.

In Maryland, UniStar Nuclear’s Calvert Cliffs-3 project is on the verge of final collapse. Onetime UniStar partner Constellation Energy dropped out of the project last fall and sold its share to Electricite de France (EdF), which now owns 100% of UniStar. In April, the NRC staff ruled that EdF cannot legally obtain a construction/operating license because of the Atomic Energy Act’s prohibition against foreign ownership, control or domination of a U.S. reactor project and the NRC’s licensing board in the case is now considering whether to deny a license and end the process.

The odds of UniStar finding a U.S. partner seem vanishingly small in the post-Fukushima climate, and grew even smaller when the largest U.S. nuclear utility, Exelon, announced a merger with Constellation Energy. Questioned about rejoining the Calvert Cliffs-3 project, Exelon CEO John Rowe emphatically said Exelon has no interest in that reactor.

Meanwhile, the NRC is in the midst of a 90-day review of U.S. reactors to determine whether there are regulatory changes that must be made immediately to incorporate lessons from Fukushima. Most observers believe this very limited review will result in modest changes at most. But a longer-term (6-month) review will follow closely, and is likely to include more public participation and have a much broader mandate than the initial review, which is both limited in scope and is being conducted entirely internally within the NRC. Some top NRC officials have privately speculated that this broader review may well lead to more significant regulatory changes, some delays in the reactor licensing processes and perhaps even some reactor closings.

And President Obama’s request for US$36 billion more in nuclear loan money? He made the same request last year, and didn’t get it. This year, both because of hesitance over Fukushima and because of opposition to basically any federal spending among many in Congress, Congressional approval appears even less likely.

Source and contact: Michael Mariotte at NIRS

No private money for Next Generation Nuclear Plant.

The United States' Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project faces a number of challenges as the Department of Energy (DOE) struggles to find private investors to share the program’s cost. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which initiated the NGNP program, specified that private companies have to share at least 50% of the cost of the NGNP, a gas-cooled design that would produce combined heat and power.

The NGNP Alliance said the September 2021 deadline to complete the demonstration plant as specified in the Energy Policy Act “is in jeopardy” due to delays and lack of funding. The NGNP Industry Alliance is an industry group aiming to facilitate the commercialization of a high-temperature reactor, consists of reactor developers, potential end users such as petrochemical companies and nuclear utility Entergy. DOE also believes the 2021 deadline is not feasible because “we haven’t got the level of funding we needed, or done the level of design and licensing reviews” necessary for the project to proceed on schedule, according to a spokesperson

Nucleonics Week, 28 April 2011