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Westinghouse Electric's nuclear fuel plant. HighFlyer

A nuclear plant in Richmond County, South Carolina with a history of contaminating groundwater has leaked radioactive uranium into the soil below the plant, The State reported Tuesday.

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The Citadel Ruins at the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management

Even though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke insisted "this is not about energy," environmentalists and public lands advocates have long suspected the Trump administration's cuts to national monuments were driven by its push for more drilling, mining and other development.

Now, internal Interior Department documents obtained by the New York Times show that gaining access to the oil, natural gas and uranium deposits in Bears Ears and coal reserves in Grand Staircase-Escalante were indeed key reasons behind President Trump's drastic cuts to the two monuments in Utah.

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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Radiation area from Horseshoe Mesa uranium mine tailings at Grand Canyon's South Rim. Al_HikesAZ / Flickr

By Stephanie Malin

Uranium—the raw material for nuclear power and nuclear weapons—is having a moment in the spotlight.

Companies such as Energy Fuels, Inc. have played well-publicized roles in lobbying the Trump administration to reduce federal protection for public lands with uranium deposits. The Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review calls for new weapons production to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which could spur new domestic uranium mining. And the Interior Department is advocating more domestic uranium production, along with other materials identified as "critical minerals."

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While we fight to defeat President Trump's attacks on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, these are some of the real, on-the-ground threats we must keep at bay.

Following the lead of Native American tribes, The Wilderness Society and other groups have filed lawsuits against President Trump for violating the Antiquities Act when he essentially eliminated Bears Ears and greatly reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

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Dawn on the S rim of the Grand Canyon. Murray Foubister / Flickr

The Havasupai Tribe and a coalition of conservation groups praised the decision Tuesday by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the Department of the Interior's 20-year ban on new uranium mining claims across 1 million acres of public lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon.

The court ruled that the ban, adopted in 2012, complies with the Constitution and federal environmental laws, and that the protected area was not too large, as plaintiff mining companies had argued. The ban protects the aquifers and streams that feed the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon from toxic uranium-mining waste pollution and water depletion.

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Sunrise from Cape Royal, North Rim, Grand Canyon. Dan Miller / Flickr

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service released a recommendation Wednesday to lift former President Obama's uranium mining ban in the watershed of the Grand Canyon.

The move was made in response to President Trump's sweeping "energy independence" executive order in March to ease regulatory burdens on energy development.

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Geoffrey Sea

It was a dark and stormy night, except it wasn't, a full forty minutes before sunset. Last Friday, March 2, darkness came in curtains of rain, whipping winds, and a vengeful cloud front, punctuated by lightning flashes. The horses stabled on my farm fled to shelter, and Mweowa, my white German Shepherd, whimpered at my thigh, afraid to even look outside. Lethal funnels spun off the mother-storm had already wreaked devastation through southeast Indiana, northern Kentucky, and southwest Ohio, moving in a wedge that pointed distinctly at its cyclonic kin—the USEC uranium centrifuge facility south of Piketon, Ohio.

Yes, it's spooky. The death toll from the tornado flock has reached 38, concentrated in the energetic west, before the projectile point crossed the Ohio River at Moscow, site of a long-abandoned nuclear construction project. Afterward, the trees of Moscow-on-the-Ohio were reportedly draped with homeless rugs. A southern prong of twisters obliterated the town of West Liberty in eastern Kentucky. The easternmost tornado of the Ohio swarm cut a two-mile, 100-yard wide swath through the backwoods community of Camp Creek in Pike County—named either for its choice location as an Indian campsite, or for Christian camp revivals, or both. If it had continued eastward just a few more miles, the tornado would have hit "the American Centrifuge Plant" dead-on.

That is indicated by the National Weather Service report of a "March 2, 2012 Tornado SW of Piketon, OH" six miles southwest of the town. The tornado proceeded on a due easterly course for two miles, right on the 39th Parallel. A few miles to the east, that course travels along Hewes Street, an internal road on the Department of Energy (DOE) "reservation," a road that traces the 39th Parallel, the southern utility road of what is now the alleged test facility of the centrifuge uranium enrichment complex leased by USEC, Inc.

In other words, Mother Nature's lead storm cascade aimed right at the USEC buildings that house its test facility, called the "Lead Cascade." The Lead Cascade was intended to be the prototype for an 11,000-machine array of forty-foot tall centrifuges, until that project ran into monumental problems of financing and technology. A political football, the project is still kicked around, and I attended a "roundtable" at the site exactly two weeks prior to the tornado, hosted by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) of the "No More Solyndras Party." Portman is still angling to secure a $2 billion federal loan guarantee to enable USEC to build its forlorn plant, now proven to be a brave-new-climate tornado target.

One year ago, at a forum hosted by the Fluor Corporation, which has been contracted to clean up the adjacent site of the old shuttered enrichment plant (and is also a subcontractor on USEC's centrifuge misadventure), I wound up discussing Hewes Street with Jamie Jameson, head of Fluor's Piketon project. For some odd reason I couldn't pinpoint even at the time, I tried to explain that Hewes Street was the kind of historic feature the community might want to preserve as the reservation is redeveloped. The 39th Parallel is steeped in Masonic mysticism in these parts. George Washington viewed the parallel with esoteric reverence (the northern corner of the District of Columbia was planned to rest on the parallel, so the ultimate apropos target of the 2012 tornado spear might have been Washington, D.C.), and he can be considered the founder of the numerological cult of 39. While a British officer, Washington surveyed the latitude through Ohio, and he later designed a sundial to work only within one degree. The parallel nearly touches the northern edge of a twenty-acre prehistoric Indian earthwork enclosure just west of the DOE reservation, and local Freemasons of the pioneer generation planned eternal repose in graves set on latitude 39.

Whether the atomic planners who mapped out Hewes Street were part of this Masonic conspiracy I cannot say, nor can I speak for the Higher Power behind the Tornado of 2012. But if signs are had, I think we have one. Take a look at the eastward path of the northern prong of the March 2 tornado front, according to the National Weather Service Storm Map. It hones in on the DOE reservation, which is located just north of the Route 23 marker on the map, between Piketon and Lucasville.

And the spear-point pattern is not happenstance. It generally follows the route of the Ohio River Valley, which in turn follows a line of geologic faults that emanate northeast from the New Madrid earthquake focal point in Missouri. It is conjectured that this geologic fault line has electromagnetic properties conducive to intense electrical storm activity along a recurrent path. That is, Piketon, at the midpoint of the wall of the lower Scioto Valley, sits at the consistent cul-de-sac of one of America's most potent Tornado Alleys.

But there is something very strange about that Storm Map. The easternmost tornado, marked with a red balloon, is the Otway tornado in northwestern Scioto County. The Camp Creek tornado, just northeast of it—the one aiming straight for the USEC facility—is not marked, though it is listed as the last tornado in the time-sequence. Pike County has been preserved on the map, as it is in Department of Energy documentation, as a virtual tornado-free zone.

This might be written off as a chance error, were it not for a very long list of such errors in federal government documentation, including:

  • Obvious spring-fed wetlands on the southwest boundary of the DOE reservation (mostly on my property) have never been recognized as wetlands, which would merit special environmental assessment and protection. An official of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), while staring at the marsh grass with me, told me the problem was that they were too close to the atomic site, implying that an official designation might be a hindrance to development. DOE documents have so far declared that "there are no wetlands" within a mile of the DOE site, which is patently false.
  • A letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declaring the USEC project site to be habitat of the Timber Rattlesnake, listed as an endangered species by the State of Ohio, was mysteriously missing without indication of its absence, from the circulated draft Environmental Report for the American Centrifuge Plant, prepared by USEC and provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). By the time the crucial document was produced, by way of snail mail in an unmarked envelope, the deadline had passed for licensing intervention on grounds of endangerment to the species. Though the FWS letter was produced to the NRC, the Department of Energy has yet to acknowledge the letter's existence. The letter now can be found in Appendix B of the final revision of the Environmental Report.
  • The DOE reservation is ringed by properties listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, including numerous prehistoric earthworks and pioneer-era homes (including mine), but DOE did not conduct an official survey of such properties as required by law until 2011, and prior documentation including that produced for USEC's NRC license, affirmed the absence of nearby historic properties, even though they were known to exist. One unacknowledged geometric earthwork is 300 feet long, perhaps 2,000 years old, and it sits at the western highway entrance ramp to the DOE reservation.
  • Before 2001, during operation of the old uranium enrichment plant, which emitted large quantities of fluoride to the air and water, ODNR staff discovered fluoride poisoning in local wildlife, but were instructed not to file reports of the discovery, for fear of impeding new projects at the site, including the centrifuge venture.

These are only examples of a persistent paranormal phenomenon at Piketon. Projects have been authorized, licensed, and federally funded on the premise of no wetlands, no endangered species, no impacted historic properties, and no serious tornadoes. In plain fact, there are wetlands, endangered species, impacted historic properties, and serious tornadoes. And if they had been recognized in timely fashion, the monumental wastage of funds on USEC's little twisters could have been averted.

But this is Appalachian Ohio, and federal law is assumed inapplicable. The USEC Environmental Report used to obtain expedited NRC licensing downplayed the risk of tornadoes thusly on page 3-52:

Tornadoes do occur in Southern Ohio; however, specific analyses of the frequency of tornadoes in the region show that they are rare...The site had an average of 3 days per year between 1950 and 2002 with severe storms with winds exceeding 58 mph.

Prior environmental reports for Piketon projects had been even more dismissive of tornado threat, conveniently citing the lack of record of severe devastation in Ohio for 50 or 100 years. That was particularly galling to students of history, since the removal of Indians from most of Ohio was accomplished by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne at the infamous Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The battle site acquired its name because a horrendous tornado had felled the trees, removing the Indians' usual camouflage, and though that site is far to the north, another community named Fallen Timbers for like reasons lies close to Piketon toward the southeast.

The disingenuousness of official denials of tornado hazard were revealed to me most poignantly on a site tour aimed at locating "artifacts" for display at a future "atomic museum." Among the rusted paraphernalia of outdated nuclear ingenuity, I spied off to the side the steel door to a room marked in big stenciled letters: TORNADO SHELTER. Also, it bore the funnel-shaped international icon of a tornado, in case non-Anglo migrants might be wandering around the atomic site. I want that door displayed in the future museum—right next to the highlighted passage from old environmental reports, denying that there is any tornado danger at the site.

What might a severe tornado, of the type that struck on March 2, with winds ranging from 75 to 175 mph, mean for a hypothetical commercial-scale centrifuge plant, spinning uranium hexafluoride gas? Neither USEC nor the NRC bothered to conjecture. But on June 11, 2011, in fair weather, a simple power outage initiated a cascade of consequences that included failure of backup power, the crash of six of thirty-eight centrifuges, at least one breached casing, and the disabling of two safety systems. Inspectors noted an atmosphere of employee confusion and improvisation. [see article on the June 11 crash]

Now add hundred-mile-per-hour winds and a cyclonic storm hitting a Portman-pumped facility of eleven thousand super-fast uranium centrifuges. And pray.

That's what I did on the early evening of March 2, looking out over tempest from the cover of my back porch, as the USEC sirens blared non-stop. (Both DOE and NRC officials—none of whom have visited—concluded that they could envision no "visual, auditory, or atmospheric impact" of USEC's project on my historic property. Would that they had stood there with me on March 2.)

My home was secure. The family that built it, and rebuilt it after a partial collapse circa 1870, obviously knew of the tornado danger, for the outer brick walls are twenty-four inches thick and the roof is reinforced with industrial steel. I braved the outdoors to try to make out what the announcer over the USEC PA system was saying. The house is a mile from the USEC buildings, but the company's PA system comes through loud if never clear. (They say the former occupant of my house, a man named Fonzo, went bonkers thinking that the atom-plant voices were speaking to him personally, but never able to make out what they said.)

On March 2, o'er the sweep of rain and through the ionized atmosphere, I listened intently for emergency instructions from on high. But I only heard garble. I suspect the muddle of the message would only have increased had I gone straight to the source.

Late-breaking—a possible second tornado near Piketon on March 2 awaits confirmation by NWS as of Tuesday, March 6.

For background on USEC and the American Centrifuge Plant, see Geoffrey Sea's article series by clicking here.

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, created by the Obama administration after it abandoned plans to establish a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, is expected to release its final report Jan. 26 on what to do with commercial “high level” nuclear waste—used, or “spent,” fuel—from nuclear reactors.

One of the many contentious issues the commission addressed is reprocessing, a series of chemical operations that separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste in spent fuel to be used again in nuclear reactors. The separated plutonium also could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has long opposed reprocessing spent fuel. Not only would reprocessing fail to reduce the volume of nuclear waste requiring permanent disposal, it would increase the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation, divert resources from a permanent disposal program, and cost significantly more than disposing of spent fuel directly.

UCS has called on the blue ribbon commission to retain language from its July interim report concluding that “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable” technologies for reprocessing spent fuel have the potential to “fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.” But the science group also has asked the commission to drop the draft report’s recommendation to continue taxpayer-funded research and development on reprocessing and plutonium-based reactor fuels.

“Instead of throwing more good money after bad by continuing to fund failed reprocessing projects, the government should encourage research and development to improve the current fuel cycle’s efficiency, rebuff industry requests to weaken plutonium storage and transport security standards, and begin a technically sound, politically fair process to site a permanent geologic repository,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist. “The tens of billions of dollars that electric utility ratepayers pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund should be spent only on the fund’s intended purpose—developing a geologic repository for direct disposal of spent fuel.”

The commission also is expected to recommend that the government establish a number of centralized interim high-level radioactive waste sites until a permanent underground geologic repository is built, a major objective of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and two industry trade groups, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition. UCS maintains that until a permanent geologic repository is built, spent nuclear fuel rods should remain on site at operating nuclear plants in hardened dry casks.

“It is not apparent that siting a consolidated interim storage facility would be any easier politically to achieve than siting a [permanent] geologic repository,” Lyman said in written comments to blue ribbon commission, “and efforts to site an interim storage facility could distract from the far more important goal of finding a repository site.”

“Spent fuel can be managed safely at reactor sites for decades as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires plant owners to minimize safety and security risks,” said Lyman. “They can do that by moving spent fuel from vulnerable, overcrowded wet pools to safer dry storage casks, and enhancing security measures to protect the dry casks from terrorist attacks.”

In its recommendations to the NRC in light of the Fukushima accident last March, UCS called on the agency to require plant owners to transfer used rods from spent fuel pools to dry casks as soon as the rods are cool enough to move. The NRC is currently conducting a study of this proposal. UCS also has called for the NRC to release more information to the public about classified studies that it has conducted since the 9/11 attacks on the dangers posed by densely packed spent fuel pools.

 For more information, click here.

—————

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Geoffrey Sea

Congressional appropriators are collectively like the notorious Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. Special-interest lobbyists dole up for the dole-out, to face judgment both capricious and fascistic, impossible to predict. For the 2012 omnibus spending bill scheduled for a vote today, Dec. 16, one big surprise verdict has been rendered: "No soup for USEC!"

That's right, the alleged in-the-can $300 million bailout for my favorite non-performing nuclear company won't be leaving the can, or perhaps we should say it's been flushed down the can—it isn't in the bill being introduced in the House. "Left on the cutting-room floor," is how one breaking press account describes it. The "American Centrifuge Plant" or ACP as they called it, is now kaput.

There are few winners in the energy sector. Time-warp manufacturers of incandescent light-bulbs are one, as Congress would block implementation of the Department of Energy's lighting efficiency standards. Why not go whole-hog and rescind the rural electrification program, so to revive the beeswax industry? A coalition of manufacturers, energy industry groups and environmentalists has assembled to bash the move.

Virtually all programs of the Department of Energy (DOE) face cuts from budgets requested by the Administration. Renewable energy suffers more than nuclear and fossil fuels. The $181 million in unallocated authority for renewable energy loan guarantees is rescinded, terminating that whole program, but everybody knew that was coming. And, $233 million has been cut from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nuclear industry dreams for a revival of the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository are dashed, as hoped-for funding to pursue the project did not materialize. That hits USEC at the back-end, since the company's one diversified subsidiary specializes in the storage and transportation of spent nuclear fuel.

No Soup for USEC!

I first heard of the disappearance of the USEC bailout from the DC deal of deals on Dec. 15, when sent a link to the published Energy and Water portion of the bill, which includes no mention of any special funding for USEC. That was soon followed by trade-press articles expressing astonishment that the ballyhooed bailout was gone, as if there had been some mistake. By the end of the trading day, USEC stock was moving in enormous blocks—about 1.5 million shares in the last half hour—to close at the all-time low of $1.16, and falling.

It's almost as if my jabs at Congressman LaTourette (R-OH), pusher of the bailout in the House [see part 4 of this series] had been taken seriously. The impression was reinforced by subsequent analysis of the vanishing bailout in Politico, which included claims that Senate Appropriations leaders, led by Democrats Feinstein and Reid, had forwarded proposed bailout language to the House side and never heard back.

But this explanation by way of accident represents journalistic ignorance, not congressional negligence. Whatever the public posturing, legislators backed away from the bailout for reasons, many of them elaborated in this series of articles on USEC. [see part 1 of this series and subsequent articles in this series] USEC had continued to characterize the needed assistance differently from what DOE was proposing: USEC needed cash to pay its bills, plus a massive loan guarantee; while DOE offered only "technical assistance" with controlled, delayed disbursement. USEC needed a heroine fix. DOE offered methadone rehabilitation.

Atomic Stink Bomb

USEC also had to hope that the congressional bailout would slide by before news of the company's partnership talks with the distinctly un-American AREVA were disclosed. And it almost happened that way, until the omnibus agreement was delayed and AREVA spilled the beans in Paris, in a crisis. The flirtation with the French may have been especially damaging to relations with the Francophobic Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives.

In sum, the proposed USEC bailout had become an atomic stink bomb, a potential Solyndra Grande that no House Republican wants hung around his neck. And that may hold particularly true of House Speaker Boehner, from Too-Close, Ohio.

That interpretation is supported by reporting in the Columbus Dispatch, according to which, Boehner and other House Republicans considered the proposed USEC bailout as a potential violation of their pledge to include no earmarks—a point I made when the bailout idea was unveiled.

While it remains technically possible for the USEC bailout, or any other change, to be added to the bill in the final hours, nobody thinks that will actually happen. Congress intends to adjourn for the holidays, and USEC will be left with its threat to "demobilize" ACP permanently, in the absence of both a bailout and a loan guarantee.

The only total reality escapee is Rob the Poor Portman, U.S. Senator from Ohio, who has built his whole political career on USEC advocacy. “We can’t let it go. This would require us to come back later and spend far more of the taxpayers’ money," Portman is quoted as saying by Politico, on news of the missing bailout language. "You have to have it.”

No, Rob, we don't have to have it. Your White House ambitions are not a national security need.

A more accurate assessment of the "American Centrifuge Plant" was made also on Thursday afternoon by a regular commenter on a USEC investor message board: "Yes, it's over. It was never real anyway."

The big winners of the 2012 omnibus appropriations battle are the people of Ohio, who now can reclaim our public land from the political fiction that has passed.

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