Friday News Roundup: Nuclear uncertainty


The American nuclear industry had some serious shade thrown its way in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster. Almost a year later, U.S. nuclear still can’t seem to catch a break.

On Wednesday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, announced that the agency will likely face delays in renewing licenses for 14 existing nuclear reactors as well

as its review of license applications for the construction of two new reactors, the first such applications in more than 30 years, reports

The Commission blames "insufficient staffing" and resources at the agency for the possible licensing delays and says that its biggest priority in the coming year will be managing safety and performance issues with existing plants. From The Associated Press:

Workers at nuclear plants in Ohio and Nebraska were exposed to higher than expected radiation levels, Jaczko said, while three other plants were shut down for months because of safety concerns — the first time in more than decade that several plants have been shut down at the same time.

The Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida and Fort Calhoun in Nebraska remain shut down, while the earthquake-damaged North Anna plant in Virginia reopened last month after being shut down for three months.

Jaczko is particularly concerned about the ability of plants, old and new, to deal with natural disaster-caused blackouts like the tsunami triggered flooding that led to meltdowns in the Fukushima reactors.

In August, the NRC initially approved a Westinghouse-Toshiba design for two new reactors at a Waynesboro, Georgia facility. The AP1000 design includes a passive cooling system that relies on physical phenomena like gravity, gas pressure, and naturally circulating air, water and steam to cool reactors instead of AC power or other active measures (like those used at the Fukushima facility).

But, "Federal officials have not yet given the project key approvals necessary to start major construction work," reports Bloomberg Businessweek.

And the challenges U.S. nuclear faces are not limited to the construction phase, either. Industry representatives have accused NRC chairman Jaczko of "of political bias in directing the NRC to stop work on its review of Yucca Mountain," the proposed nuclear waste dump site outside Las Vegas, reports the AP.

Even Bill Gates is snubbing U.S. nuclear. "The general manager of state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation, Sun Qin, was quoted in Chinese media last week saying Gates was working with it to research and develop a reactor," The Huffington Post reported on Wednesday.

Gates is working with Washington state-based company TerraPower (which he helps fund) to aid China in designing a reactor that is safer, greener, and less expensive than those currently on the market.

Yet uranium mining isn't necessarily on the same slow track. Just yesterday, the U.S. Forest Service opened comments on a proposed action allowing exploratory drilling on New Mexico's Mt. Taylor, in the northwest part of the state.

According to the news organization Environment and Energy Daily (subscription required), "New Mexico mining regulators say they have received dozens of applications for exploration or mining, and many of those are in the Mount Taylor area. While uranium prices have taken a tumble in recent months, industry leaders say they expect the market to eventually pick up."

Maybe by that time, the China/Bill Gates brain trust will have designed a reactor safe enough to re-energize people's faith in nuclear and the industry's future in America and the rest of the world.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern at High Country News

Images courtesy flickr users martnpro and Curtis Gregory Perry

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