Nuclear authority generates controversy

Virginia is creating a new agency to support development of nuclear power – a move that has upset environmentalists and open-government advocates, because the entity won’t have to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act and other laws.

North Anna Power Station

By Stephen Nielsen | Capital News Service

Virginia is creating a new agency to support development of nuclear power – a move that has upset environmentalists and open-government advocates, because the entity won’t have to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act and other laws.

For the past year or so, companies that work with nuclear energy have been speaking with experts at Virginia universities with nuclear engineering programs and at industry-related nonprofit groups. The goal was to foster collaboration among nuclear-energy advocates, according to Delegate T. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg).

In January, Garrett introduced House Bill 1790, which sought to create the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority. Sen. Jeffrey McWaters (R-Virginia Beach) sponsored companion legislation – Senate Bill 1138 – in his chamber. Both bills were passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Under the new law, the authority will create a nonprofit corporation, the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, which will consist of experts from the private sector, nonprofits and higher education. The consortium will collaborate on workforce development, educational opportunities, research opportunities and other issues concerning nuclear energy.

“The consortium is really to help create a platform to facilitate these folks,” Garrett said. “What paths they choose is really going to be up to them.”

A 17-member board will run the authority. It will include representatives of:

  • The state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy
  • The Virginia Economic Development Partnership
  • The Virginia Community College System
  • Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and George Mason University – the four state universities with nuclear engineering programs
  • Two other institutions of higher education, including at least one private school
  • A nuclear energy-related nonprofit
  • A Virginia-based federal research laboratory

In addition, the governor will appoint “six individuals, each to represent a single business entity located in the Commonwealth that is engaged in activities directly related to the nuclear energy industry.”

By Jan. 1st, the authority will create the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium. By law, the consortium will seek to make Virginia “a leader in nuclear energy”; will serve as “an interdisciplinary study, research, and information resource for the Commonwealth on nuclear energy issues”; and will raise money for the authority from businesses and foundations.

The authority is a state government agency; as such, it will be subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act – meaning its meetings and records will be open to the public. But the consortium won’t be a government agency – so it won’t be subject to FOIA. The consortium’s executive director and other employees also will be exempt from the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act and other laws governing public employees.

“The bill is clear: FOIA will not apply to the consortium,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The coalition promotes transparency in government at the state and local levels.

According to Rhyne, legislators feared that organizations wouldn’t be willing to participate in the consortium if its meetings were public. They also worried about the possible release of trade secrets from the nuclear energy industry if the consortium were subject to FOIA.

“The release of trade secret information is certainly reasonable, and there are exemptions within FOIA to deal with that,” Rhyne said. “They can certainly protect that information without exempting the entire body from FOIA.”

Rhyne said the new law sets a bad precedent by exempting a government-affiliated agency, using public funds, from FOIA, which is sometimes called the sunshine law.

“They are spending taxpayer dollars and advising a public body, and those kinds of organizations and entities need to be subject to sunshine,” Rhyne said.

Proponents of the nuclear energy consortium say the group needs more latitude than other government agencies to pursue Gov. McDonnell’s energy goals.

“One of his primary objectives was to reaffirm that the Commonwealth of Virginia will be the energy capital of the East Coast,” Garrett said. “Nuclear is a key component of that, as is coal, as is renewables. I think all of that packaged together comes under the umbrella of energy opportunities.”

He noted that Virginia also has an offshore wind authority and consortium. (The 2010 legislation creating the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority makes the agency subject of FOIA but says “personal and financial information” about offshore wind energy projects must be kept confidential.)

Nuclear energy provides roughly 40 percent of the electricity produced by Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s leading utility. The power stations in Surry and North Anna combined provide energy for about 870,000 households, according to Richard Zuercher, a Dominion spokesman. He said that, while the company was not directly involved in the formation of the authority, Dominion supported the plan.

Other organizations weren’t as supportive.

“It’s really a matter of opinion if you think we need nuclear in Virginia,” said Erica Gray, who organized the Richmond chapter of Nuclear Free Virginia. “Obviously we didn’t for I don’t know how many months when our earthquake knocked North Anna offline.”

Because of the earthquake on Aug. 23, 2011, the two nuclear reactors at North Anna Power Station automatically shut down. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed Dominion to restart the station less than three months later.

“There’s been several studies out that have shown we can get by and meet our energy needs with wind, solar and energy efficiency,” said Glen Besa, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. He said creating an agency to examine nuclear energy detracts from environmentally-friendly alternatives.

But Zuercher said protecting the environment is a reason to support nuclear energy.

“There’s a lot of attention placed on climate change and reducing CO2 emissions,” Zuercher said. “You’re not going to do that without nuclear energy.” CO2 is a by-product of coal, still a major source of electricity in Virginia.

However, it can’t be denied that nuclear power stations produce hazardous waste and that disposing of it is problematic.
“If they want to study anything, they ought to figure out what to do with the nuclear waste,” Besa said. He described the Surry and North Anna stations as “high level” nuclear waste dumps.

Gray agreed: “We need to invest renewable energy – things that don’t produce toxic waste that we have nowhere to put.”
Zuercher said nuclear-power opponents have complicated the waste disposal issue.

“Every nuclear site stores spent nuclear fuel on site,” Zuercher said. That is because the U.S. Department of Energy still hasn’t designated a long-term site – because of opposition from environmental groups.

“They don’t want it to go anywhere, and they don’t want it to be on the site,” Zuercher said. “In general, opponents of nuclear energy don’t want to solve the problem but push it off on future generations.”

photo of North Anna Power Station by CNS

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11 comments on Nuclear authority generates controversy

  1. CapitolWatch on said:

    Honor Roll: Legislators who voted NO on the FOIAless Nuke Bills:

    No Vote: Senators
    Creigh Deeds (D-25)
    Don McEachin (D-9) (Richmond)
    Chap Petersen (D-34)
    Richard Stuart (R-28)

    No Vote: Delegates
    Betsy Carr (D-69) (Richmond)
    Jennifer McClellan (D-71) (Richmond)
    Delores McQuinn (D-70) (Richmond)
    Israel O’Quinn (R-5)
    Ken Plum (D-36)
    Nick Rush (R-7)
    Roslyn Tyler (D-75)

  2. anonymous on said:
  3. Jose Ortiz on said:

    I think people, ie the public, are being very paranoid about something they have no qualifications to even understand on a basic physical level. I know for a fact this lack of understanding is taken advantage of over and over again by people who claim nuclear energy is not the most cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. It simply is in Virginia. People who claim there are “high-level waste dumps on reactor sites” use the word “dump” because they are hoping people don’t actually know its a highly-controlled pool you can look up on youtube and take a tour of, where a reactor-lifetime’s worth of nuclear fuel can be kept indefinitely at small cost and ultra-high safety and security. Its really some cool technology, nothing to be scared of. I said when I was a toddler that monsters are things people don’t understand. I stand by that statement.

  4. Mike Jasp on said:

    Jose,

    Facts and accuracy are not a requirement for the crowd you’re addressing. Just wait for Scott Burgers post here, always worth a good laugh.

  5. Scott Burger on said:
  6. FOIAble on said:

    Jose Ortiz quote of the day: “If you’ve seen it on youtube, it must be #1 safe, #2 a good idea.”

  7. What are your credentials Jose Ortiz and Mike Jasp?
    Your arrogance tops your ability to reason.
    Nuclear energy/power is NOT carbon free as you have to include the whole nuclear fuel cycle, from mining, milling, processing, forever storage of tailings and spent fuel assemblies. (short list)
    Ex-Regulator Says Reactors Are Flawed ~
    “Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/us/ex-regulator-says-nuclear-reactors-in-united-states-are-flawed.html
    With Fukushima and Hanford leaking, the nuke con job is over!

  8. Mike Jasp on said:

    Typical unrelated extremist activist post of big scott burger.

  9. Scott Burger on said:

    Typical no-facts just personal attack post from Mike Jasp.

    Yawn.

  10. Scott Burger on said:

    Actually, I may have lost a few pounds since Christmas…..

  11. Mike Garrison on said:

    More than 68,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have accumulated next to U.S. reactors, which weren’t designed for long-term storage, and that figure is increasing by about 2,000 metric tons every year. Even decommissioned nuclear facilities require gates and guards to protect the waste, a ridiculous misuse of land and money. Meanwhile, consumers financing a federal waste disposal fund through their electricity bills wonder what they’ve been paying for, and the federal government’s financial liability for failing to collect the waste, already in the billions, continues to mount.

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