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The nuclear-power lobby

Subsidies, protests, lawsuits, and a billionaire’s bond election. Seems like a lot of trouble for last generation’s power gamble

Illustration by Chuck Kerr
Illustration by Chuck Kerr

 

U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzalez wanted two things out of the Waxman-Markey climate bill: assistance for the nuclear industry, and free pollution credits for utilities like our City-owned CPS Energy.

He nailed free pollution days before the legislation was voted out of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last week by requiring most carbon credits to be given away to industry rather than auctioned off. This industry-friendly change, among others, outraged the environmental community, most of whom still felt pressured to support the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 in order to make some progress towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Remarkably, however, amid the bill’s 170,000 words, “nuclear” gets hardly a mention.

But don’t think that means the end for the Second Coming of Our Friend the Atom. Across the Texas landscape and inside the wood-paneled conference chambers of Washington, nuclear power (and its long-lived and deadly waste) is marching at quickstep.

Two recent studies out of MIT can’t help but motivate nuclear proponents and detractors alike.

First, a report from MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change found that global warming will likely be far worse than has previously been reported, with temperatures rising as much as 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit this century. Only “rapid and massive action” can prevent the worst of climatic disruption.

Across the hallway, directors of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study and the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research released an update to their oft-cited 2003 study, the Future of Nuclear Power. The paper concludes that the window of time in which the deployment of new nuclear power plants could help prevent worst-case warming scenarios is rapidly closing.

Of course, a nuclear-free future would suit the Goliad crowds trying to keep uranium miners out of their water table just fine. Mentioning the possibility of no new nuke plants in Andrews, however, could get you laid out in a shallow ravine. Residents there just approved a $75-million bond issue to fund the expansion of a radioactive waste dump owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons.

This week, the Current lets loose its magic lasso, rounding up the industry’s sacred cows for a Nuclear Renaissance head count.

Billionaire’s bondage

As the year opened, Waste Control Specialists, an offshoot of Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons’s Valhi Inc., was finally seeing some political returns. After a four-year fight and at least 14 permit-application revisions, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted the Andrews-based operation permission to bury low-level radioactive waste in the red clay of western Andrews County. But with the world economy convulsing from the fallout of a profiteering U.S. banking system, Valhi was marching into a trench of its own.

Standard & Poor’s had recently downgraded the company’s credit rating to a B-, making it tough to get favorable loan terms to expand the dump. Losses in the first quarter of 2009 totaled $20 million, a nearly four-fold increase over losses reported in May of 2008.

That didn’t stop Simmons. With a fresh permit in hand, the faithful funder of many a pro-business Republican politician (Governor Perry chief among them) did what came natural: He fleeced the flock. The waste company asked the residents of Andrews County to float it a $75-million loan. Remarkably, 642 voters — with incomes averaging $4,000 beneath the state average of $19,600 — agreed in an April bond election. WCS won by three votes.

But if Simmons was hard up at the start of the year and didn’t want to cut a check himself, he could have just waited a few months. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a long-awaited Superfund site remediation of a six-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River, polluted for decades by General Electric manufacturing plants.

Beginning this June, a steady income stream in the form of PCB-contaminated soil will be riding the rails to West Texas from New York state. As much as 265,000 cubic yards of contaminated material is to be removed from the river, separated, processed, dried, and shipped west over a period of six months.

You would think a contract like that would bring in some serious money, right?

“We don’t talk about our financial affairs,” said company spokesperson Tom Jones without a trace of irony just weeks after the successful bond vote. “Obviously, it’s a good deal for Generel Electric, and obviously it’s a good deal for us.”

The radioactive disposal permit comes at a good time for the company. One of their few competitors for the wastes, a Barnwell, South Carolina, dump, closed last year to all but a handful of states, and industry officials are again on the prowl for new sites. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Simmons’s permit being worth millions of dollars per year and growing into a dump of national import.

After all, nuke dumps are hard to come by. Just take WCS, for example. The state of Texas had spent more than a dozen fruitless years trying to open up a dump for its domestic nuclear waste from power plants and other sources when WCS first proposed taking over the task. While it got the Texas Legislature to make the necessary changes to state statutes and secured a license to treat, store, and dispose of a range of hazardous and toxic materials (and even some select low-level radioactive wastes) in quick order, it took 14 years to bag this most recent permit, which allows the dump to receive 2.3 million cubic feet of commercially generated waste from Texas and Vermont and 26 million cubic feet of waste from the U.S. Department of Energy. Vermont is Texas’s partner in a federally mandated compact for low-level radioactive waste disposal.

Responding to concerns that the state’s compact language isn’t strict enough to prohibit the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commissioners to allow nuke-generated waste from outside the two states, Texas Representative Lon Burnam brought a bill to this session to circumvent future expansions. It was just one of the countless bills fated to “die their happy deaths in committee,” a Burnam aide said.

In a town that has been vocally supportive of developing an economy built on deadly trash, what of the bond vote that so clearly divided the community down the middle?

“There is still overwhelming support for our company and what we do,” said Jones. “There were a lot of people that were, I think, conflicted about using the county’s credit to finance business. You’re probably seeing the same kind of things when there’s been similar elections like Reliant Stadium and Cowboy’s Stadium.”

Go Team Toxic?

But the real issue in this dry, dusty country is the water underground. More specifically, the allegation made by a former TCEQ geologist that the United States’ largest freshwater aquifer rests just 14 feet beneath the company’s pits.

After at least 14 permit modifications, that devilish detail is still locked in the clay. A contested case hearing requested by residents of Eunice, New Mexico, and the state chapter of the Sierra Club would have helped clear this matter up, but the TCEQ turned down the applicants. A follow-up lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club is pending.

Meanwhile, former TCEQ Executive Director and Commissioner Glenn Shankle, who helped make the whole thing happen, is now — what else? — a paid lobbyist with WCS.

Uranium cocktails

Uranium Energy Corporation, chomping at the drill bit to mine uranium out of a rural drinking-water aquifer in Goliad County, will have to wait at least another six months before it can power up the production pumps. The company has to clear a federal lawsuit and state-level contested case hearing first.

Local residents (and by residents, we mean county commissioners, the water district, and the volunteer fire department, as well as the ranchers and dishwashers and whatnot) are alleging that the company already fouled local groundwater just by poking around.

While the local groundwater district has sampled water wells for miles around the proposed in-situ leach mine show no suspicious elevation of radioactivity, the 36-acre plot under UEC microscope is off the chart.

According to the company’s permit application on file with the TCEQ, the average level of uranium and radium 226 within UEC’s first would-be production field are, on average, 17 and 122 times what is allowable under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In some cases, the level of uranium in the groundwater is more than 200 times the federal level, and radium levels are more than 600 times higher.

Locals like Art Dohman, president of the Goliad County Groundwater District and member of the Goliad County Uranium Research Advisory Committee, are suggesting the contamination occurred in 2007 when UEC punched its initial holes in the ground.

“There was a lot of surface waste drained into those holes, which carried with it oxygen, which carried with it surface contaminants,” Dohman said. “Many of these boreholes were left open for well beyond the 48-hour limit required by the permit.”

Underground uranium formations stretch across more than a dozen counties in South Texas, where it is typically held in low-oxygen environments like the water sands outside Goliad. It is stored in mineralized form until oxygen is released into the system, causing the uranium to dissolve into the water table, and it starts to kick off byproducts such as radium and radon.

UEC’s exploration wells, many of which were left open for more than a month, would have allowed not only oxygen from the air to travel down the shaft, but also the runoff of several rain showers, said Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, representing Goliad County.

“Companies always claim there is contamination naturally occurring, contamination in the groundwater,” Blackburn said. “I think that is just incorrect, but it’s a very difficult thing to prove.”

Of the 117 boreholes checked by the Texas Railroad Commission in 2007, only 14 had been plugged by the company. Of these, most were plugged either too deep or too close to the surface to protect groundwater supplies, the RRC ruled in its citation of UEC.

Calls to UEC Chief Operating Officer Harry Anthony were not returned.

“Drilling the hole is the little secret of the uranium industry. I think they all know exactly what they’re doing, but it doesn’t seem the regulatory agencies do. And, there’s not much in the literature about this,” Blackburn said.

Should the company successfully neutralize the suit this summer, they’ll still have to explain to an administrative law judge in January why they should be exempt from state prohibitions against mining in an unconfined aquifer. Dohman is unhesitating in his assertion that the area UEC proposes to mine is connected to the larger Gulf Coast Aquifer. Worse, it sits inside the recharge zone for the Evangeline Aquifer, which may feed into area creeks through nearby springs.

Dohman says 150 local water wells are potentially affected by UEC operations. “Even the legitimate mining companies say you should not mine in an unconfined aquifer,” Dohman said.

Even if UEC’s opponents are successful at the contested-case hearing, SOAH’s rulings can still be overturned by the TCEQ Commissioners, as the trio did with a recent ruling that a mining company outside Kingsville should not be able to expand operations until they had cleaned up the water from an existing mine site.

At the very least, residents fighting the mining permit application hope the state will not use UEC’s water-quality data to establish a “baseline” level to determine how clean the water must be before the company is allowed to move on.

‘Revival’ varnish

Nuclear-power-plant development has been hampered in the U.S. by a range of problems that go beyond skirmishes over troubled low-level dumps and contamination from uranium mining. Although the would-be Nuclear Renaissance is a key element of more than a few lawmakers’ agendas, the federal government has failed to address the disposal of the plants’ high-level radioactive waste. The price tag on new nuclear plants has been rising by 15 percent a year — and the projects are already fantastically expensive.

Then you have upstarts like Jon Wellinghoff, head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who suggests the world doesn’t need any more nuclear power plants; that renewable energy and efficiency measures alone can provide for the future.

“There’s 500 to 700 gigawatts of developable wind throughout the Midwest,” Wellinghoff said last month, and “enough solar in the Southwest, as we all know, to power the entire country.”

It all boils down to terrible PR for the nuclear industry.

In addition to those immediate troubles, virtually all of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants are set to age themselves out of production by mid-century.

“Even if we had a very aggressive program — say 100 reactors by mid-century, all we’re doing is running in place,” said Michael Marriott, director of the anti-nuke organization Nuclear Information Resource Service. “One hundred reactors at today’s prices is about a trillion dollars. Is that the best way to spend a trillion dollars, especially when the private sector has made it very clear they’re not going to put up the money?”

Still, nuclear has its boosters. And they’re stealthily creating the legislation now that will provide nuclear power with a raft of new federal subsidies.

Representative Gonzalez, for instance, made CPS Energy’s nuke wishes a cornerstone of his ambitions during the recent hearings over the American Clean Energy and Security Act. So what to make of reports that the Gonz had voted against an amendment that would have required one of every five renewable energy dollars to be siphoned off for nuclear?

As it turned out, the nuclear Trojan Horse was already in the bill.

It’s known as a “clean energy bank,” and it creates a new bureaucracy — the Clean Energy Deployment Administration — tasked with doling out federal energy dollars in the form of loans, loan guarantees, and letters of credit.

Currently, 17 nuclear-plant hopefuls are jockeying for $18.5 billion in federal assistance approved under President Bush. At the top of the heap is CPS Energy’s proposed two-reactor addition to the South Texas Project in partnership with NRG Energy. The utility is scheduled to provide an anticipated cost for the project (believed to range between $17 billion and $22 billion) to council members in three weeks. A final decision won’t be made until the fall, according to CPS officials.

So far, both the House and Senate Clean Energy Bank versions include nuclear power and “clean” coal — both extractive energy sources that rely on finite materials — among their list of truly renewable power sources like wind and solar. Thanks to a 30-percent cap on the amount any one of these technologies could receive, the House’s Clean Energy Bank language in ACES could allow up to 60 percent of the clean-energy spending to be made on coal and nuclear.

The Senate’s version currently doesn’t include limits on the funds any single power source could receive through the bank.

Even though the free billions that new nuke plants need to be viable are tied up in Washington, state-level lawmakers are still trying to lay out a multi-million-dollar Texas welcome of their own.

Worded vaguely enough to slip beneath the environment lobby’s radar, House Bill 4525 passed the House with the promise of up to $50 million for new “manufacturers.” However, by defining eligible facilities as those employing at least 300 full-time staff and requiring a minimum capital investment of $200 million, the bill is tailor-made for nuclear and coal plants.

Flower Mound Republican Tan Parker ran it through the House easily, but it hit a bump in the Senate during Houston Democratic Senator Rodney Ellis’s watch.

Chris Harris, the Republican chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, gave it an uncomplimentary whack when he told Energy Report that in the bill’s current form “there’s no way I’ll let it out.”

Harris wasn’t troubled by the idea of giving some of the nation’s richest nuke-seeking utilities — Exelon, Luminant, NRG Energy — added breaks. He just didn’t like how the bill sought to give those breaks (via a retroactive clause post-dated to January of 2008) to companies already operating in Texas.

An amendment to get it past Harris, however, says qualifying companies must not already be approved for tax abatements from city, county, or school districts.

“Since NRG was the moving force behind it, we shall see whether they lose interest or they try to push it and get rid of the amendment later,” said Dick Lavine, a senior analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Senators have a midnight deadline Wednesday tonight to push their legislation through.

Lavine admits that when he first noticed the legislation on the House floor, he didn’t take it seriously.

“It seemed so completely unjustified — especially the back-dating,” he said.

It seemed unbelievable that NRG Energy, already standing to take in free billions from the U.S. Department of Energy and another $250 million over the next 12 years or so from local tax breaks in Matagorda County, would be able to persuade state lawmakers they need more assistance with the planned expansion at the South Texas Project.

It all recalls the competitive-money argument advanced by Marriott.

“If we spent the next 10 years putting hundreds of billions of dollars into nuclear, that’s money that’s not going to those solutions that are faster and cheaper,” Marriott said.

If you had a trillion dollars to gamble, what would you do?


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Web extra!

Neil Carman speaks to us about the toxic trainloads of cancer-causing PCBs about to be shipped 2,000 miles across the country to Waste Control Specialists outside Andrews. Why take the risk of shipping so far when treatment options exist for the waste? Take a wild gue$$.

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What is ‘low-level’ waste, and is it good* for you?

So-called “low-level” radioactive waste is basically everything except the nuclear fuel, weapons waste, or uranium mill tailings from mining.

While “high-level” radioactive waste includes irradiated fuel, “low-level” waste includes everything from shoe covers, rags, and mops to irradiated nuke plant components and piping, control rods from reactor cores, and the poison curtains that soak up neutrons from reactor-core water.

Critics claims the term “low-level” is misleading, since these wastes can emit anywhere from one or two curies per cubic meter all the way to up to 5,000 curies per cubic meter.

Ultimately, entire nuclear power plants will be dismantled and buried as “low-level” nuclear waste.

Carcasses of animals “treated” with radioactive elements in pharmaceutical or medical research also need to be disposed of as low-level waste.

And scientific, medical, and some research waste also fall into this category. Most medical wastes decay within days or weeks, while wastes from nuclear power plants can remain deadly for hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years.

Sources: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nuclear Information Resource Service, Ohio State University

*Not on your irradiated life.

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