Friday, April 19, 2013

Vermont Yankee and the Ink on the Rubber Stamp

There’s been a little swath of stories lately about a hearing in Vermont about the used fuel held at the Vermont Yankee facility. Here’s a sample from one of them:

The testimony of Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, comes as some lawmakers are urging that Vermont consider a new tax on the highly radioactive nuclear waste being stored at the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon. Alvarez said Minnesota levies such a tax.  

Minnesota does indeed do this and commits the funds to renewable energy projects. You can read the details of this program here. If a consolidated storage site opens in 2021, as has been bruited, and Xcel moves its used fuel there, the state will have to find another way to, um, let’s say gather funds for this effort. Granted, that’s a lot of ifs, and I guess they would all go for Vermont as well.

But what about Robert Alvarez? Here’s more of him at the hearing.

The pool “contains about nine times more cesium-137 (a radioactive isotope) than was released from the more than 600 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests around the world,” said Alvarez, who acknowledged under questioning from Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, that his current employer takes an anti-nuclear stance. Alvarez added that the Vermont Yankee pool “contains more than the entire inventory of spent fuel in the four damaged reactors at the Fukushima site” in Japan.

Here’s the thing: none of this used fuel has done any harm at all, here or in Japan. The fuel here is very well handled (and I assume in Japan, too). Unlike, say, fertilizer facilities, used fuel is not only regulated but very closely regulated. Unless there’s a proximate cause, worrying about it will only cause undue anxiety and hearings in the Vermont legislature. That raises the suspicion that Alvarez is throwing around figures without context, which is like pointing at steam and yelling Fire.

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Alvarez works at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington. Rep. Vernon is correct that IPS doesn’t care much for nuclear energy. Alvarez’s thinking about it is largely informed by his government work with nuclear weaponry.

And very good work it was, too.

Prior to joining the DOE, Mr. Alvarez served for five years as a Senior Investigator for the U. S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Senator John Glenn, and as one of the Senate’s primary staff experts on the U.S. nuclear weapons program. While serving for Senator Glenn, Bob worked to help establish the environmental cleanup program in the Department of Energy, strengthened the Clean Air Act, uncovered several serious nuclear safety and health problems, improved medical radiation regulations, and created a transition program for communities and workers affected by the closure of nuclear weapons facilities.

That’s substantial, though focused largely on defense. Still, some of his statements about domestic nuclear energy have a decided anti-nuclear zeal to them:

The United States remains a major pillar of nuclear support here and around the world. About 70 percent of the Energy Department's $26.3-billion budget covers nuclear activities — and that's not including $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors that are slated for construction in South Carolina and Georgia. Japan's failing nuclear industry is supposed to build them.

Toshiba will probably be surprised to hear it’s failing, and Southern Co. and SCANA are proceeding apace without loan guarantees (Southern Co. is negotiating with DOE on its provisional guarantee, but has already hit some construction milestones at Plant Vogtle). And of course, Alvarez is conflating defense and domestic nuclear activities to get his 70 percent figure. But it certainly sounds like he means the domestic industry alone, doesn’t it? I guess you could call this red meat for the faithful, raw and without context.

But the point here isn’t really to set up Alvarez as a gull – I’m sure he’s sincere in his views – but to show that Vermont isn’t playing subtle games to get where it wants to go. This is when legislative hearings essentially become ink on the rubber stamp, creating the illusion of sounding out an issue without actually doing so.

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I have to give the Vermont press credit – they really didn’t settle on Alvarez’s view as definitive. Enter Howard Shaffer.

"He's [Alvarez] from an industry who makes his living saying the sky is  falling. without saying what the odds are," said nuclear engineer Howard Shaffer, of Enfield, N.H.

Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon Republican who sits on the committee, said Alvarez "represents an anti-nuclear group who will give the most negative position you'd expect them to do."

To be fair, it looks like Shaffer may have buttonholed the reporters. He’s given some space in a few stories. Good for him. And Rep. Hebert, too.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some background on Robert Alvarez from Rod Adams:

Why does anyone trust Robert Alvarez’s opinions about nuclear energy?

jimwg said...

Bravo to Howard! I only wish he received a lot more serious air support from Nuclear Professional organizations and Atomic Workers Unions in terms of media-based public education!

Re: "Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon Republican... said Alvarez "represents an anti-nuclear group who will give the most negative position you'd expect them to do."

But just stating this isn't enough! Were the excellent points cited in this article breathed right after Alvarez's statements you'd win half the public's regard and reconsideration! It's one thing to just call an opponent wrong and another to totally dress his assertions down naked with de-FUD'ing fact (like the media there's gonna do it with gusto, right?). Alvarez knows all he has to do is plant a seed of FUD and appall that will run wild in clueless minds unless immediately reaped by fact and records Perry Mason style! My hat's off to Howard for walking into the Coliseum's arena and scoring some points!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Meredith Angwin said...

Thanks for this post! Howard made a terrific impact at the hearing. I blogged about it here.

http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2013/04/shaffer-knows-about-spent-fuel-alvarez.html#.UXM12nBfWec

When I started writing my blog post (and I think when your post was written) the link to the VPR report wasn't available.

http://digital.vpr.net/post/expert-says-vermont-yankee-has-too-much-spent-fuel-stored-site

A quote from VPR about what Alvarez said:

"When power failed at Fukushima, reactor operators could no longer pump water to keep the fuel cool. Some of the material burned, releasing radiation"

Hmmm...really?

Next week, on Thursday, Arnie Gundersen will talk to the same committee.

jimwg said...

re: "Next week, on Thursday, Arnie Gundersen will talk to the same committee."

Man, if I hit the lottery I'd be shipping all expenses paid Rod Adams, Will Davis and Ben Heard up there alongside Howard to greet and sack the great charlatan! What an opportunity to tear this egotistical energy-denying job-killing manure artist down! Really! His fretful following and public just have to see the emperor stripped of his clothes live and on the fly! Can some witness there iPhone video the proceedings live?

re: "A quote from VPR about what Alvarez said:

"When power failed at Fukushima, reactor operators could no longer pump water to keep the fuel cool. Some of the material burned, releasing radiation"

Was Alvarez rebutted on this on the spot, along with all his other VY assertions in testimony? It's best never walk away silent and just leave that kind of statement hanging for the public to fret even more and the media to snap up and twist like a worm!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Meredith Angwin said...

James

I was there. Nobody rebutted Alvarez, except some excellent questions from Mike Hebert about the anti-nuclear stance of the parent organization. If you are not invited to testify at a committee meeting, all you can do is watch from the sidelines. No rebuttals allowed.

If you are well-known, smart, and lucky (like Howard) you get interviewed by some of the reporters after the meeting. That's the best you can do, unless you are invited to talk to the committee.

Meredith