by James Heddle
JULY 27, 2019
“I feel that we got the final wake-up call at Fukushima and that we need to phase out and shut down the 104 reactors in America. I will put it very bluntly: We need to kill them before they kill us.” – S. David Freeman, ninety-something former TVA head who holds the record for shutting down utility reactors than any other administrator
“The Age of Nuclear Energy is winding down. The Age of Nuclear Waste is just beginning.” – Gordon Edwards, Co-Founder, President Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
The New Radioactive Gold Rush – Privatizing Nuclear Waste Management
Since Friends of the Earth Senior Consultant David Freeman made the above statement in a 2011 interview, seven U.S. reactors have been shutdown.
As of this writing, there are 97 nuclear reactors operating in 29 U.S. states. By 2018 approximately 80 thousand metric tons of spent nuclear fuel had accumulated at reactor sites around the US, with 2 thousand metric tons being added each year.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), such high-level radioactive wastes produce fatal doses of radiation with just a short period of exposure. Even non-lethal exposures can cause cancers and other diseases years later – an effect called ‘latency.’ Resulting DNA damage will be passed on to all future generations. Women and girls are most susceptible to damage.
No permanent storage facility for all this high-level radioactive waste currently exists. Aside from so far unsuccessful efforts in the Congress to revive the failed Yucca Mountain project, there is no plan to construct one.
Barring state subsidies to keep the aged, rickety, uneconomic U.S. reactor fleet going at taxpayer expense, or mind-boggling 20- or even 60-year license extensions from the industry-captured NRC, at least fifteen more old, embrittled nukes are slated for shutdown in the coming months and years.
With nowhere else to go, all their accumulated waste will have to remain stored on-site for the indefinite future.
Globally, according to the 2018 World Nuclear Industry Status Report for the third year in a row, excluding China, global nuclear power generation has declined. Despite perpetually rosy industry PR-speak of a coming ‘nuclear renaissance’ as a ‘solution to climate change,’ and the claimed promise of a new era of ‘inherently safe,’ small nuclear reactors (SMRs) – the future of nuclear energy does not look all that bright.
But, not to worry, If you’re an investor, a new business model has been devised by the same geniuses who brought you derivatives, liar-loans and the Wall Street bailout: the demise of nuclear energy production can be monetized and financialized. Thanks to the logic of capitalism, there are profits to be made from nuclear power’s decline.
A Radioactive Pot of Gold (or Brass Ring) at the End of the Nuclear Rainbow
All those soon-to-be-shuttered nuclear power plant sites will have to be decommissioned and all their accumulated radioactive waste managed for…well, basically eternity.
Every nuclear power plant site in the country has a Decommissioning Trust Fund that has been accumulating from mandated monthly rate-payer contributions for years. A total of over $70 billion is estimated to have already accumulated in those utility-owned funds, heading for $90 billion in the near future.
The idea was that those funds would be used to return the nuclear plant sites to ‘greenfield’ status at the end of their operating lives, so ‘clean’ that they could be turned into public parks…real estate developments.
If there were any funds left over at the end of that process, it was then intended that they would be returned to the rate-payers whose contributions created them in the first place.
But now, another option is being floated by companies like Northstar and Holtec, predatory capitalists with dollar signs in their eyes, who think they see a way of speeding up the decommissioning process on the cheap and pocketing what ever cash is left over.
Radioactive waste management is on pace to become a multi-billion dollar global growth industry.
Unfortunately, the privatization of nuclear waste management, could well lead – as it has in so many other industries - to the criminalization of nuclear waste management.
The Camden, New Jersey-based Holtec International is a case in point.
The Case Against Holtec – Too Big Not to Fail?
Holtec, along with Areva and Castor, is one of three companies in the world that manufacture ‘dry cask’ storage systems for radioactive so-called ‘spent fuel’ waste from nuclear power reactors. Although the fuel is ‘spent’ in terms of being able to run reactors, it is highly radioactive and lethal to virtually all life forms and must be isolated from the biosphere basically forevermore.
Founded in 90’s by its India-born CEO Krishna ‘Kris’ Singh, Holtec is a family-owned company that has so far specialized in manufacturing reactor parts and radioactive waste storage systems. But Mr. Singh’s vision and ambition for his company now extends to producing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and being a major player in the burgeoning nuclear plant decommissioning and radioactive waste management business.
Holtec’s HI-STORM UMAX dry cask storage systems - the serious flaws of which are now the focus of dispute at California’s recently shuttered San Onofre radioactive waste storage site – where loading is currently halted - are reportedly already in use at over half of US reactor sites and many other places around the world.
Holtec is also the would-be contractor for the proposed, highly contested Eddy-Lea waste dump in New Mexico, to which ‘just-get-it-out-of-here’ advocates are pushing to send San Onofre’s waste despite the strong opposition of citizen, government, business and Tribal groups there.
Holtec has recently partnered with the Canadian firm SNC-Lavalin, to form Decommissioning International (DCI) which is so far on-pace to buy six US nuclear plants scheduled for decommissioning - including Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Pilgrim in Maine, Palisades in Michigan and Indian Point in New York. They will acquire the plants on a ‘possession only’ basis and sub-contract with CDI to complete their decommissioning process in as little as 8 years, well ahead of the 60 year timeline allowed by the NRC.
Their business model aims to quickly and cheaply demolish the plant structures and store the on-site waste in the flawed Holtec system, hoping to then get access to the billions of dollars now accumulated in trust funds at each site, built up over the decades from rate-payer charges.
CDI says it will be using Holtec’s NRC-approved “proto-prompt decommissioning” strategy to speed up the demolition of shuttered commercial power reactors and the ‘clean up’ and ‘restoration’ of their sites.
It is worth emphasizing that this is no ordinary industrial waste we’re talking about here. It involves man-made substances that are biologically lethal for millennia. Mistakes in manufacturing or procedures, lapses in the rigorous established and evolving disciplines of prevailing ‘nuclear culture,’ can result in devastating contamination. It requires operators of impeccable professionalism and integrity.
Trouble is, in a hazardous business that demands such high qualifications, both SNC-Lavalin and Holtec have histories of bribery scandals and shady political dealings.
Bribery at the TVA
Back in 2010 Kris Singh and Holtec were involved in an alleged bribery scandal at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). As a result of a criminal investigation, the TVA created a formal suspension and debarment process and, in an unprecedented move, debarred Holtec from doing business with it for 60 days. Holtec was also reportedly forced to agree to pay a $2 million ‘administrative fee’ and to submit to independent monitoring of its operations for twelve months.
For its part, SNCL has, since 2012, been embroiled in a series of other similar scandals, which are currently rocking the Canadian government to the point where they recently even sparked calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
To Big to Be Prosecuted?
SCNL is a huge Quebec-based engineering corporation with a hundred affiliates around the world engaged in oil, gas, nuclear energy, construction and other projects. Based on proof in several bribery and kickback cases from Libya to Bangladesh, the company and its subsidiaries have been barred from having any contracts with the World Bank for a decade.
According to Dr. Gordon Edwards President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), “Its situation … can only be described as in meltdown. Its stock value has plummeted, with $1.5 billion in losses, prompting a shareholder class action lawsuit. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided its Montreal headquarters, related to $56 million in ‘untraceable and un-accounted for payments, presumed to be bribes.’ And a former SNC-Lavalin vice president, with close ties to the Gadhafi family in Libya, which he used to land a controversial Libyan prison contract, is now in a Swiss prison himself, charged with ‘fraud, money-laundering, and corruption of officials.’ Another SNC-Lavalin consultant is now in a Mexican jail, charged with ‘consorting with organized crime, falsifying documents, and human trafficking.’"
In a current case, says one report “if it is denied a deferred prosecution agreement and is convicted of fraud and corruption, this could prevent the engineering company from bidding on federal government contracts in Canada.” The article predicts that, “Whether SNCL is allowed to meet and make billions of dollars of new contractual obligations over the next decade will be crucial to the global nuclear industry and Canada’s future development.”
SNCL seems to have metastasized throughout the Canadian economy and industrial sectors to such an extent that the CEO Neil Bruce recently warned that his company is ‘too big to fail,’ because of all the jobs it provides and because preventing it from doing business would open the floodgates for its many projects to be taken over by US competitors, thus damaging Canadian national pride and international status.
Friends in High Places
On September, 7, 2017, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, State Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney and Camden Mayor Dana Redd all showed up at an inaugural event marking the opening of Holtec’s new $260 million, 600,000 square foot Holtec Technology Campus manufacturing facility in Camden, one of the country’s most depressed and depressingly violent cities.
"This is a project that is investing in the people of Camden.” Christie told the crowd. “The company anticipates training and employing over a thousand employees from the city and nearby towns. That creates hope for the city of Camden.”
At the event Christie proudly announced that, “The $260 million investment that we are making here with Dr. Singh represents the largest single investment of private capital in the history of the City of Camden.”
Holtec had managed to get the $260 million ‘Grow NJ’ tax credit from the state’s Economic Development Authority (EPA) despite the fact that the state lacks the tax revenue to cover education, hospitals, pension payments for retirees or tax rebates for property owners, so it’s really the New Jersey tax-payers who are subsidizing Holtec.
Holtec hopes to use this as a base for producing not only its nuclear waste storage and other products there, but also its Small Nuclear Reactors (SMRs), and dreams of importing and exporting both parts and plants through the port of Camden. That is, if it can find a market for SMRs. At the moment there is none and the government recently turned down a Holtec proposal for support. Singh announced that Holtec, of which his family is sole owner, would self-finance the project anyway.
Holtec now has two newly-constructed factories on the Camden waterfront, and a former Westinghouse plant near Pittsburgh, among its other U.S. facilities.
To say that self-made millionaire Singh, with a triple degree from Penn State, is well connected might be an understatement. George Norcross, a prominent insurance executive and State Democratic party power broker, reputed to have much muscle in the NJ legislature, sits on the Holtec board. His brother is US senator Donald Norcross. Former Delaware Governor Nikki Haley, Trump’s first pick for UN Ambassador, calls Singh a friend. Their families both hail from the Indian State of Gujarat.
A year after the 2017 Camden grand opening on September 14, 2018, protesters rallied outside Holtec International in response to what they called insulting and racist remarks Singh had made in a story published on the website ROI-NJ. He had complained about Camden residents not having a good work ethic. “ They don’t show up to work,” Singh said. “They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult.” In the face of community outrage, Singh apologized, saying his remarks had been taken out of context.
Ten days later, on September 27, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 assembled before dawn at the gate of the Holtec power-plant parts factory on the Camden waterfront. They put up their inflatable hard-hatted ‘Fat Cat’ mascot and handed out leaflets to the arriving workers urging them to “let us represent you.”
A union representative and a spokesperson for the local NAACP chapter reported that a Holtec official had told them that if workers tried to organize a union the company would close down and move elsewhere, despite the fact that the tax-credit deal required them to stay there for 15 years. Holtec denied making the threat, but has continued to resist union organizing.
Meanwhile, Holtec’s quest for global reach continues undeterred. Last November in Mumbai, Holtec signed a memo of understanding ‘allowing Holtec to build a factory the company says will “give India autonomous capability” to make systems and parts for “the country’s planned expansion of nuclear generation.”’
With India and Pakistan both nuclear-armed states with their missiles pointed at each other and making hostile noises over Kashmir, that seems a strange way to contribute to India’s ‘national security.’
Then, On May 6, 2019, Holtec was “pleased to announce the start of final system-wide trials for Chernobyl’s dry store facility….”
Holtec is also building a project called a Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility (CSFSF) for the Ukrainian company Energoatom.
Grand plans aside, at the moment, Holtec’s core business is its waste storage system, and San Onofre is a key square on its game board. Even here, Holtec’s political connections may have proven helpful.
Consolidated Interim Storage Advocate
For years, California Senator Diane Feinstein has joined colleagues like Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and others in promoting various versions of a “Nuclear Waste Administration Act”” authorizing “the construction of interim storage facilities and permanent waste repositories, sited through a consent-based process and funded by fees currently collected from nuclear power ratepayers.”
A typical press release from Feinstein’s office complained, “The inability of the federal government to collect waste stored across the country at functioning power plants, decommissioned reactors and federal facilities is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s time to finally put a policy in place to address this problem.” But, so far, no cigar.
Revolving Door - A Policy Wonk’s Lateral Pirouette
In 2013, Christopher Thompson, a man with a political science background, who had been Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Chief of Staff for ten years, abruptly left government to become Southern California Edison’s (SCE) vice president for Decommissioning at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
On Thompson’s VP watch, Edison abandoned its former contractor Areva, which had built the existing above ground horizontal dry cask facility, and awarded a contract to Holtec International’s HI-STORM UMAX underground vertical storage system.
“After reviewing leading designs with the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel, we concluded this underground design is best suited to safely and securely store used nuclear fuel at San Onofre until the federal government removes the fuel from site, as required,” said Chris Thompson, SCE vice president of Decommissioning. “Our decision to move expeditiously to transfer the fuel also reflects feedback from community leaders who prefer dry storage of used nuclear fuel.”
Adding San Onofre to its two other storage systems contracts at Humboldt Bay and Diablo Canyon has given Holtec a virtual monopoly on California’s nuclear waste.
Nuclear Waste Race
Holtec-Lavalin’s chief competitor in the waste management gold rush is NorthStar, a company owned by J.F. Lehman & Co., an opaque hedge fund founded by President Ronald Reagan’s retired Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman. Lehman & Co. also recently bought Orano, which also specializes in nuclear teardowns,
According to its website, “Orano USA is the U.S. subsidiary of Orano, [a France-based] global nuclear fuel cycle company.” What they don’t say is that it is the recently re-branded, failed French government-owned company, AREVA.
“Headquartered in Washington, D.C.,” the write-up goes on, “Orano USA is a leading technology and services provider for decommissioning shutdown nuclear energy facilities, used fuel management, federal site cleanup and closure, and the sale of uranium, conversion, and enrichment services to the U.S. commercial and federal markets. Prior to a global rebranding in January 2018, Orano USA was AREVA Nuclear Materials.”
Last year the Lehman hedge fund also bought Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which is seeking NRC approval for a CIS facility in Texas just across the border from Holtec’s proposed New Mexico site.
The nuclear waste management race was on and - even with all the Lehman-funded competition - until recently Holtec looked like it was in the lead. But, like some wise person once said, ‘Shit happens.’
That was just one of several recent headlines suggesting that its lead in the race may not be secure. Holtec’s waste management hegemony is currently under fire in three locations coast-to-coast, in New Jersey, New Mexico and in California.
Trouble in New Jersey
In its newly adopted hometown of Camden, New Jersey it is under investigation for lying and corrupt crony-ism in obtaining the million dollar state government grant to build its giant waterfront complex.
As reported above, George E. Norcross III, is a powerful Democratic Party boss in New Jersey. He is the brother of U.S. Congressman Donald Norcross, D-NJ
It seems companies linked to Norcross and the Parker McCay law firm of his other brother Philip Norcross received at least $1.1 billion worth of tax breaks from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) , according to an investigative review by WNYC-ProPublica. [For a PDF chart of Holtec connections, click here.]
Conner Strong & Buckelew, George Norcross’ insurance company got a $86 million tax break. Cooper Health System, where George Norcross sits on the Board, got a $39.9 million tax break.
Parker McCay Law Firm - where Philip Norcross, George Norcross’ other brother.
is managing partner – employs attorney Kevin Sheehan. Philip Norcross and Sheehan rewrote tax break laws in 2013 to give special advantages to companies that moved to Camden…especially companies with ties to brother George.
Sheehan handled the applications for many of the companies that received tax breaks to move to Camden. Several of them qualified for tax break grants by falsely claiming they had plans to leave NJ for other states unless they got the grants.
Sheehan wrote the Holtec EDA grant application signed by Singh, so they both lied, as did Holtec VP Joy Russell when she told an interviewer the false answer on the application was an ‘inadvertent mistake.’
Turns out Holtec, where the ubiquitous George Norcross also is a board member, which got its $260 million tax break – one of the largest grants, remember, in NJ history – by failing to disclose on its EDA grant application that it had been barred from federal contracts for a year, charged an ‘administrative fee,’ and subjected to months of independent oversight for bribing a TVA procurement officer.
It also failed to disclose Holtec had been stripped of tax credits in Ohio for failing to create the jobs it had promised as part of a similar program. Holtec got a $26 million New Jersey tax credit in 2017 and was scheduled for $26 million per year for the next 9 years.
Based on the new findings, EDA has now suspended Holtec’s state tax breaks, and a Governor’s Task Force and a grand jury investigation of the grant program are currently in progress.
Trouble in New Mexico
In New Mexico, the Governor and other government officials have come out in opposition to its proposed Eddy-Lea dump project - to which San Onofre’s waste is on the priority list for shipment.
Despite the fact that on May 7, the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave the go-ahead to the NRC’s consideration of a pending license application from Holtec International/Eddy-Lea [Counties] Energy Alliance to store 173,600 metric tons of highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico, state-wide opposition has continued to mount.
The 142-page ASLB decision denied all 50 contentions contained in petitions from nearly a dozen organizations opposing the project and requesting a full public evidentiary hearing on its potential impacts.
Petitioners included Beyond Nuclear, Sierra Club, Don’t Waste Michigan, Alliance for Environmental Strategies; Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (MI), Citizens’ Environmental Coalition (NY), San Luis Obispo Mother’s for Peace (CA), Nuclear Energy Information Service (IL), Public Citizen (TX), Nuclear Issues Study Group (NM).
In an unusual alliance between environmental groups and extractive industry groups the Texas-based Fasken Land and Minerals Ltd. and Georgia-based NAC International Inc. they filed petitions for a hearing, contending that the nuclear waste storage project threatens lucrative fracking operations in the booming Permian Basin. The project is also widely opposed by Native American Tribes – already victimized by atom bomb testing and uranium mining – as well as ranchers and growers who fear water contamination and the boycotting of their products by suspicious consumers wary of possible contamination.
Opponents vow to appeal the ASLB’s outrageously industry-friendly, anti-democratic decision.
Governor of New Mexico - “Establishing an interim storage facility in this region would be economic malpractice.”
On June 7, New Mexico’s Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote Dept. of Energy Secretary Rick Perry joining the rising chorus of official voices opposing the proposed Holtec/Eddy-Lea waste site.
Writing that, “the storage of high-level radioactive waste poses significant and unacceptable risks to residents, the environment and the region’s economy,” the Governor went on to cite the dangers the dump would pose to the oil and gas fracking boom now going on throughout the Permian Basin, which underlies southeastern New Mexico and West Texas.
Pointing to the region’s thriving multi-million-dollar ranching and agriculture industries, Gov. Grisham concluded, “Establishing an interim storage facility in this region would be economic malpractice.”
U.S. New Mexico Congresswoman – “Concept of interim storage facility inherently flawed”
On June 19, U.S. Congress Member Deb Haaland a Native American legislator and Co-Chair of the NM Native American Caucus, wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and NRC Chair Kristine Svinicki strongly opposing Holtec’s proposed nuclear waste site in her state.
Calling it “too great a risk to the health and safety of New Mexicans, our economy, and our environment,” Congresswoman Haaland went on to list her objections including transportation dangers to populations along rail lines long overdue for upgrades.
“The concept of an interim storage facility is inherently flawed,” she wrote, “because it will result in waste being moved twice, first to the interim facility and then to a permanent repository. This increases the chances that the waste will be involved in an incident during transportation, the riskiest portion of the process.”
Finally, she went on to explain, “the lack of a permanent high-level radioactive waste repository means that any interim storage facility will serve as a de-facto permanent repository that will not meet the technical requirements for permanent waste isolation. As a result, the waste stored at an interim facility will require repackaging over time, which will increase the risk of accidents and endanger the health of New Mexicans.”
Congresswoman Haaland recommended that, “Rather than wasting time and money on an interim storage facility that increases the risk posed by nuclear waste, we should be focusing on storing the waste more securely at the sites where it currently resides while we develop a permanent repository.”
State Land Commissioner - “This is not the right site for high-level nuclear storage.
On June 20, New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard
sent a letter to Holtec International President and Chief Executive Officer Krishna Singh listing a number of serious concerns about the proposed Eddy-Lea dump site near Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico.
A news release from her office explained that many serious safety concerns about the project have yet to be addressed and that Holtec had made misrepresentations in its license applications to the NRC.
The Land Commission release went on to report that,
The surface and mineral estate are split in ownership at the proposed location, with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, LLC owning the surface land and the State Land Office owning the mineral estate.
The proposed nuclear storage site is located in the middle of the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most productive oil and gas regions. Nearly 2,500 oil, gas, and mineral wells or sites are operated by 54 different businesses or entities within a 10 mile radius of the proposed site. Locating an interim nuclear storage site above active oil, gas, and mining operations raises serious safety concerns.
Holtec has falsely claimed to have secured agreements from oil and gas operators at or around the site to restrict these activities, specifically assuring the NRC that oil and gas drilling will only occur at depths greater than 5,000 feet. However, there are no such agreements containing these restrictions in place with oil and gas lessees at the site or the State Land Office. One agreement has been made with Intrepid Mining, LLC, a potash mining company, but that agreement has not been approved, as required by lease terms, by the State Land Office.
Given the State Land Office’s mineral ownership of the land and the lack of restrictions on mineral development at the site, any claim that activities at the site have been restricted is incorrect.
Commissioner Garcia Richard then released the following statement:
This is not the right site for high-level nuclear storage. Holtec has only provided bits and pieces of information, and what they have provided has been incomplete and at times misleading. We are talking about storing over 120,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in an extremely active oil field without a clear picture of the potential hazards of that combination. For example, I’m not aware of any studies demonstrating the safety of fracking beneath a nuclear storage site. There is no guarantee that high-level nuclear waste can be safely transported to and through New Mexico. There is no guarantee that there won’t be a hazardous interaction between the storage site and nearby oil, gas, and mining activities. There is no guarantee that this site will truly be ‘interim’ and won’t become the permanent dumping ground for our nation’s nuclear waste. I understand that we need to find a storage solution, but not in the middle of an active oil field, not from a company that is misrepresenting facts and unwilling to answer questions, not on our state trust lands.
Trouble in California
At the recently shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant site on the California coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, Holtec has designed a so-called Interim Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) just above a popular surfing beach, inches above the water table, 100 feet from the rising sea. The site lies in an earthquake and tsunami zone, just like Fukushima.
Located in densely populated Orange County, with a surrounding population of over 8.5 million, the project has generated much alarm and opposition throughout the region. In August 2018, a whistleblower revealed the near drop of an 85-ton Holtec canister as it was being lowered into one of the 74 concrete-encased siloes in the facility. Since then, further loading has been stalled while the NRC investigated and Southern California Edison, the plant owner, scrambled to improve procedures.
It has been revealed that the 5/8 inch Holtec stainless steal canisters, which are welded shut with bundles of highly radioactive spent fuel inside, are being gouged during the loading process in ways that will accelerate corrosion and cracking in the salt sea air.
Nevertheless, following an ‘investigation,’ the ever utility-friendly NRC has given Edison the go-ahead to re-start loading canisters at San Onofre and the process has resumed.
Citizen Engagement or Citizen Enragement
As is becoming common practice at decommissioning reactor sites around the country, Edison established a so-called Citizen Engagement Panel (CEP), designed to engineer consent - if not consensus = among the public’s many contending points of view. It quickly came to be dubbed the ‘Citizen Enragement Panel,’ with a growing perception that it favored corporate interests over public safety.
With the Panel under increasing public criticism, the serious flaws currently being revealed in the Holtec management, manufacturing and storage system operations recently led to a rancorous exchange of letters with between Community Engagement Panel officials, Edison and Holtec.
On April 8, 2019, CEP Chair David Victor and two of his colleagues wrote a letter to Edison executives, with a copy to Holtec, citing three areas of concern. Pointing to Holtec’s failure to anticipate the cascade of recent problems, the trio complained that, “Such events—in effect, unforced errors—are not acceptable. Along the way, the company’s most senior management has been tone deaf in how it deals with the public.”
The letter went on to complain, “the corporate governance of Holtec is opaque, with some pretty significant warning signs. The Board of Directors has six members; at best, perhaps only one of them has both independence and related industry experience needed to provide the kind of oversight functions one expects from a Board. The Board appears to be stacked by people who are not currently engaged at the frontier of the industry; one member appears to be a relative of the founder whose principal public contributions relate to animal welfare.”
Referring to Holtec’s seemingly omni-directional expansion plans, the letter pointed out that, “The new business lines for Holtec are REALLY different from the traditional engineering business. Taking over part 50 licenses here in the USA—as Holtec is doing by purchasing the Oyster Creek plant, for example—is much more management intensive and requires skill sets that are completely different from the core engineering business. Moreover, these tasks come with a lot of community and regulatory exposure—areas where Holtec has not excelled in the past and which could become political millstones for the firm’s top managers. The company is investing in a small modular reactor (SMR), along with dozens of other firms—yet another business that will draw management attention and capital. And the list goes on. Add to that the variety of other complexities that surely will arise with their overseas business, such as in Ukraine, and it’s hard to see how management stays focused in the ways that we need at SONGS.”
The letter concluded that, given all these issues, the situation now “requires that Holtec raise its game.”
The response from Holtec CEO Singh surprised everybody with its vitriolic tone. “…you denigrate Holtec International’s corporate management without any substantiating basis,’ Singh wrote, “the comments in your memo transgress the charter of CEP and your arrogated role as its chair. It is truly a sad spectacle…”
Singh went on, “We have 116 nuclear plants as our active dry storage technology customers- ours is the world’s largest dry storage program. We have business nexus with over 250 customers; we operate in 16 countries and we maintain 15 active nuclear dockets with the NRC and numerous others overseas. Our nuclear program is the envy of the world, your cheap shots notwithstanding.”
Singh’s letter concluded, “Your memo is very much in the tradition of irresponsible claptrap that dominates your CEP meetings. An inflammatory memo unsupported by facts is little more than a hatchet job.”
The acerbic exchange has led critics to ask Edison, “How can you continue to do business with a company that acts like Holtec?”
A Reawakening of Informed Nuclear Consciousness?
Many – especially those of us with gray hair - have lamented the apparent lapse of public awareness and concern which once propelled a vibrant and effective nuclear free movement that, decades back, had significant impacts on U.S. nuclear weapons, energy and waste policies.
Perhaps the surprising popularity of the recent HBO mini-series ‘Chernobyl’ – surpassing even the viewership of ‘Game of Thrones’ – indicates a shift in public consciousness making it more receptive to warning voices.
One of them is former Nuclear Regulatory NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko, who, in a recent May13 Congressional Briefing, noted several challenges to the privatizing teardown-and-store business model.
One is, he said, “can the cleanup actually be done for less money than exists in these decommissioning finds?” He believes existing funds can cover the actual cleanup costs, but he is “not sure they are sufficient to cover the cost of the cleanup and the very nice leftover benefit for the company that does the decommissioning.”
Another of his concerns is that the companies offering cleanup services “are not necessarily large electric power companies that are very well capitalized companies that have a lot of resources.”
Other critics have noted that the ease with which companies, both large and small, can claim bankruptcy protection under current laws and potentially just walk away from failed projects creates a nuclear ‘moral hazard.’ Safe operation was at least nominally incentivized when reactors were pumping power and profits. Utilities had both economic and reputational motivations for maintaining at least the appearance of safe operation under admittedly ‘flexible’ NRC regulations. Critics now charge that once the reactors are shut down and ready for ‘rubblization,’ the economic incentives are reversed and ‘quick, cheap and walk away’ becomes the norm.
The final issue – which Jaczko says often gets forgotten – “is that these funds which were originally set aside by the ratepayers… the people who bought electricity. They weren’t set aside by the companies themselves. They were charged the ratepayers for this money. Originally those funds, if there was any left over at decommissioning, were intended to they go back to the people who paid that money… the ratepayers.”
“So, Jaczko concluded, “there is a real policy question that people need to think about as we go forward.”
Voice from the Past
Way back in January 30, 1959, as the ‘Age of Nuclear Power’ was just dawning, Brookhaven National Laboratory official L. P. Hatch made this prediction in testimony before the U.S. Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy:
“The existence of large quantities of high level radioactive wastes,” he told his listeners, “such as would be produced in a major atomic power industry, would create a very special problem in that the amounts of long-lived materials at any one time would be sufficient to seriously contaminate very large regions of the earth for centuries to come.”
“This statement,” he continued, “is made simply to emphasize the fact that if we were to go on for 50 years in the atomic power industry, and find that we had reached an impasse, that we had been doing the wrong thing with the wastes and we would like to reconsider the disposal methods, it would be entirely too late, because the problem would exist and nothing could be done to change that fact, for the next, say 600 or a thousand years.”
Mr. Hatch’s prescient remarks were not heeded in the then-current zeitgeist of misguided exuberance for ‘nuclear energy too cheap to meter.’
Now, at the dawning of what Canadian commentator Gordon Tompson has dubbed the “Age of Radioactive Waste,” we are facing the very existential conundrum that Hatch foresaw.
Beyond ‘Disposal’ and Abandonment - Rolling Stewardship
Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), (who provided one of the epigraphs at the top of this article) travels the world advocating for the trans-generational nuclear waste management strategy his organization calls ‘rolling stewardship.’
He argues that to ‘dispose’ of long-lived radioactive waste by placing it in a deep geological repository, with no intention or way of monitoring, managing, retrieving or re-containerizing it, is ‘abandonment’ leading to cultural amnesia. “As such,” Edwards says, “it is a breach of government’s fundamental moral and legal obligations to society.”
That means that future generations will have no adequate knowledge or resources to deal with leaks that may go undetected for long periods. “Realizing that there is as yet no genuine solution to the nuclear waste problem – we do not know how to destroy this waste or render it harmless,” says Edwards, “the only responsible alternative to abandonment is Rolling Stewardship.” It is a way of creating ‘persistence of memory,’ so future generations have the knowledge, resources and incentive to keep searching for a genuine solution.
He maintains that there is a growing awareness among those grappling with this problem, “that this is the way to go.” The transmission of know-how and responsibility trans-generationally would call for a kind of ceremonial ‘changing of the guard’ every 20 years or so for the “continual monitoring and periodic retrieval and repackaging of the waste every 50 or 100 years.”
That would mean hardened on-site storage (HOSS) in state-of-the-art thick-walled dry casks like those used in other countries, in which the waste can be monitored and, if necessary, repackaged. The sealed, un-moniterable, un-repairable, thin-walled canisters that are the core of Holtec’s Hi-Storm Umax system just don’t fill that bill.
As the Holtec scandal deepens it looks like the profit-over-safety privatization – and the potential criminalization - of the nuclear decommissioning and perpetual waste management industry being pursued by Holtec and others is exactly the wrong way to go. Do we really want to entrust the deadly legacy of radioactive waste to companies like these?
With the NRC staff recommending the deregulation of safety oversight and emergency response measures at America’s fleet of 90-plus aging, rickety reactors in favor of ’self-assessment’ by utilities in order to save them money, what we are seeing is the implementation of the agenda infamously described by Steve Bannon as “the deconstruction of the administrative state” - just when we need it most.