Saturday, May 30, 2015

Nuclear Energy & Democracy

The democratic process is one in which ordinary citizens become involved in issues of government. For example, there are important issues deriving from scientific research. In particular, experience has shown that some scientific discoveries, the result of government sponsored research,  can have negative impacts. The New York Times recently addressed this subject in four short opinion pieces:

NYT /28 May, 2015
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Alexander M. Capron
The Lessons of Asilomar for Today’s Science
Four decades ago, concerns about the science of recombinant DNA led to a global moratorium on cutting-edge research.

Alta Charo
The Case of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
By getting ahead of the technology, the scientific community established a norm that is still observed by most in the U.S. and abroad.

Pilar Ossorio
The Role of Patents in Limiting Scientific Research
The existence of a patent could let an institution prevent some uses of the invention that are deemed unethical.

Celia Wexler
Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment
The information that office provided was used by both parties to make smart and applicable regulation.

 Another example of problematic scientific research is that of government sponsored research into nuclear energy; viz., some of the uses to which nuclear energy have been put have been fraught, to say the least.

 In 1943, in the midst of a world war, the US federal government decided that the creation of a nuclear weapon was both possible and prudent. Two years later, that weapon was used to bring the war in the Pacific to a close, but at the cost of the lives of ~200,000 Japanese citizens. It is still argued today that that was an acceptable, even good, outcome since the number of battlefield deaths resulting from an American invasion of the Japanese homeland would have been far greater. Perhaps.

 Nevertheless, and as an expression of the law of unintended consequences, the world today is divided between those countries that possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons and those that don't. Among those countries that have nuclear weapons, there seems to be an insatiable desire to have better nuclear weapons, and in some cases, to have more nuclear weapons. Among those countries still without nuclear weapons, there are those that seem to be working toward the construction of their own nuclear arsenal.

 It is said that no one in their right mind wants a nuclear war; nevertheless, preparations to fight and win nuclear wars seem to be  widespread. It is also said that increasing numbers of hate-filled non-state actors aspire to exterminate their enemies by exploding nuclear bombs. However, the more that nuclear bombs are accepted as the currency of national defense, and the more that the science and technology of nuclear weapons becomes a common scientific currency, then the more likely it seems that a nuclear weapon will find its way into the hands of an eccentric.

 While trying to cope with this nuclear weapons conundrum, the US federal government has decided to celebrate. The sites where the original nuclear weapons were created, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and in Hanford, Washington, will be turned into US national parks where all the world can assemble and marvel at the power of American ingenuity, and the unintended consequences of nuclear technology be damned!

 And then there is the unresolved problem of the long-term storage of waste from the nuclear weapons industry and from nuclear power plants. Recently, this has been the subject of reports by New Mexico media elements.
Rio Grande Sun 27 May, 2015
Sherry Robinson Commentary

"Nuclear Waste still a confounding issue"
In early 1990's, Mescalero Apache's considered contracting with the federal gov't to store hi-level nuclear waste on tribal land. However, a strong pro-waste faction led by the tribal president Wendell Chino was unable to overcome the objections of a determined anti-waste faction. Finally, US Senator from NM, Jeff Bingaman, intervened by "pulling the plug on federal funding."

Today, Holtec International is attempting to contract with the federal government, and with Eddy and Lea Counties in NM, to store hi-level nuclear waste, on an interim basis, at a site within 10 miles of the WIPP site. The NM State government led by Governor Susanna Martinez supports this proposal; however, NM's two US Senators are opposed.
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Nuclear Energy Institute
Contact:, 202.739.8000 or 703.644.8805 (after hours and weekends)

NEI Congratulates Holtec and NM Counties on Consent-Based Used Fuel Storage Solution
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Nuclear Energy Institute today welcomed a consent-based approach in New Mexico to manage used nuclear fuel from U.S. commercial reactors. Holtec International announced a memorandum of agreement with two New Mexico counties to establish a consolidated interim storage facility in southeastern New Mexico.

The announcement took place in Albuquerque and included support from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. Earlier this year, Texas-based Waste Control Specialists announced its intent to design and license an interim consolidated storage facility that could be used by the federal government to store commercial used nuclear fuel until a federal disposal facility becomes operational.

Holtec’s agreement with the Eddy and Lea counties in New Mexico will include the design, licensing, construction, and operation of an interim used fuel storage facility modeled on Holtec’s HI-STORM UMAX storage system, which stores high-level radioactive waste in steel and concrete containers below ground. The agreement would develop an interim site “to store all of the used nuclear fuel produced in the United States and all canisters currently licensed in dry storage in the country.”

NEI Senior Vice President for Governmental Affairs Alex Flint told the Albuquerque community today that it has a special history and understanding for meeting so significant a policy challenge.

“The nuclear industry has tremendous respect for the political leaders in New Mexico, who for years have been at the forefront of understanding nuclear issues. Where others see challenges, they see opportunities. That has been New Mexico’s history since the beginning of the nuclear era. This is one more example of New Mexicans who see an opportunity to lead by creating a valuable business.

“The United States needs a sound used fuel program. That program should include a permanent geologic repository and consolidated storage, developed concurrently.”

In articulating support for her state as a willing host site, Martinez, in an April 10 letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, said that, “There is a significant and growing national need for such an interim storage facility. Millions of taxpayer dollars are currently being spent on monitoring and oversight of spent fuel each year, and millions more are being spent on settlement payments related to waste disposition.”

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the total liability for the federal government for its failure to manage used nuclear fuel at $27.1 billion, including $4.5 billion already paid out of the U.S. Treasury’s Judgment Fund. This estimate assumes that the DOE begins accepting used nuclear fuel in 2021. The agency has contracts with energy companies to take uranium fuel from nuclear energy facilities for disposal.
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Nuclear Storage May Be Coming to Hobbs

May 01, 2015
By Zora Asberry
NewsWest 9

HOBBS - The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance are partnering with Holtec International to make Lea County the site for nuclear storage of spent rods.

The proposed nuclear waste site would be 35 miles west of Hobbs and 35 miles east of Carlsbad. Moving forward, Eddy and Lea County hope that the site will bring great economic opportunities to the area.

Despite the revenue and jobs the proposed facility could bring, some residents of Hobbs aren't sure they want to have nuclear storage in their city.

"I'm not well informed on that but it is scary to know that that is coming to our town," said Hobbs Resident, Mena Ramos."I'm a little afraid, a little uneasy. I would like to know more about it. Maybe we'll have a commissioners meeting or something like that to check on it," said Carol Luck, another resident of Hobbs.

Sam Cobb, Mayor of Hobbs, says that a lot of people have coined the term "waste" but that is far from what the facility will do.

They hope to store spent fuel rods that will be recycled into nuclear energy in the future.

"These canisters have been tested for head on collisions at 60 miles per hour so I think the two most important things are that it's not waste and it's going to be contained in the safest containers we can currently provide," said Cobb.

Holtec International chose the site because of its geological stability, as it will be just 10 miles from the already established WIPP Plant.

By bringing nuclear interim storage to Hobbs, it will also bring a great deal of revenue to the Lea County.

"We can use that revenue for economic development, local infrastructure, quality of life project and those kind of things. We think it's a great opportunity for use to have a sustainable stream of revenue," said Cobb.
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Editorial: Southeast NM could lead in nuclear waste storage

By Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board
PUBLISHED: Sunday, May 3, 2015

At some point the leaders of the free world are going to have to stop kicking the radiation canister down the road and pick a real nuclear waste storage site.

Because continuing to allow the nation’s nuclear waste to be kept in temporary facilities in 39 states – some sites adjacent to rivers or on top of water tables – is irresponsible at best.

For the second time in three years, southeastern New Mexico has stepped up to offer an arid, sparsely populated, underground site for some of the country’s more than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel. Lea and Eddy counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs have signed a memorandum of agreement with Holtec International Inc.

The company already owns the 32 acres the proposed depository would sit on, will cover the $80 million licensing process and $200 million in first-phase building operations, and could expand to equal all the planned storage capacity at the politically shuttered $15 billion Yucca Mountain storage site.

Despite widespread support by those who live in the area, New Mexico’s senators in Washington, D.C., are against private enterprise investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their state and on behalf of their nation’s security. It’s disappointing but not surprising; their former majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has kept underground storage facility Yucca Mountain in limbo for decades, using various appointment and appropriation movidas to keep its 2008 licensing application on hold at a $15 billion cost to taxpayers.

Sen. Martin Heinrich wants to delay any interim site here “until we are sure that there will be a path forward to permanent disposal.” And Sen. Tom Udall says, “I don’t think we should be talking about this at all while the state and the Department of Energy are still addressing the serious accident and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.”

Yet both must know the Holtec “interim” site is designed for 100-year storage, that a “path forward to permanent disposal” has been blocked by Reid and that a significant, non-carbon-producing energy source continues to churn out radioactive waste from power plants across the nation, and that waste has to go somewhere.

On the same day Heinrich and Udall voiced their opposition, the state and DOE cut a $73 million deal regarding WIPP and agreed the problems that led to the radiation release – and low levels of contamination – occurred at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the canisters were packed, not at WIPP, where they were stored.

That Holtec has a 35-year safety record in this business and uses containers that can withstand direct artillery strikes and the potential impact of two rail cars smashing head-on into each other at 60 mph, and that those containers in turn will be stored in concrete cavities that can withstand a crashing aircraft or a missile attack, speaks to the safety and security of the proposed operation and should allay WIPP leak critics.

And that a company considered a major player in the global spent-fuel storage industry is interested in southeastern New Mexico speaks to the region’s terrain and expertise. The proposed site is dry and desolate, situated between Carlsbad and Hobbs, about 12 miles north of WIPP and in the so-called nuclear alley that includes the $4 billion Urenco USA uranium enrichment plant in Eunice, a proposed $100 million International Isotopes plant to process spent uranium from the Urenco plant, and a proposed spent-fuel storage facility run by Waste Control Specialists and French firm AREVA Inc just across the Texas state line. (It’s of note AREVA wanted to partner with southeastern New Mexico in 2012 but has since decided the grass is greener in Texas and will instead be competing with New Mexico and Holtec.)

Licensing the Holtec site is expected to take at least three years, and legal clarification is needed on allowing the company to transport and store spent fuel at an interim site. Heinrich and Udall could take leadership roles and ensure New Mexico is at the forefront of this part of the new energy economy – as they have done with wind and solar.

Or they can stick with the group that keeps kicking the radiation canister down the road.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.
For more discussion of  the interesting subject of nuclear waste management, see my previous blogpost, "DOE Holds Forth." The technical difficulties being experienced here partly derive from our inability to predict the distant future, and are another example of the law of unintended consequences. That the political problems being encountered here are a case of the NIMBY phenomenon seems clear.

The Obama Administration is attempting to deal with the technical problems by delegating more responsibility to the DOE (paving a technical path toward a politically acceptable solution,) and with the political problems by advocating for more democratic action (opening a political path toward a technically achievable solution.) We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

DOE Holds Forth

For much interesting chat concerning the world of nuclear waste, see: Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's remarks on “A Look Back on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future,” dated March 24, 2015.

Abstracted from these remarks are these summarized facts, all according to DOE:

1. The DOE is committed to sustaining nuclear energy’s role in America’s low carbon future.

2. Part of that commitment is offering solutions for the disposition of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste based upon the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission for America's Nuclear Future (Final Report, 26 January, 2012.)

3. Any workable solution for the final disposition of used fuel and nuclear waste must be based not only on sound science but also on achieving public acceptance at the local, and state and tribal levels.

4. Today, President Obama authorized the Energy Department to move forward with planning for a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste resulting from atomic energy defense activities.

Concerning which remarks, the following are my own (KL's) comments:

1. DOE claims to be "committed to sustaining nuclear energy's role in America's low carbon future," but DOE seems to be doing precious little to promote this claim. While the number of operating nuclear power plants in the U. S. continues to decline, DOE shuttered the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, before any nuclear waste could actually be delivered but after $ billions had been spent to prepare the site.

Moreover, DOE has back-pedaled on previously agreed upon plans to burn MOX fuel in TVA nuclear reactors, at once foregoing possible technical advances in commercial nuclear power generation while annoying the Russians, their MOX fuel negotiating partner. Now DOE talks glibly about burying this weapons grade nuclear waste in deep boreholes; but, this involves an unproven technology and will not satisfy Russian demands that this dangerous material be rendered entirely unavailable for future use in nuclear weapons.

2&3. In spite of the Blue Ribbon Commission's advice, the notion that nuclear waste ought not be put into a permanent repository, even on federal lands, without prior expressions of deep satisfaction from neighboring populations (a "consent-based approach"), seems to me to be at least a recipe for more delay. Also, the fact that DOE features the tribes so prominently, in this context, is suspicious. After all, tribal lands held in trust by the U. S. government amount to only 2.5% of the total U. S. land area, or just 9% of federal land holdings. Might it be that DOE yearns to dump its nuclear waste largely onto tribal lands?Alternately, is DOE again just trying to make friends?

 Most recently ,DOE has tried to avoid its nuclear waste policy impasse by entering into an agreement with Waste Control Specialists to store defense nuclear waste, on an interim basis, although in insufficiently large quantities, on privately owned land (but, in Texas.)

 Finally, in the person of Director E. Moniz, DOE talks charmingly about how it intends to move forward on several fronts, gaining control of the presently chaotic world of nuclear waste, perhaps partly by means of its superior powers of analysis combined with its poignant hopes for a better future.

Why am I not much impressed?