The politics of energy: Nuclear power

The Bush administration makes the nuclear industry's agenda its own

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On May 28, 2003, two chairs sat empty at a Las Vegas hearing called by Nevada's U.S. senators to assess concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project, which the federal government hopes to turn into a permanent graveyard for the nation's most lethal nuclear waste. Invited witnesses Bob Clark and Don Harris, auditors on the project, were conspicuously absent.

They were not the only ones who skipped the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development hearing called by Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Senator John Ensign, a Republican. The committee’s chairman, Senator Pete Domenici, R-N.M., approved the hearing but did not attend. In fact, except for Reid and Ensign, none of the committee’s senators traveled to Las Vegas that day.

In part, that was because the Senate, the House of Representatives, and President George W. Bush had already decided nine months before that the Yucca project would proceed with all due haste. On July 23, 2002, Bush signed a bill that gave final approval to the project. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, had vetoed nearly identical legislation two years earlier, citing the lack of scientific certainty in the project. As a candidate, Bush seemed to support Clinton’s actions, releasing a statement a few days after the veto saying, “As president, I would not sign legislation that would send nuclear waste to any proposed site unless it’s been deemed scientifically safe.” In the 2000 presidential election, Bush won Nevada’s four electoral votes, and the White House. Along the way, Bush collected $225,950 from companies that operate nuclear plants, including TXU Corp., FirstEnergy Corp. and Southern Co., as well as from companies that build components or provide services for them, like General Electric and Bechtel Group.

Since taking office, Bush and his administration have proposed expedited licensing for nuclear reactors employing new technology; favored expanding the generating capacity of existing nuclear plants; encouraged the relicensing of older plants scheduled to be shut down and mothballed; extended and expanded a government insurance program that provides liability coverage to nuclear plant operators for catastrophic accidents; even promoted nuclear power as an environmentally friendly power source.

The Bush administration also approved the Yucca Mountain Project, government and industry’s answer to the central problem of nuclear power. Unlike coal- or gas-fired electrical generating plants, nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases. They do produce waste products that potentially are far more deadly—nuclear waste, which, if released in the environment, would be lethal to human beings for tens of thousands of years. Much of that waste, in the form of spent fuel rods, remains stored in the nuclear generating facilities themselves, or scattered in a handful of temporary repositories around the country. By law, the Department of Energy was supposed to take responsibility for that waste starting on January 31, 1998. Yucca Mountain is its ultimate destination.

Over 1,200 feet high and six miles long, the hollow mountain will house more than 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel. Starting in 2010, hundreds of shipments a year will cross the country on truck or train to reach the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Yet whether the project is safe—whether nuclear waste can be stored for thousands of years in the mountain’s depths—has been a source of considerable scientific and technical controversy.

How the Yucca Mountain project is built has potential consequences for millennia after those who build it have died. Clark, a Department of Energy employee, and Harris, who works for a private contractor, raised technical concerns about the project. Later, they were transferred to other assignments. Other technical personnel working at Yucca have raised similar concerns, and suffered similar fates.

Just as the Department of Energy and its contractors have swept away the concerns of its auditors at Yucca in order to hasten the construction of the nuclear repository, the Bush administration has rushed to revitalize nuclear, allowing the industry to plan its own future, sweeping aside concerns about safety in the process.

California (and Pennsylvania) dreaming

Almost immediately after he took office, President Bush convened the National Energy Policy Development Group, in part as a response to the electricity crisis in California that led to blackouts in the state. The group was charged with devising the administration’s energy policies, which ultimately included proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and create a national electric grid, which would facilitate deregulation by allowing electricity producers access to markets around the country. But a central pillar of the energy task force’s final report, released in May 2001, was expanding electrical generation.

“To meet projected [electricity] demand over the next two decades,” the task force’s report noted, “America must have in place between 1,300 and 1,900 new electric plants. Much of this new generation will be fueled by natural gas. However, existing and new technologies offer us the opportunity to expand nuclear generation as well. Nuclear power today accounts for 20 percent of our country’s electricity. This power source, which causes no greenhouse gas emissions, can play an expanding part in our energy future.”

That represented a substantial turnaround from the previous 22 years of policy toward the industry. In 1979, the future of the nuclear energy industry was becoming exceedingly uncertain. Licensing difficulties, waste storage problems, a rapidly growing anti-nuclear sentiment among the general public, and a complete drop-off in orders for the construction of new reactors all contributed to this uncertainty. In January 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency that oversees the industry, released a report that claimed that the risk of a nuclear accident was far lower compared to other risks such as fires, explosions, toxic chemicals, dam failures, airplane crashes, earthquakes, and tornadoes. On March 28, an accident at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear station in Pennsylvania very abruptly made what was considered to be a remote risk a dangerous reality.

The origin of the accident was later determined to be a pressure relief valve that stuck open and released large volumes of reactor coolant. The reactor operators would not become aware of this development for several hours and took no action to cool the reactor core. Even when the plant’s emergency cooling systems began to kick in, the plant operators decided to turn them back down reducing the flow of coolant to a trickle. By the time the operating team finally realized what was taking place they flooded the reactor with coolant, but not before irreparable damage took place. The accident uncovered the reactor’s core and melted nearly half of it. In the following days the nation watched closely as the Department of Energy dispatched more than 200 scientists, engineers, and technicians to help contain the crisis.

In the wake of Three Mile Island, public support for nuclear power declined significantly. James Schlesinger, President Jimmy Carter’s energy secretary, noted that because of the national energy crisis—at the time, the country faced shortages of both natural gas and petroleum, the latter exacerbated by turmoil in the Middle East and the Iranian hostage crisis—there was no real alternative but to continue to make effective use of nuclear power. President Carter also recognized that nuclear power could not be abandoned, but said that it was to be an energy source of last resort.

While production of nuclear power has increased over the years, no new licenses for construction have been issued since the TMI accident in 1979. Today, the average age of the nation’s 103 commercial nuclear power reactors is 23 years. Many were designed in an era when cellphones and laptop computers were the stuff of science fiction rather than everyday life.

All that began to change when the industry-friendly Bush team took office. While the industry had gained friends in Washington over the years—the companies, their political action committees and employees doled out more than $30 million to candidates and political parties since 1999—it was the Bush administration, and its National Energy Policy Development Group, that embraced the industry and its aging reactors as part of its policy. Among the proposals it offered was to “encourage the NRC to relicense existing nuclear plants that meet or exceed safety standards.” Further, the plan held out hope for increasing the number of reactors in operation.

“Utilities are also considering nuclear energy as an option for new generation,” the report noted, helpfully suggesting where the expansion would most likely occur. “Building new generators on existing sites avoids many complex issues associated with building plants on new sites. Many U.S. nuclear plant sites were designed to host four to six reactors, and most operate only two or three; many sites across the country could host additional plants.”

 

Industry insiders

The National Energy Policy Development Group included top administration officials, virtually all of whom had strong connections to the energy industry, including Vice President Dick Cheney, the former chief executive officer of Halliburton, the oil services giant, and executive director Andrew Lundquist, who served as a top Senate aide to Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who was a staunch advocate of gas and oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve and a longtime supporter of nuclear power while in Congress.

The energy task force generated far more controversy by relying on executives of energy companies in helping to formulate its policies. Documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council from the Department of Energy showed that the task force had contacts—meetings, phone calls or letters—some 714 times with energy industry insiders, but only 29 times with outside groups and individuals favoring conservation or other approaches.

Nuclear power operators and their advocates were well represented. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade and lobbying group that bills itself as the “policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry,” had 19 meetings with the energy task force, NRDC found. NEI’s Web site hails nuclear power as “the clean air energy” that “has perhaps the lowest impact on the environment—including air, land, water, and wildlife—of any energy source.” Among the recommendations the task force offered in its May 2001 final report was that the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency “assess the potential of nuclear energy to improve air quality.”

Exelon Corporation, which after various mergers now owns 10 power plants and operates 17 nuclear reactors in Illinois and Pennsylvania, had six contacts with the group. According to federal disclosure forms, Exelon hired the firm of Kessler & Associates Business Services in 2001 to lobby on the Electric Power Industry Tax Modernization Act, a bill that, among other things, would change the tax code to benefit companies that bought nuclear power plants. Among Kessler & Associates’ lobbyists working for Exelon on the bill were Billy Lee Evans, a former member of Congress from Georgia, and Franklin G. Polk, the former staff director to the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax law. The task force recommended the same rewrite of the nation’s tax laws to benefit nuclear power plants.

Westinghouse Electric Company, which produces components for nuclear power plants, had nine contacts with the task force. In 2001, the company lobbied on the Electricity Supply Assurance Act of 2001, a bill that aimed to renew the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, originally envisioned as a temporary measure to help the then-nascent nuclear power industry with liability insurance for catastrophic reactor accidents. The task force recommended renewing Price-Anderson; in a March 2001 interview with The Economist—some two months before the National Energy Policy report was released—Cheney tipped the administration’s hand on the issue. “It needs to be renewed,” Cheney said, adding that if it wasn’t, “nobody’s going to invest in nuclear power plants.”

The massive, thousand-plus-page Energy Policy Act of 2003, a bill that provides billions of dollars in tax credits and spending for the energy industry—Senator John McCain dubbed it the “Leave no Lobbyist Behind Bill”—contains a provision that extends Price-Anderson to 2012, and authorizes the Energy Department to “make permanent” the government indemnification which limits the nuclear plant operators’ potential liability. That bill is still pending.

Somewhere in Nevada

Though the Energy Policy Act remains in limbo, the industry already received, thanks to the Bush administration, the key item on its wish list: approval of the Yucca Mountain Project.

What to do with nuclear waste—how and where to store it—has been one of the key issues facing the industry, dating back to the industry’s inception. As investigative journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele pointed out in their book Forevermore: Nuclear Waste in America, many in industry and government assured Congress that nuclear waste would pose no problems at all. In 1957, a waste specialist for the Dow Chemical Company told the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that, “We feel it is important for all to know that this [waste] disposal problem has been taken care of by new technology recently demonstrated.”

That assessment proved wrong. Ever since the first nuclear plants began retiring their spent fuel rods—the highly radioactive elements that produce the steam which in turn generates electricity in a nuclear plant—Congress, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, and presidential administrations of both parties have struggled with what to do with the lethal byproducts of nuclear generation.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which required the Department of Energy to identify three prospective sites that would become permanent repositories for the nation’s nuclear waste. Construction was to be funded through fees on the commercial generation of nuclear power. One mil (1/10th of a cent) per kilowatt-hour would be collected from nuclear utilities and placed in the nuclear waste fund. The federal government would also be responsible for transportation of waste from reactors to the repository, although the language of the act mandated the utilization of private industry to the fullest extent possible.

After approval of the Act, the Department of Energy entered into contracts with commercial nuclear energy providers agreeing to take title to the spent nuclear fuel as expeditiously as practicable once a repository had been established, beginning no later than January 31, 1998. In return, the plant operators paid fees for the future disposal.

In 1983, the Department of Energy selected nine initial candidates for repository sites. Upon further research, that number was then narrowed to five in 1986, with three of the five receiving recommendations. President Reagan approved the three sites, Yucca Mountain, Nevada; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Hanford, Washington. Soon after, Congress expressed reservations about the costs of the program. In 1987, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, redirecting the Department of Energy to focus exclusively on Yucca Mountain, and to report on the need for a second repository on or after January 1, 2007.

Development of the Yucca Mountain site proved to be slower than planned. In addition to facing significant political opposition, the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 1996 reduced funding for the program by 40 percent. A viability assessment that included a preliminary design concept, a total systems performance assessment, a plan and cost estimate for remaining work, and an estimate of continued construction and operating costs has been completed, but legislative progress has still been frustratingly slow. Congress has considered a great number of bills to speed up the development of the Yucca Mountain repository, though few agreements have been reached amongst policy makers.

The Department of Energy did not meet the January 31, 1998, deadline for when it was contractually bound to start collecting spent fuel rods. Many nuclear utility providers have filed suit with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the court has found the DOE in breach of contract. The financial penalties the DOE could face may run into the billions. The Court decision prompted even more legislation to expedite the waste disposal program.

As the Bush administration took office, members of Congress pushed for quick action. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said, “It undermines public confidence to see the federal government turn a blind eye to its legal obligations.” Senator Murkowski minced no words about what he believed had to be done. “Let’s be honest with one another,” he said on the Senate floor. “Every time this legislation comes up, it comes down to one thing: Nobody wants the waste. I have said time and again, if you throw it up in the air, it has to come down somewhere and that somewhere is Nevada. That decision was made some time ago.”

And, on July 23, 2002, it was finalized when Bush signed the legislation giving the project the go ahead.

Politics and science

Yet how that project has proceeded has raised numerous alarms. Some scientists, for example, have expressed concerns that water leaking into the mountain could erode the special metal containers that will hold the nuclear waste, corroding them sufficiently to allow radioactive waste to contaminate the surrounding water supply. Though the repository would be located hundreds of feet above the current water table, it’s not clear that the climate 10,000 years from now can be predicted with any accuracy. If the past is any guide, the environment could be very different—10,000 years ago, the desert southwest still featured large, inland, freshwater seas left from the last ice age.

The May 28, 2003, field hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development in Las Vegas was convened to address more immediate questions: whether the project, its contractors and the government agency overseeing it was complying with its quality assurance program, which assesses whether the project operates in a manner that “protects the health and safety of the public,” as a Department of Energy Web site promises. While the question of what will happen in Yucca 10,000 years from now is a matter of speculation, what is occurring now—the manner in which government and contractors perform their work—shows the influence of the nuclear industry and the Bush administration’s race to revitalize nuclear power.

Those who testified raised substantial issues about the project. Robin Nazzaro, director of natural resources and environment for the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, testified that of some 293 key technical issues raised in the late 1990s, only 77 had been closed or resolved as of the previous month. Another witness, Bill Belke, who had worked at Yucca for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testified that the Department of Energy was slow to correct problems with the project’s data collection and software. He added that some Energy officials tried to keep workers from raising concerns. “I was told to suck it up,” he said.

While the witnesses who attended criticized the Yucca project, the Department of Energy and the contractors working at the site, the two quality assurance auditors who chose not to testify raised the most serious questions. Their careers, as well as many others’, have become fair game once they highlighted problems in the Yucca Mountain Project. Members of the “Quality Assurance” team who review the project’s enormous scientific data have been demoted, transferred, or fired.

The quality assurance auditors, who told the Center they believe the project is scientifically sound and can be built, have raised concerns about the manner in which the project’s top managers are rushing to meet a December 2004 deadline to apply for an NRC license application. They’ve worried that the computer models used to determine the project’s safety—one auditor described them as “key…to provid[ing] reasonable assurance that nuclear waste can be safely stored in Yucca Mountain for a period of 10,000 years,” have been approached in an inconsistent manner. “Modeling can be highly subjective and easily politicized,” the auditor wrote. “To conduct the [Yucca] modeling effort with any credibility, a consistent approach was needed,” something that’s been lacking at Yucca. “There was no consistent approach, no governing procedures, and insufficient governing regulations.”

Of course, the industry and its supporters within the Department of Energy were less than enthusiastic to hear such concerns. When Harris first aired them in March 2003, he was suspended for more than two weeks during an investigation of “foul language” he allegedly used (Bechtel-SAIC would later apologize in a letter to Harris for “inadvertently mischaracteriz[ing] some conversations.”) Two other members of the four-person quality assurance team that attended the March meeting, Lester Wagner and George Harper, were transferred.

Harris was not the first quality assurance auditor at Yucca to face criticisms for doing his job. Bob Clark—the other absentee at the field hearing—pinpointed several shortcomings in the computer modeling, data and software of the Yucca Mountain Project and was later transferred. One of the employees he supervised—Jim Mattimoe, the program manager of Navarro’s contract—was fired.

The Department of Labor launched its own investigation, which concluded in September 2002 that Mattimoe was terminated without justification: “Though [DOE] has submitted a voluminous report, the Morgan Lewis audit, it is determined that there is insufficient verifiable and credible evidence in it to conclude that it is not more than a sophisticated recitation of anonymous charges designed to provide pretextual reasons to support an already-decided upon course of action to terminate Mr. Mattimoe.”

The Department of Labor investigation sheds additional light on a pattern of intimidation that hangs over the entire Yucca Mountain Project. Mattimoe’s former employer, Navarro Research and Energy, believed that the Department of Energy would not offer the company any more contracts if the controversy persisted. CEO Dr. Susan Navarro told Labor investigators that the current contract’s renewal was threatened “unless she took this action.”

Access and influence

Yucca Mountain is a key project for the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington’s premier nuclear industry trade association that represents over 260 corporate members in 15 countries, referred to it as a “show-stopper” in discussions with DOE that led to the design for a nuclear future, Nuclear Power 2010. Since 1998, NEI has reported spending $12.3 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch. Yet NEI’s support for the show stopper in Yucca has not been limited to lobbyists’ plying their trade on Capitol Hill.

During 2002, NEI representatives attended informal meetings between the Department of Energy and members of the Yucca quality assurance team responsible for ensuring that the project “protects the health and safety of the public.” According to sources, the NEI attendees attempted to limit communication between team members. NEI’s representatives also critiqued quality assurance presentations intended for DOE quarterly meetings. At times, auditors were asked to leave the room while discussions continued.

NEI’s influence permeates the Nevada site. Among the trade group’s lobbying firms was Morgan Lewis, the law firm that conducted the investigation of Clark and Mattimoe. Eighteen days after Mattimoe was fired by Navarro, NEI hired Morgan Lewis attorneys to lobby Congress and DOE on the Yucca Mountain Project. After roughly $180,000 was spent on lobbying, the contract was discontinued in July 2002. John Daniel, the former Chief of Staff at the Environmental Protection Agency during the early 1980s, was Morgan Lewis’s point man on the lobbying effort.

A November 2001 report by DOE’s Inspector General found that another firm that lobbies for NEI, Winston & Strawn, was litigating for DOE on the Yucca Mountain Project while advocating it for the trade group. At times, there was no clear distinction between the two separate matters: 14 personnel billed for work on the legal contract as well as NEI matters. In an August 2001 letter to the Inspector General, Winston & Strawn suggested discussion with DOE about Winston & Strawn’s “wide variety of energy clients.” That was a little late. The Inspector General found that the firm did not disclose to DOE their years of lobbying for NEI while applying for the litigation contract in 1999. Winston & Strawn is even listed as a member of NEI.

NEI employed a crack team of Winston & Strawn lobbyists to push for nuclear issues on Capitol Hill. James Curtiss, a former NRC commissioner, Charles Kinney, who was a counsel to former Senator George Mitchell, D-Maine and Senator Robert Byrd, D-W.V., and Beryl Anthony Jr., a former House Democrat from Arkansas, lobbied for the group.

Winston & Strawn was serving several agendas while representing the Department of Energy. During the majority of the 1990s, the firm was employed by TRW Environmental Safety Systems Inc., a DOE contractor responsible for the repository’s design and construction. (Bechtel-SAIC now holds that contract.) From 1998 to 2000, the firm lobbied on “nuclear waste disposal issues” and “high-level waste” for the Nuclear Utility Backfitting and Reform Group, another trade association. Washington Public Power Supply System, now known as Energy Northwest, an electric utility company, and NAC International, which manufactures dry casks that house radioactive waste, both benefited from Winston & Strawn’s lobbying expertise. NAC’s casks would most likely be used to transport nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

Oversight of the Yucca Mountain Project, manifested in the auditing team, has a heavy industry tilt as well. Bechtel-SAIC, which won the $3.1 billion five-year DOE contract to begin work on building the Yucca repository in March 2001, oversees portions of its own operation. Currently, Bechtel-SAIC shares quality assurance functions with Navarro Research and Engineering and the Department of Energy. Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Bechtel-SAIC performs over half of the quality assurance responsibilities, according to the 2004 fiscal year’s internal audit schedule. The project’s annual report goes further, and recommends that all quality assurance monitoring be transferred to the site’s builders.

“Right now the DOE is taking credit for [Bechtel-SAIC’s quality assurance] audits of itself,” said Kristi Hodges, a 15-year project employee and the Special Project Liaison at the site. “From a contracts standpoint, it is wrong. From a QA standpoint, it is hardly defensible.”

Ultimately, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have the final say on whether or not Yucca Mountain will be a licensed nuclear facility. Experts believe nothing is set in stone yet. “There are a lot of technical issues,” said Belke. “This program is wide open here for interpretation.” “I believe there has been a lot of good work. We have some of the most brilliant people in the world working on the project,” said Hodges. “From my perspective, the management has been bad.” Yet the quality assurance team at Yucca is under ever-increasing stress to meet a December 2004 deadline for obtaining NRC approval. Data flaws and statistical errors linger but staffers are commanded to “keep their head down.” An investigation by the General Accounting Office is still pending but auditors on the project believe their concerns are being ignored.

“We have an IG that blows our submittals off, a GAO whose scope is limited to avoid our issues,” said Hodges. “Who is going to hold them accountable? There’s nowhere for us to turn.”

Aron Pilhofer, Helen Sanderson, and Dominic Vote contributed to this report.