Thursday, October 4, 2007

A powerful anti-nuclear movement is growing again

Why is Uncle Sam so Committed to Nuclear Power?
By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News

Can investors be fooled twice? Financially, the nuclear power industry has never stood on its own two feet without a crutch from Uncle Sam. Indeed, the nuclear power industry is entirely a creature of the federal government; it was created out of whole cloth by the feds in the 1950s. At that time, investors were enticed by offers of free money — multi-billion-dollar subsidies, rapid write-offs, special limits on liability, and federal loan guarantees. Despite all this special help, by the 1970s the industry was in a shambles. The British magazine, the Economist, recently described it this way: “Billions were spent bailing out lossmaking nuclear-power companies. The industry became a byword for mendacity, secrecy and profligacy with taxpayers’ money. For two decades neither governments nor bankers wanted to touch it.”
To grease the skids for a nuclear revival, the most important change the NRC has made has been to creatively redefine the meaning of the word “construction.” This change was enacted in April, 2007, with lightning speed — six months from initial proposal to final adoption. By way of comparison, it took the NRC eleven years to adopt regulations requiring drug testing for nuclear plant operators.
“Construction” has traditionally included all the activities undertaken to build a nuclear power plant, starting with site selection, evaluation, testing and preparation, construction of peripheral facilities like cooling towers, and so on. Even the earliest stages of siting are crucially important with a facility as complex and dangerous as a nuclear power plant.
In April of this year, the NRC officially redefined “construction” to include only construction of the reactor itself — excluding site selection, evaluation, testing and preparation, construction of peripheral facilities and all the rest. At the time, one senior environmental manager inside NRC complained in an email that NRC’s redefinition of “construction” would exclude from NRC regulation “probably 90 percent of the true environmental impacts of construction.” Under the new rules, by the time the NRC gets involved, a company will have invested perhaps a hundred million dollars. Will NRC commissioners have the backbone to toss that investment into the toilet if they eventually find something wrong with the site? Or will they roll over for the industry and compromise safety?
The lawyer who dreamed up the redefinition of “construction” is James Curtiss, himself a former NRC commissioner who now sits on the board of directors of the nuclear power giant, Constellation Energy Group. This revolving door pathway from NRC to industry is well-worn.
One NRC commissioner who voted in April to change the definition of construction is Jeffrey Merrifield. Before he left the NRC in July, Mr. Merrifield’s last assignment as an NRC commissioner was to chair an agency task force on ways to accelerate licensing.
In April, while he was urging his colleagues at NRC to redefine “construction,” Mr. Merrifield was actively seeking a top management position within the nuclear industry. In July he became senior vice president for Shaw Group, a nuclear builder that has worked on 95% of all existing U.S. nuclear plants. Mr. Merrifield’s salary at NRC was $154,600. Bloomberg reports that, “In Shaw Group’s industry peer group, $705,409 is the median compensation for a senior vice president.”
No one in government or the industry seems the least bit embarrassed by any of this. It’s just the way it is. Indeed, Mr. Merrifield points out that, while he was an NRC commissioner providing very substantial benefits to the nuclear industry by his decisions, his concurrent search for a job within the regulated industry was approved by the NRC’s Office of General Counsel and its Inspector General. From this, one might conclude that Mr. Merrifield played by all the rules and did nothing wrong. Or one might conclude that venality and corruption reach into the highest levels of the NRC. Or one might conclude that after NRC commissioners have completed their assignment inside government, everyone in the agency just naturally feels they are entitled to a lifetime of lavish reward from the industry on whose behalf they have labored so diligently.
... investors should think twice before buying into the “nuclear renaissance” because there’s another “renaissance” under way as well: A powerful anti-nuclear movement is growing again and they will toss your billions into the toilet without hesitation. Indeed, with glee.
Read the entire article here:

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