Nuclear Accountability in Washington, One Year After Fukushima

Guest Blog | April 18, 2012 | Energy Policy, Nuclear
With the Georgia folks in U.S. Rep. John Barrow's office

For the third consecutive year I participated in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s (ANA) annual DC Days event. I joined scores of concerned citizens from across the country, along with several people from the former Soviet Union (representing Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan). We spent three days traversing Capitol Hill, educating the Congress on ways to save money and increase nuclear accountability.

Last year the significance of our efforts was magnified by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was triggered by the massive earthquake and tsunami that had just devastated Japan. This year’s DC Days directly followed the first anniversary of the beginning of the multiple-reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. It also came right after the approval of the federal operating licenses for two proposed AP1000 reactors at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

Mindful of these facts as we met with members of Congress, we urged them to read Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s dissent to the approval of the Vogtle licenses, the sole voice of caution. We expressed appreciation over the lack of additional funds for controversial nuclear loan guarantees in the current budget request and asked for support in maintaining a zero increase for that troubled program. Among the many resources we provided was the recent UCS/Synapse report, “Bigger Risks, Better Alternatives.”

I also attended a meeting with the Loan Guarantee Office of the Department of Energy (DOE). It was an interesting meeting, to say the least. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has been in litigation with the DOE over Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests we made over two years ago that have yielded little information about the terms of the $8.3 billion taxpayer-financed loan guarantee offered to Southern Company and its utility partners for the two proposed Vogtle reactors. After expressing our concern and frustration that this has dragged on for two years, a lengthy conversation ensued on the role of the DOE in this process, including their limitations.

From my understanding, the people in the DOE’s loan guarantee office view themselves as public servants and realize that the full burden of the decisions they make falls on the taxpayers. But despite these facts, they work to protect the applicant’s commercial viability by not revealing any information that could potentially affect the applicant’s stock prices or ability to compete in the market. This just happens to also include all of the information that could potentially inform the taxpayer, who bears the burden of the loan, including the credit subsidy fee and the default rate.

Part of the DOE loan guarantee office’s mission is to “protect U.S. taxpayers by ensuring the loans and loan guarantees [they] provide have a reasonable prospect of repayment.” All of the members of our small ANA delegation are taxpayers who represent organizations comprised of tax-paying members. Yet, in our efforts to understand the terms of the loan for which we, as taxpayers, would assume the burden, their response was to say that revealing this information could potentially damage the commercial viability of the applicant.

I believe that espousing a mission to “protect the taxpayers” while refusing to reveal information crucial to becoming informed parties in the loan transaction is at least contradictory, if not downright paternalistic. Fortunately, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently ruled in our favor in the Vogtle FOIA lawsuit, concluding that the DOE has not adequately made its case for withholding this crucial information. Read more about that ruling in our press release.

ANA Delegation Meets with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (from left to right: Mandy Hancock, Katherine Fuchs, Commissioner Jaczko, Kevin Kamps)

I also had the opportunity to participate in a meeting with NRC Chairman Jaczko. On behalf of SACE and others, I thanked him for his strong dissent on the licensing of the proposed Vogtle reactors. However, I had to express confusion over his subsequent decision to stand with the Commission in denying our petition to submit new contentions into the licensing proceeding. Our petition expressed many of the same concerns Jaczko raised in his dissent, making the two votes seem contradictory. Much of the conversation was relegated to the generic, since many of our questions were regarding ongoing legal matters. But we did cover a broad range of topics, including small modular reactors, the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on nuclear waste, mixed oxide fuel and uranium processing by AREVA. We even discussed the best place to have chicken and waffles in DC, which was apparently a great way to break the ice.

I always leave Washington, DC with mixed feelings. I generally feel that the time was productive in the sense of getting a lot of information into the hands of decision-makers, while collecting often scant, but generally useful information from them. I feel relieved that there are so many intelligent and articulate people advocating and educating about nuclear issues that impact us all. But I also feel frustration. Many of the people that have been participating in this event have been doing so for decades, yet every year they must return to Washington once again, modifying their asks to accommodate whatever new and expensive nuclear scheme is being pushed by nuclear proponents that year.

With many of the same problems that existed decades ago still in existence today, it begs the question: when will logic prevail and the end of the nuclear age begin?

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