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©1997 Michael Welch any folks seem unempowered to have an effect on how utility restructuring comes down. There's often not too much we can do when the heavy hitters get together in our state and federal capitals to influence the outcome of "deregulation." If that's the case in your community, you can still have an effect on how the new rules are enforced and whether or not your local utility abuses them. You just need to keep an eye out for the occurrences.

In California we are already fighting a potential abuse, and it serves as a warning to other communities to continue a high degree of vigilance. CA's new restructuring laws provide a method of bailing out the utilities' poor decisions to invest in uneconomic power plants, the nukes. Past PP columns have dealt with this issue, so suffice it to say that past utility regulations encouraged massive investment in power generating facilities: the more money spent, the more money made. And what more expensive generating method is there than nuclear?

CA's nuclear bailout is in the form of a Competitive Transaction Charge that gets tacked onto everyone's utility bills and goes mostly to pay off the utilities for their uneconomic investment in nukes. The money the utilities gain from the CTC charges is a fixed amount. No further increases available. Naturally, the utilities are looking forward to getting their huge bailout, but at least one CA utility is already trying to pry even more money from electricity consumers.

There are other funds that were paid into by California ratepayers and are separate from the CTC monies. Because the utilities are guaranteed the fixed CTC funds the only other way they can get extra money, which means extra profits, is to try to raid the funds that are outside of the CTC program. One such fund is the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning Trust Fund. DTCs are funds that are set aside so that when a nuke plant is retired, there will be enough money available to dismantle and clean up the site even if the owner is insolvent. DTCs are generally built up over the lifetime of the plant with money that is added onto consumers' electric rates. In Humboldt's case, the plant has been sitting idle since 1976 with no significant decommissioning activities because there is no identifiable place to put the high level radioactive waste.

At the now-closed Humboldt nuke plant, PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric Co.) had a problem with groundwater leaking into their reactor caisson (the pit where the reactor is suspended). This in-leakage was approaching levels that could become greater than the pumps could handle. Now, this is an easily definable operating and maintenance problem and therefore should be funded directly out of the available CTC funds that were set up strictly for this purpose. But the utility knows that any amount of those fixed funds spent will eat into profits for their owners.

This is where a rather twisted reasoning comes in. In order to fix this maintenance problem, they had to remove some radioactive components of the plant, ones that would normally wait for removal during the final decommissioning process. So, they figured that since there is an action which involves what would have been a future decommissioning related activity, why not go for the DTC money so they wouldn't have to dip into their own funds to pay for it?

And, they used a pretty sneaky way to try to get it past scrutiny. In CA, utilities can use an Advice Letter which is designed to let the Public Utilities Commission know when a utility plans to take advantage of a process which is already approved and should not require any public hearing or public notification. Nice try. Redwood Alliance was informed of it and immediately filed an official protest requesting denial of the request and asking for a formal hearing process to determine the letter's merits, or lack thereof.

So, we will most likely get the opportunity to prove that most of the money requested from the DTC is actually an operating and maintenance cost and should be borne by the utility. We have already stirred up enough interest to be granted a public information session that will be held by the PUC, and the letter was taken off the fast track that most Advice Letters take.

OK, enough of the particulars. The important point is to remind all of you that it will require continued vigilance to catch your own utility's shenanigans with regard to how they operate under new restructuring laws. Restructuring may provide a lot of opportunities for renewable energy in your community, but it may also provide your public utility with a new means of bilking consumers. Vigilance can pay off.

Watchdogging the utilities can be expensive and time consuming, specially if it results in the need to go to trial to fight for ratepayer rights. But most states have laws set up to make the utility reimburse citizen advocacy groups when they significantly contribute to the outcome of such a case. Redwood Alliance has been reimbursed several times for Public Utility Commission interventions. When reimbursed, our attorneys did not need to work "pro-bono" and therefore felt better about becoming involved in other such cases. And, we were able to bill the utility for our own expenses and staff time doing paralegal work, which made it practical for us to keep our doors open and consider involvement in other cases.

MOX: New Nuke Industry Pork

With orders for nuclear power plants nonexistent in the U.S., the nuke industry is continually on the lookout for income to survive. For the last couple of decades they have relied on building new nuclear power plants in other countries that allow little public input and have few regulations about building and siting their poisonous plants. They have also relied on huge amounts of R&D money from our own government that seems intent on helping them out in spite of public opinion.

Now there seems to be yet another financial bailout for the industry looming on the horizon. It is the conversion of vast stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium into MOX to be "burned" in conventional nuclear power plants.

Because of international arms agreements and the end of the cold war, the U.S. finds itself in possession of about 50 metric tons of plutonium that it no longer needs for its nuclear weapons programs. Russia is thought to have even more, as much as 200 tons (from unclassified sources). Of course, there is a lot of concern that some of these materials may end up in the hands of terrorists and/or countries that would like to become nuclear powers. It is quite clear that something needs to be done to safely and securely dispose of the materials, and many experts believe that the U.S.

needs to take the first steps in that direction before Russia will do the same.

There are two methods that the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to use to accomplish this disposal. One is called vitrification which immobilizes the plutonium by mixing it with glass or a ceramic compound. The DOE is recommending that at least 8 tons of the materials be dealt with in this manner.

The second, and most disconcerting, method is to blend an unspecified amount of the bomb materials with uranium to make mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and use it in the reactor cores of conventional nuclear power plants. Using it in the fission-based nuke plants will fragment it over the course of several years. Some additional plutonium is created in this process, but the fragmentation with other radioactive by-products makes all of it very difficult, though not impossible, to reprocess into weapons-grade materials. Then the "spent" fuel can be disposed of along with other high-level radioactive waste with whatever method the feds finally come up with to take care of this material. (There is currently no such disposal method available.)

The Russian government considers weapons plutonium to be a valuable national energy resource and wants to use it in reactors. But the U.S. is concerned both about the security of long term storage in Russia and, mostly, that wide spread use of plutonium fuel could increase opportunities for diversion of the materials to nuclear weapons programs. In September of 1996, a joint U.S. -Russian task force concluded that the MOX concept was the most technically mature option, followed by yet another option, blending the plutonium with high-level nuclear waste for disposal.

The U.S. is not planning on disposing of its surplus plutonium unilaterally, but is waiting for reciprocal action from Russia. Disposal is further complicated by the fact that Russia is still producing weapons grade plutonium and that they will require financial assistance to build the facilities to implement the disposal program. It may be quite awhile before necessary plans are fully developed and agreed upon.

In the meantime, the U.S. is moving forward with developing plans and increasing R&D for dealing with the excess bomb material. And the nuclear industry is chomping at the bit to get their hands on "fissile materials disposition program" monies that are increasing every year: $36 million in fiscal year 1996, $68 million in 1997, and a requested $84 million for 1998. Program activities include analysis and design of facilities, preparations for the MOX fuel option, and joint tests and demonstrations with Russia.

"Burning" MOX in civilian nuke plants is not as simple as it may sound. Significant modifications to reactors and fuel handling facilities will be required, and that takes a big capital investment. So utilities are not about to participate in MOX burning programs unless they receive solid assurance that the programs will continue once they begin. The feds will want similar assurances that utilities will not bow out once a program is under way. Legislation will probably be required to lock both parties into these commitments. Substantial subsidies to nuke plant owners will prove necessary, specially in light of competition from utility restructuring placing the long term economic viability of nuke plants in question.

Canadian deuterium-uranium (CANDU) reactors were being touted as a good possibility for the MOX burning option since they could be a neutral party in a parallel program between Canada, the U.S., and Russia. An agreement between the U.S. and Canada was reached to test MOX fuel in Canadian reactors, but was blocked when citizen advocacy groups charged that shipment of MOX could not occur without environmental impact statements. Further complication arose when Canada announced the closure of several CANDU reactors because of ineffective internal oversight and management programs.

There are many other concerns, like the fear of plutonium and MOX shipments crisscrossing the world, but this should give readers a sense of the plutonium disposition programs being considered. One thing that does not come out in the "objective" government reports and analysis is that most of the players in the decision-making processes are either representing the nuclear industry, representing international nuclear agencies (made up of "revolving door" employees formerly from the nuke industry), or representing government agencies (also of the "revolving door" category). Not to mention the industry's lobbyists working on Congress and the White House. In other words, the fox is building the hen house.

Access

Author: Michael Welch, c/o Redwood Alliance, PO Box 293 Arcata, CA 95518 • 707-822-7884 E-mail: [email protected] Web: www.igc.apc.org/redwood

Nuclear Information and Resource Service, 1424 16th St. NW #404, Washington, DC 20036 • 202-328-0002 E-mail: [email protected] • Web: www.nirsnet.org

MOX info from: Congressional Research Service's "Disposal Options for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium, Library of Congress Document #97-564 ENR, also available from NIRS. Web: www.nirsnet.org

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