Political battles hampering function of important agency
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to be an independent regulator with the mission of regulating the use of radioactive materials to adequately protect public safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment. Unfortunately, the Commission has become a political battle ground that makes life difficult for the people appointed to lead the agency.
The challenging environment at the top cannot help but trickle down to the staff where important technical work and safety oversight is supposed to be the primary task.
Dr. Allison Macfarlane, the current chairman of the NRC, announced yesterday that she was stepping down at the end of 2014 to return to academia. She will become the Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University. Instead of engaging in stressful public testimony where people who are supposedly her political allies — I’m looking at you, Senator Boxer — question her integrity, she will return to her chosen profession and spend time teaching students, writing thoughtful papers and organizing conferences on important public issues.
Though it has not been discussed much in public, I suspect that Dr. Macfarlane has received some nasty direct or indirect communications from Senator Reid associated with her inability to find some devious way to stop last week’s release of volume 3 of the Safety Evaluation Report for the Yucca Mountain waste repository.
I’m throwing out a wild guess, but perhaps Reid loudly compared that release to the more successful, albeit illegal, maneuvers that Greg Jaczko initiated in order to halt the license review process in the first place.
Though I was critical of Dr. Macfarlane’s initial appointment based on her lack of management experience and her tangential “nuclear” experience as a geologist interested in final disposal of nuclear material, I’ve been impressed by her ability to create a more productive atmosphere and to repair some of the damage done by her predecessor. She is a straightforward person who approaches issues thoughtfully and independently.
Unfortunately, in today’s virulently partisan political environment, independent thinking is rarely rewarded or even encouraged. Too many of today’s elected officials take the position of “you’re either for me or against me.”
Dr. Macfarlane, please accept my apologies and my best wishes in your future endeavors. You’ve done well under trying conditions that should not exist. Those who should remain outside of the process once appointments have been made seem to be motivated to make an already difficult job into an almost impossible job.
Well said, Rod.
Hi Rod. You are probably right that she made her choice to stop the backlash from higher ups. I hope you are not right about a replacement being another puppet who will carry out Reid’s and Boxer’s wishes. You did not say that but implied it.
The good: She was not the unmitigated disaster that Jaczko was. She appears to have stayed within the law and rules that apply to her and the agency. She seems to have used some sense of fairness and rule of law, rather than pushing the anti-nuclear agenda at every single turn.
The Bad: She did still push the anti-nuclear agenda quietly, by voting against the other commissioners on issues that just shouldn’t have been in question.
The Ugly: Instead of staying in place to continue to act as a law following leader, she will step down before the next elections giving her corrupt sponsor the opportunity to replace her iwth someone who is completely venal.
On further thought, it feels like we’re saying she’s praise-worthy because instead of bowing to political pressure and acting illegally, she followed the law. Then when the pressure got bad, rather than protect her position from those who would abuse the law, she’s abandoning it so that it can be filled with some one more amenable to criminal activity.
Have we really come to the point where following the law is good enough? Shouldn’t that be the default, and any suggestion that one falls below that line be cause for furious criticism?
Does the nrc regulate the use of radiation for purposes other than power production? I have wondered why not use gamma rays to sterilize the belongings of Ebola victims instead of incinerating them? Some people might be reluctant to report their symptoms for fear that their belongings will be destroyed which could acelerate the spread of an epidemic.
Chlorine/hypochlorite, peroxide, ozone or heat (dessication) would do the job too.
NRC looks after all radioactive sources over some limit. Smoke detectors are below that limit but smoke detector manufacturers might not be. http://www.nrc.gov/materials/miau/consumer-pdts.html Medical use of radioactive sources is regulated. Any source strong enough to be used for irradiation sterilization would be regulated.
A non-destructive way of eliminating Ebola virus from some possessions certainly might help in the way you say. Using radiation for that task, as for food sterilization, is one of those topics which is highly likely to arouse irrational opposition.
Technically they are responsible for smoke detectors too, but because they are such a low radiation source they are licensed as a general appliance with the nrc. Tritium exit signs are the same way. The nrc licenses them then forgets about them as long as businesses are disposing of them properly.
Well, Dr. Allison pissed off the partisans of BOTH sides by attempting to steer a neutral course.
The replacement will be a wingnut whether right or left…. 🙁
“The replacement will be a wingnut whether right or left…”
There has NOT been single right wingnut as an NRC Commissioner or Chairman. But there has been a left wingnut – Gregory Jackzo – who proved to be an embarrassment to Oabam’s mantra of the supposed war on women that the right was allegedly engaging in. It was Jackzo – a left wingnut – who abused and harassed women employees and created the NRC’s toxic anti-nuclear atmosphere.
Furthermore, it is a left wingnut – Harry Reid – who is behind these anti-nuclear machinations along with left wingnut Henry Waxman whose boy Jeff Baran is now a Commissioner. Wanna bet that he won’t become Chairman? You ready for that?
And it is left wingnut Andy Cuomo and left wingnut RFK Jr who are fighting tooth and nail to shut down the Indian Point Energy Center.
And it is left wingnut Bernie Sanders in Vermont who is overjoyed at VY’s shutdown.
And it is left wingnut Barbara Boxer who is overjoyed at SONGS shutdown.
But it was right wing hero George Bush who with GNEP started the nuclear rebirth that leftist Obama aborted with his anti-nuclear appointments to the NRC.
Let’s get our facts straight, shall we?
What could be done to bring down Senator Reid, given that he seems to be the real problem? Has he got a hold on lots of politicians (like J. Edgar Hoover did with his files) who are concerned that if they cross him, what went on in Vegas might NOT stay in Vegas?
The hold that Senate Majority Leader has includes the ability to refuse to pull up bills for a vote. He even does this for bills that have passed the House and bills that Senators introduce. Sometimes it is because they do not have enough support in the Senate and in this case it may be a valid reason and sometimes the Democratic Senators do not want the record to show that they voted for or against a bill. He also plays a major role in assignments to Senate committees and choosing members of conference committees. Sometimes he will not allow amendments to bills and occasionally if he allows amendments he uses them all up himself so no one else gets to propose an amendment. In short, he has a lot of powers many of which I have not mentioned.
It is possible that Sen. Reid may not be Majority Leader of the US Senate after the elections, according to some of the polls, and even if he does remain – he may have a very slim majority. On the other hand, Sen. Reid may still retain enough power regardless of his position and does seem quite ruthless in regards to Yucca Mountain. Since he is so anti-Yucca Mountain, he will meddle with the NRC to stop it, and while there he will also advance other anti-nuclear agendas; perhaps if Yucca was off the table, he would be less active in his anti-nuclear role.
Maybe it is time to take a fresh look at spent nuclear fuel, pick a course other than geologic storage, and have a new law written with bipartisan support to supersede existing law of the land.
Boxer is the much bigger problem. She is totally opposed to anything nuclear (except Israel’s nuclear arsenal). Reid probably doesn’t care as long as Yucca Mountain is never opened.
Allison Macfarlane improved the operation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Senator Boxer certainly harassed her at a recent hearing although I still do not know what papers Allison was withholding. She did not buy the need for unanimous opinions when she did not agree with the minority and I support her questioning some parts of the waste confidence decision which expressed confidence in being able to store waste in casks indefinitely. The new nuclear waste confidence decision report should have the title “Nuclear Waste Confidence: From Here To Eternity”. Also she felt that vents should have filters in the vents of reactors even though other members of the NRC disagreed.
I do not feel that the academic environment that she supposedly retreating to is always more sedate although if her new positon is tenured it is certainly more secure than a seat on the NRC.
Nevertheless, whatever her motivation we have to think about the future and find ways to weigh in on the appointment of the new Chair and a new member of the NRC.
I have a suggestion – I think it would be fantastic if you could do an Atomic Show, a panel discussion about the term of Chairman Macfarlane – good things, bad things, and how her 2 years have changed the NRC and shaped the future.
I have but one demurral on the opponents to relicensing existing nuclear powr plants.
Reid is correct about the Yucca Mountain site,
but for the wrong reasons.
The stuff that they would bury there is valuable.
At the estimate I have seen, that one kg of plutonium in a reactor can produce ten million kWh, and at the price I pay of $0.08 per kWh, that’s worth more than gold. Californians pay twice as much, thanks no doubt to the likes of Sen. Boxer.
By my calculations, there isn’t even enough plutonium 239 and Uranium 235 in all our “waste” repositories of slightly used nuclear fuel, to build LMFBRs like the IFR enough to shut down all the coal burning power plants.
At the present time it is more expensive to reprocess the nuclear waste and recover fissionable material from it than to use enriched uranium. The bottom line wins nearly evry time. The French subsidize reprocessing.
Aside from that observation I have no reason to believe that a reprocessing plant would be more acceptable to states than a repository. It should be as a reprocessing plant provides jobs even after it is constructed whereas a repository provides a significant number of jobs only when it is under construction, some jobs while it is being loaded and few jobs after it is closed.
@Susanne E. Vanderbosch
I won’t dismiss recycling on the basis of cost. There are too many obvious places where the costs have been driven upward by the artificially imposed fear of radiation and radioactive materials. It is also worth asking “compared to what?” Studies I’ve seen point out that fuel assemblies made from recycled materials may cost 30%-100% more than fuel made from freshly mined uranium.
What if the price of uranium rises substantially?
How does that cost compare to the cost of natural gas or coal?
Is there any value assigned to the reduced quantity of waste?
What if technology improves the throughput of the facilities?
What if we develop markets for the other constituents of reusable fuel? Many fission products have unique physical properties and thus many have value of their own.
Halley Barbour of Mississippi was once working to build interest in having his state host surface storage so that they could eventually develop a full recycling operation and take advantage of the skilled, career wage jobs that would be part of such a complex. Others would notice the possibilities with a little marketing push.
Former Republican Governor Hailey Barbour has a strong commitment to developing Mississippi which ranks lowest or next to lowest on most measures that are considered to be positive measures.( especially education). The governorship has alternated between Republicans and Democrats and there is a risk that any type of nuclear facility would develop rapidly under Republican governors and slow down under Democratic governors.
Former Democratic governors William Winter and Ray Mabus (presently Secretary of the Navy who has experience with nuclear-powered ships) also were committed to development of Mississppi and might agree with Barbour. Former Democratic Governor Bill Allain also was interested developing MS but opposed the Richton Dome repository in MS as did Trent Lott(R,MS) when he was in the Senate. I taught Public Policy in a graduate program at Jackson State University 1985-1987. A colleague, Harvey Johnson later became Mayor of Jackson and could give an estimate of the acceptability in the Black community as could Bennie Thompson (D,MS) who only campaigned in the black part of his district when he ran for congress. Before he served in congress he was a county supervisor, an important position in MS politics.
Reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository. The reason for this is that the leftovers from reprocessing are radioactive due to fission products and long- lived actinides.The leftovers may be easier to isolate from the environment than unreprocessed spent fuel because they will contain fewer elements.
If one is mainly concerned about proliferation, one could use the PUREX process to isolate Plutonium and bury the Plutonium in a repository. The reprocessing protocol could also be tailored to isolate other valuable elements and isotopes.
Uranium oxide prices were between 10 and 20 dollars per pound between1995 and 2005 then spiked up to 135 dollars per pound in 2007 and are back to 30 dollars per pound in 2014. The coordinator of a financial planning group I attended said the spike was due to hedge funds but I have not been able to verify this. In 2007 a large number of poor investments were made by large investors some of which still made money by insuring their bad investments.
There was a similar order of magnitude spike in uranium prices in the mid 1970s that turned out to be the result of a number of secretive, but eventually exposed, efforts to manipulate the market. I have not yet gotten around to determining what caused the mid 2000s price behavior, although the subsequent crash was certainly aided by the shuttering of 50 operable reactors in Japan for the past three years, along with the shuttering of 7 reactors in Germany and four in the US.
@Susanne E. Vandenbosch
Most people credit this to collapse of retaining wall and flooding at Cigar Lake (a high grade uranium mine that was anticipated to go into production in 2008, and supply upwards of 17% of global uranium supply).
With expectations about a renaissance on high, and actual physical commodities looking constrained (and on a low), you get many of the key components of a bubble. Today, Japan is not buying fuel (and together with decommissioned weapons stock there appears to be a surplus of it for the short term … or at minimum a stability of supply).
It does not seem like we have a robust system for supplying fuel for our nuclear reactors if flooding at one mine site can lead to a 6-fold spike in price. Perhaps we should consider setting up a strategic uranium reserve.
@Susanne E. Vandenbosch
We have a large reserve. So do a number of other countries. Most utilities also have their own inventories and/or long term contracts and do no purchase uranium on the spot market. Unlike most frequently traded commodities, the “uranium market” is opaque and tracked by a few consulting companies. There is little or no data about the actual volume of uranium that actually changed hands during the price spike. I suspect that few trades were made since most customers have no need for emergency purchases.
A log term contract may not be enforceable if there is a shortage due to an accident.
I meant long term not log term. Log describes the rate of spiking of uranium prices probably.
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