The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Crude-Oil Train Wrecks Raise Questions About Safety Claims

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Four accidents in the last month involving trains hauling crude oil across North America have sent flames shooting hundreds of feet into the sky, leaving some experts worried that public safety risks have been gravely underestimated.

Crude trains have crashed in Illinois, West Virginia and twice in Ontario, Canada, forcing evacuations of residents and causing extensive environmental contamination.

The industry acknowledges that it needs to perform better, but says the trains are involved in derailments no more frequently than those hauling containers, grain or motor vehicles. Although the public doesn’t pay much attention, about three freight train derailments occur every day on average.

Critics, however, say the industry’s position misses the point. All it is going to take is one major accident to change the entire calculus.

Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and among the top safety experts in the country, believes the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.

“We have never had a situation equivalent to 100 tank cars end to end traveling through local communities,” Hall said. “This is probably the most pressing safety issue in the country. The industry has turned a deaf ear.”

Crude shipments have skyrocketed from 29,605 cars in 2010 to 493,126 in 2014, though the growth rate appears to have flattened out over the last 12 months.

As the shipments have grown, so has the number of accidents. The Association of American Railroads says there have been seven accidents that resulted in a spill of more than 5 gallons of oil in the last 18 months.

The Los Angeles Times, based on public records and news accounts, found a total of 13 accidents in the U.S. and Canada since the July 2013 catastrophe at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in which 47 people died when a runaway oil train crashed into the center of the city.

The crashes have occurred on bridges, along rivers, near downtowns and in the middle of farms, but none of them have caused the loss of human life since the Quebec accident.

The key question is whether the industry is playing a game of Russian roulette, betting the trains will keep crashing in relatively safe rural sections of track.

As long as the crashes do not threaten public safety, the economic losses to the petroleum companies do not appear to be a deterrent.

Each tank car carries about 682 barrels of oil, worth about $33,000. A used tank car may be worth as little as $30,000, based on rail equipment broker websites. Thus, a derailment and loss of 15 cars with their crude could impose a loss of less than $1 million.

Thomas D. Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, a trade group that represents tank car and other manufacturers, said the rail industry doesn’t have a lot of choice.

Under federal law, it must carry any rail car that meets federal specifications. It means that when the petroleum industry fills a tank car with crude, the freight lines don’t have the option of telling them to take their business elsewhere.

“They are betting their railroad that they are not going to blow up Los Angeles,” Simpson said.

He said the industry had committed to a significant improvement in safety, in which tank cars would have heavier shells, crash shields and stronger valves. And it would retrofit existing cars with stronger shields and thermal protection that would delay fires or explosions.

Simpson is confident that there is nothing about tank cars that makes them more likely to derail than any other type of rail car. “Tank cars don’t slosh and start rocking back and forth,” he said. “I asked that too.”

The question remains why the crude-oil trains are crashing and whether they are crashing for the same reasons as other freight trains.

Brigham McCown, former chief of the federal agency that sets tank car rules, said he believed the string of recent accidents had resulted from extreme weather this winter. The introduction of continuous welded track has made rails more vulnerable to expansion and contraction during temperature swings, experts say.

Another big unknown is human error, which accounted for 38 percent of all accidents in 2014. The Federal Railroad Administration is still investigating the specific causes of many recent crude train accidents, but it appears so far that none in the U.S. has involved a clear-cut case of human error.

Bill Kibben, a rail safety consultant who has worked for major railroads and government agencies, said accidents seldom occurred at a statistically even rate. “It is going to happen and it is going to be catastrophic,” Kibben said.

Historically, human error accidents have accounted for some of the most serious losses of life.

A decade ago, human error resulted in a train hauling chlorine gas to crash into a parked train on a siding, releasing poison gas that killed nine people and injured 250 others in Graniteville, S.C. In 2008, human error caused a head-on collision between a Metrolink train and a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., in the San Fernando Valley killing 25 people and injuring 135 others.

Kibben said that train crews were often affected by health concerns and fatigue, as well. In 2013, four people were killed in the Bronx, N.Y., when a train engineer sped into a curve, an error he later attributed to being in a daze.

“We recognize the public’s deep concern,” said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the railroad association. “We acknowledge we need to work with other stakeholders.”

Under a deal worked out last year with the Federal Railroad Administration, the rail industry agreed to operate crude trains at a maximum speed of 50 mph and slow down to 40 mph through some urban areas.

Greenberg said the U.S. rail industry had driven down its accident rate by 42 percent since 2000, making 2014 its safest year on record.

But environmentalists say safety rates for explosive products should not be compared to other merchandise.

“There should be a moratorium on crude trains until sufficient protective measures are in place at the federal level,” said Mollie Matteson, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Photo: A train ships oil west of Harrisburg, PA (Cody Williams/Flickr)

North Dakota To Decide Whether To Put Oil Revenue Into Conservation

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

North Dakota has a $450 million budget surplus and the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, but only about 725,000 people to enjoy it.

The state — a long neglected backwater — is becoming the Saudi Arabia of North America, growing into one of the nation’s most affluent societies.

Like anybody with newfound wealth, however, it isn’t easy to decide how to use it.

A contentious ballot measure this year is asking voters to approve a plan to divert 5 percent of future oil revenue to fund clean-water projects, wildlife preservation and parks.

The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia-based environmental organization, is backing Measure 5 with $600,000 so far.

The conservancy, which already owns and manages 16,000 acres in the state, says the ballot measure will help protect North Dakota’s distinct landscape, waterways and outdoor recreation.

It doesn’t mention hunting and fishing in its promotions, but at least some hunting groups are supporting the measure. Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever and Tennessee-based Ducks Unlimited, among others, are backing the proposal.

The disappearance of wetlands, contamination of waterways and loss of honeybees are a threat to the state’s very heritage, says Howard Vincent, chief executive of Pheasants Forever.

Both groups promote habitat for the birds, though hunters figure prominently in their mission.

North Dakota produced 314 million barrels of oil last year, making it the second-largest crude producer in the nation after Texas.

The state captures huge revenue through an excise tax, and the proposed park fund and trust would get about $150 million annually, based on current output and prices.

But the proposal has encountered stiff resistance from the agriculture industry, oil producers, education groups, builders and business organizations.

North Dakota is the nation’s largest producer of wheat, dry beans, and canola oil, the traditional products of the German and Norwegian immigrants who settled the state in the 19th and 20th centuries.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, an opponent of the ballot measure, asserts the effort is being funded primarily by out-of-state special interest groups and the large amounts of money diverted to the effort could result in “wasteful and irresponsible spending.”

The group says there is no spending plan for what could be a flow of $4 million a week.

As of early October, the campaign for passage had raised $798,375, the vast majority from the Nature Conservancy, and opponents had raised $577,950.

Photo via Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

Want more national and political news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Cause Of New Mexico Nuclear-Waste Accident Remains A Mystery

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

A 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam.

The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream and laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface, and exposed 21 workers to low-level radiation.

The accident contaminated the nation’s only dump for nuclear-weapons waste — previously a focus of pride for the Energy Department — and gave the nation’s nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel.

Six months after the accident, the chemical reaction that caused the drum to burst is still not understood. The Energy Department has been unable to precisely identify the chemical composition of the waste in the drum, a serious error in a handling process that requires careful documentation and approval of every substance packaged for a nuclear dump.

The job of identifying the waste that is treated and prepared for burial will become even more difficult in the years ahead, when the Energy Department hopes to treat even more highly radioactive wastes stored at nuclear processing sites across the country and transform them into glass that will be buried in dumps.

The accident at the facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is likely to cause at least an 18-month shutdown and possibly a closing that could last several years. Waste shipments have already backed up at nuclear cleanup projects across the country, which even before the accident were years behind schedule.

A preliminary Energy Department investigation found more than 30 safety lapses at the plant, including technical shortcomings and failures in the overall approach to safety. Only nine days before the radiation release, a giant salt-hauling truck caught fire underground and burned for hours before anybody discovered it.

The report found that “degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment.”

The 15-year-old plant, operated by a partnership led by San Francisco-based URS Corp., “does not have an effective nuclear safety program,” the investigation found.

The accident raises tough questions about the Energy Department’s ability to safely manage the nation’s stockpiles of nuclear waste, a job that is already decades behind schedule and facing serious technical challenges.

“The accident was a horrific comedy of errors,” said James Conca, a scientific adviser and expert on the WIPP. “This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll.”

The WIPP was designed to place waste from nuclear weapons production into ancient salt deposits, which would eventually collapse and embed the radioactivity for at least 10,000 years. The dump was dug much like a conventional salt mine, but with a maze of rooms for the waste. It handles low- and medium-level radioactive materials known as transuranic waste, the artificial elements — mainly plutonium — created in the production of nuclear weapons. Until the Feb. 14 disaster, it had been operating without significant problems for 15 years.

The plant’s ventilation and filtration system was supposed to have prevented any of the radioactive material from reaching the environment. But investigators found that the Energy Department never required the ventilation system to meet nuclear safety standards. When monitors detected radiation, dampers were supposed to route the ventilation air into filters to prevent any radioactivity from reaching the surface, but the dampers leaked and thousands of cubic feet of air bypassed filters.

Luckily, the accident occurred when nobody was working in the mine itself. But the emergency response moved in slow motion.

The first high-radiation alarm sounded at 11:14 p.m. When control room managers tried to find the responsible on-call radiation control expert, they couldn’t find the person, according to the investigation report. By morning, workers were attempting to change filters. Not until 9:34 a.m. did managers order 150 or so workers on the surface of the site to move to a safe location, about 10 hours after the first alarm sounded. It took 13 hours for managers to staff an emergency operation center.

The radiation doses the workers received during the hours after the accident were a small fraction of the allowable occupational limits and the workers should have no ill effects, Energy Department officials said.

Although WIPP operating procedures were faulty, the dump itself did not cause the accident. The steel drum was packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The drum principally contained nitrate salts, a byproduct of the chemical process that extracts plutonium, used in the triggers of hydrogen bombs.

Investigators believe that some chemical or packaging change was made at Los Alamos, and they are looking at whether that change was approved by senior laboratory chemists. A team of experts from WIPP may also have missed the change.

The investigators are looking at a variety of materials that may have been added to the drum, including lead, tungsten, acid, and even cat litter as possible factors in the explosion.

“They haven’t been able to duplicate the reaction in a laboratory,” said Ed Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There is no guarantee that they won’t have another event in the future. The larger question here is how well they characterize nuclear waste so it will be safe.”

Other drums of the same material are still at the WIPP, as well as in storage at Los Alamos and at a private dump in Texas, and nuclear experts say another accident cannot be ruled out.

Robert Alvarez, a former assistant energy secretary and a recent critic of the department’s performance, said the risk of a radioactive release at the WIPP was supposed to be one event every 200,000 years, not one in 15 years. “This was a cardinal violation,” he said.

Conca, among others, argues that the fundamental technology of the WIPP is sound, and he hopes officials do not overreact to the accident. But under the best of circumstances, the WIPP will probably be closed for 18 months, causing concern in states that are already impatient with the Energy Department’s slow cleanup schedule.

The Energy Department has notified New Mexico officials that, as a result of the WIPP closing, it will not meet its deadlines for removing all of the 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste at Los Alamos.

In Carlsbad, the closest city to the WIPP, officials have voiced support for the economically vital dump, but they also are worried about safety. When Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz went to Carlsbad this month, Jay Jenkins, president of Carlsbad National Bank, told him he did not think the WIPP had adequate funding to ensure safety.

Moniz acknowledged such concerns, promising to ensure the future safety of the plant.

“You stick us, and we’re sticking with you,” Moniz said.

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy/MCT

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Gun Violence At U.S. Schools Continues To Grow Sharply

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

A fatal shooting in Oregon on Tuesday was the 31st firearms attack at a U.S. school since the start of the year, marking a sharp acceleration in the rash of violence that has occurred on campuses across the nation.

The incidents range from the 20 people shot near UC Santa Barbara less than three weeks ago to gunfire that resulted in no injuries at all.

The frequency of attacks has picked up since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down.

In the 18 months since that tragedy, 41 deaths have occurred in 62 documented incidents at U.S. schools. In the 18 months before that attack, there were 17 deaths in 17 incidents. Everytown.org, a group that promotes gun safety, lists 72 incidents since Sandy Hook.

The increase comes at a time when all types of violent gun deaths have been essentially flat since about 2000, following a sharp drop since the 1980s, when such deaths peaked in the U.S.

But underlying the high-profile shootings are thousands of incidents involving American youths that never make national headlines, or even get noticed locally. Each year, for example, about 2,000 teens and young children commit suicide with guns at home, according to Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“School shootings are part of a much bigger problem,” he said. “There are 86 people who die from bullets on an average day.”

On Tuesday, a teen gunman armed with a rifle killed a student at a high school in Troutdale, Ore., injured a teacher and then apparently shot himself in a bathroom. During the evacuation, authorities found another student with a gun not related to the shooting.

These school shootings mirror past upsurges in other venues.

During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, there were at least 10 shooting incidents that occurred at U.S. post offices, leading to the term “going postal.” In 1991, a fired postal worker in suburban Detroit killed three people and wounded six in a post office before taking his own life. More recently, few post office shootings have occurred.

“I don’t know why they have decreased,” Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Stacia Crane said. “The economy changes. People change.”

Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, hesitates to brand such serial events as copycat crimes, but he said shootings tend to feed off themselves.

“The more we are all aware of them, the easier it is for one of us to do the next one,” he said.

Still, Wintemute said that guns remain widely available to individuals who are clearly at risk of committing such violence and that authorities have few tools to intervene.

A bill in the California Legislature would allow families and others to seek a warrant on such individuals, allowing police to search for guns and confiscate them. But another bill, barring gun ownership for individuals with a history of alcohol abuse and drunk driving arrests, was recently vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Wintemute noted.

Gross said the political power of the gun lobby has barred such reasonable approaches to limiting gun possession by individuals who are likely to commit mass murder.

“It is too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on guns,” he said.

Though Gross says there is a growing public outcry against the school shootings, he also says that “we need to turn up the heat.”

Wintemute pointed to the successful campaign to improve highway safety as proof that the death rates can be reduced. In the 1950s, motor vehicle death rates were twice as high as firearm death rates, but improvements in auto safety have result in parity today.

Nonetheless, the reduction in deaths were difficult to achieve and further improvements are bitterly fought by automakers, the trucking industry and others, said Joan Claybrook, a longtime safety advocate who spent a career crusading for auto safety.

Claybrook said the recent deaths of 10 people, including five high school students, aboard a bus on a Northern California highway outraged her as much as a school shooting.

“The bus accident was more preventable,” Claybook said.

It is difficult to fight a well-funded opponent, whether it is the gun lobby or the multibillion-dollar motor vehicle industry, she said.

“The National Rifle Assn. and their allies scare the hell out of politicians,” she said.

AFP Photo/Mat Hayward

More Lawsuits Are A Foregone Conclusion For California High-Speed Rail

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — When California voters approved $9 billion in funding for a bullet train in 2008, the ballot measure included the strictest engineering and spending controls ever placed on a major state project.

Voters were told that the high-speed trains had to hit 220 mph, get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, operate without subsidies and obtain funding and environmental clearances for entire operating segments before construction.

The idea was to protect taxpayers from an abandoned project or one that would require indefinite taxpayer support.

Now, as state officials seek to begin construction on the $68 billion project, those conditions have become a fertile breeding ground for lawsuits over the meaning of the language voters endorsed in the ballot proposition.

One key case hinging on these issues is working its way through state appellate court after a Sacramento judge ruled in November that the high-speed rail agency had not complied with 2008’s Proposition 1A. The decision, state attorneys wrote in their appeal, could be “catastrophic” for the project.

Dan Richard, chairman of the high-speed rail authority, said the state would deliver a system that meets all legal requirements of the ballot measure.

“We are not trying to parse words and hide behind legal technicalities,” he said.

But critics and opponents, including some key players from the project’s past, say the rail authority is trying to circumvent the basic intent of the protections because the existing plan for the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line can’t meet them.

The unusual specificity of Proposition 1A has been cited by bullet train promoters and critics to bolster their positions. And both sides have put the language and procedures set out in legislation underlying the ballot measure under an interpretive microscope. One example: Does a requirement to “design” the train so it can travel from L.A. to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes mean the state has to provide such service?

When the restrictions were written, they were considered unprecedented.

“This bond issue was extraordinary,” said Quentin Kopp, a former state senator, state court judge and former chairman of the high-speed rail authority, when the restrictions were written. “I can’t recall any general obligation bond issue that incorporated legal provisions to the extent this one does.”

In Kopp’s view, the state legislation and subsequent ballot measure were a conscious effort by the Legislature to place binding safeguards on the biggest infrastructure project in California history.

U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., a former state senator who wrote many of the restrictions, said: “We didn’t put them in as guidelines. … It was really clear what we wanted.”

But high-speed rail supporters say the conditions were never intended to be a legal straitjacket, allowing opponents to gum up the purpose of the bond measure: building a bullet train.

“The conditions were unnecessary and ill conceived,” said Rod Diridon, another former chairman of the state’s rail agency and now executive director of a San Jose State University transportation institute. The language in the law provides “guidelines, not hard and fast rules,” Diridon said.

Richard Katz, a former authority board member and state legislator, agreed the conditions should not be taken too literally.

“People voted for the concept of high-speed rail,” he said. “You have to view this in the larger context of whether the high-speed rail authority is substantially complying with the requirements.”

The main court battle is being waged by Central Valley farmers and Kings County.

In addition to the suits over the bond act, the project has been hit with multiple environmental lawsuits. Last Thursday, Central Valley opponents filed suit to obtain a restraining order on the project, citing errors in the authority’s environmental impact statement for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section.

Two powerful potential opponents, Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway, also are standing in the wings. Both freight railroads have filed extensive objections to the bullet-train plans, arguing that its construction could interfere with their operations and violate their property rights.

Last month, Union Pacific attorneys appeared before the appellate court and asked that any decision permitting the state to sell additional high-speed rail bonds not support the state’s contention that it met the requirements of Proposition 1A.

At that hearing, the appellate court justices were reviewing two decisions by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny.

He ruled that the state violated the law by not adopting a funding plan that had the necessary environmental clearances and identified all of the sources of money needed for the initial usable segment of the rail line from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.

Kenny told the rail authority to submit a new funding plan.

At the appellate court hearing, Deputy Attorney General. Ross Moody did not address whether the state has the money or the environmental clearances. Instead, he delved into the arcane language of Proposition 1A and the steps that must be taken before the state can actually spend money on the project.

Proposition 1A, Moody argued, requires two funding plans: an initial one intended for the Legislature to decide whether to appropriate funds, and a second version before the money can be spent on construction.

Moody said the courts have no authority to challenge the Legislature’s decision on the first plan. If the opponents want to challenge the project, they must wait for the second funding plan, he said.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney for the plaintiff farmers and Kings County, argued that the first funding plan is crucial because that’s where the state must show it has all environmental clearances needed for construction.

“The risk is you begin a system that cannot be completed,” he told the three-member appellate panel.

A decision on the appeal is expected no later than this summer.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Another trial this year will examine whether the state is not complying with prohibitions on taxpayer-funded operating subsidies and requirements on the bullet train’s end-to-end travel times.

The state rejects both of those allegations and points to projections saying the system will be highly profitable.

As with many issues, the travel time controversy is fraught with conflicting legal interpretations. In the official ballot pamphlet in 2008, proponents said riders would “travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 21/2 hours for about $50 a person.”

But the language of the bond act says the system must be “designed to achieve” a trip time of 2 hours and 40 minutes between the cities.

So, will the state have regular service that meets those trip times? Or is the state required only to build a system able to provide such service?

Richard recently said the bullet train will be capable of making the trip in the required time, and that it is the intent of the state to provide such service. Actual operating schedules will be determined by a private company contracted to operate the system under the supervision of the state, he added.

Flashman maintains that with the current design plans, no train will be able to meet the 2-hour-40-minute requirement and such service will never be available to travelers.

The issue of trip times and whether the future system can operate without a subsidy could go to trial this year, part of a long line of expected litigation.

“There are still a lot of fights to come,” said attorney Michael Brady, who works with Flashman in representing Central Valley plaintiffs.

Moody, the deputy state attorney general, said there ultimately could be as many as half a dozen suits stemming from issues in Proposition 1A.

“I think litigation is a foregone conclusion,” he said in court.

Photo via Flickr

Analysis: EPA Greenhouse Gas Rule May Lay New Bet On Future Natural Gas Supplies

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

The Obama administration’s ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants 30 percent by 2030 is laying another big bet on future U.S. natural gas supplies.

The boom in U.S. production, the result of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling into shale formations, has sharply boosted the availability of gas since 2009, but the abundance has prompted multiple new claims to the resource.

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing two new rules that will weigh heavily on U.S. coal-fired generating plants. The rule on reducing greenhouse gases will be difficult for many, if not all, of the U.S. coal plants to satisfy. And already a massive wave of retirements of coal-fired plants is occurring as the EPA’s rule on mercury and acid gases is implemented over the next year.

The U.S. will grow increasingly dependent on natural gas to make up the difference, even with the most ambitious efforts to control the growth of demand and promote more costly renewable power.

Throughout history, natural gas has been among the most volatile fuels available, owing to changes in demand but also to the difficulty of storing large amounts of it. If natural gas prices spike, as many U.S. experts worry, the growing dependence of the U.S. on the fuel for power plants will take electricity along on the ride.

After the fracking boom began producing large volumes of new gas, an over-abundance of the fuel drove down prices from $11.78 per thousand cubic feet in July 2008 to $2.04 in April 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Those are average monthly prices, and the daily spot market price swings were even higher.

Where did it go from 2012? That’s the worrisome news. The price has since rebounded to $4.61 in trading Monday. Even at the current price, the effect on electricity prices is noteworthy.

Last month, PJM, the operator of the grid from the East Coast all the way to Chicago, warned that in auctions for power supply contracts prices in some areas were doubling. And the California Independent System Operator, which operates the grid for all of the investor-owned utilities in the state, reported that last year spot market prices in the state shot up 31 percent.

The surge has caught savvy investor’s attention. The prices of utility shares and funds are rising, as investors sense the potential for profit spikes as the price of electricity increases.

Electricity and natural gas have become joined at the hip. Stanford University energy expert James Sweeny notes that a 33 percent increase in natural gas yields a 16 percent increase in the retail price of electricity.

“When those natural gas prices start going up again, we will feel it in the way of higher electricity prices,” Sweeny said.

Just how high power prices will go is difficult to say. Malcolm Johnson, a former Shell Oil gas executive who now teaches at the Oxford Princeton Program, a private energy training company, said prices could move toward European price levels of $10. Such a move would still make the U.S. a bargain against Asian prices of more than $20.

Is there room for concern? A number of U.S. experts say the government and industry are making multiple claims on the resource, potentially outstripping future growth. The Energy Department projects that U.S. natural gas supplies will double in coming decades, but that has triggered a lot of ambitious plans for its use.
U.S. companies have submitted plans to build more than 20 liquefied natural gas facilities along the coasts, a massive amount of export capacity. Meanwhile, the trucking industry is slowly converting its fleet to burn cheaper natural gas and is counting on U.S. heavy engine manufacturers to continue improving the efficiency of natural gas engines over traditional diesel.

But the big wild card may be electricity.

Natural gas will be needed not only to replace coal-fired generating plants but also to make up for almost every other type of fuel. The U.S. has retired five nuclear reactors since 2013, and the industry is considering even more shutdowns. The prolonged drought is reducing hydropower in much of the West. And even renewable power needs natural gas-fired plants as a backup resource.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Tiny Nuclear Waste Fee Added Up To Billions

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES—A charge for electricity that millions of Americans didn’t even know they pay will suddenly disappear Friday, after the Energy Department this week quietly notified utilities across the country that it was suspending its fees for a future nuclear waste dump.

The Energy Department has been collecting $750 million from electricity bills every year for such a dump since 1983, putting it into a trust fund that now contains $31 billion.

The court-ordered suspension may be a modest victory for consumers, but it reflects the government’s failure over the last 40 years to get rid of what is now nearly 70,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel, accumulating at 100 nuclear reactors across the nation.

“It is irresponsible on the government’s part to not move forward on a program that has already been paid for,” said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington trade group that filed a suit against the fees.

The waste fee is one-quarter of a penny on each kilowatt hour of electricity, a tiny amount on any individual consumer’s monthly bill. But over the decades, the fractions of pennies added up to about $43 billion. About $12 billion of that money was spent on trying to develop the Yucca Mountain dump in Nevada, before the Obama administration essentially killed it.

Now, there is virtually no plan moving forward in Washington to build a dump or even a temporary central storage site. The $31-billion trust fund will continue to accrue interest and is available to help build a dump at some point in the future, though it is probably not enough money. Experts had estimated that the Yucca Mountain project would cost at least $100 billion.

“I don’t see how it is a terrific win for anybody,” said Marta Adams, the assistant attorney general in Nevada who led the state’s legal efforts to block Yucca Mountain. “It relieves consumers of this charge but it doesn’t get rid of the waste.”

Nevada officials believe the nuclear industry’s lawsuit was a subterfuge to force the Obama administration to restart licensing for Yucca Mountain, although Fertel and others argue that they simply want the government to act on its legal obligations and begin a realistic effort to build a repository that can handle the mounting waste.

Under guard by SWAT teams with machine guns, the spent fuel is slowly decaying in deep pools of cooling water and in outdoor concrete casks from the California shores of the Pacific Ocean to the banks of the James River in Virginia. The waste is expensive to store and often cited as a public safety risk. Many experts worry that the longer it sits around, the less motivation the government will have to ever deal with it.

Decades ago, the government promised nuclear utilities when they built reactors that the Energy Department would dispose of the spent fuel, temporarily easing the way for the development of nuclear energy that now supplies 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The nuclear and utility industries, which have privately complained that the government took the money and left them holding the deadly waste, filed suit to block the fees. Last year, an appeals court ruled that the government had no reasonable plan to build a dump and could not reasonably estimate the cost of any future dump, ordering that it had to suspend collections of the fee.

It has taken about six months for the Energy Department to carry out the legal order.

“The federal courts have gotten fed up with what the Department of Energy is doing,” said Jay Silberg, the industry’s lead attorney in the case against the fees. “We want something in exchange for our money.”

The Energy Department said Wednesday that it remains committed to finding a solution, but that it had to be done with broad public consensus. “When this administration took office, the timeline for opening Yucca Mountain had already been pushed back by two decades, stalled by public protest and legal opposition, with no end in sight,” the department said in a statement.

Silberg said the intent of the industry’s suit was to increase pressure on the administration to start acting.

In addition to the suit, the nation’s nuclear utilities have filed 90 lawsuits against the federal government, asserting that the failure to take ownership of the waste has increased their storage and operation costs. So far, they have won $1 billion in judgments and obtained settlements of $1.6 billion, Silberg said. The Energy Department has projected that it may be liable for up to $22 billion in additional judgments just through the start of the next decade and more liability would accumulate after that, Silberg said.

The problem with nuclear waste was addressed in the Waste Policy Act, a 1982 law that ordered two nuclear waste dumps to be built in the eastern and western U.S. But in 1987, Congress directed the Energy Department to build a dump at Yucca Mountain, a volcanic ridge inside the Nevada National Security Site, the former test range for detonating nuclear weapons. At the time, Nevada was among the politically weakest states, the test range was already radioactively contaminated and scientists claimed the repository’s geology would keep the waste isolated.

But the plan began to collapse when the state raised a long series of scientific objections to the site. When Democratic Sen. Harry Reid became the majority leader, he vowed to kill the project and he delivered on the pledge when Obama was elected. The president appointed a blue ribbon committee to study the next step. It delivered a report in 2012, suggesting that the disposal program be taken away from the Energy Department and an interim storage site be established before a permanent repository is built.

But legislation to carry out its recommendations was never passed by Congress.

Bernt Rostad via Flickr.com

Washington State Accuses U.S. Of Missing Hanford Cleanup Deadlines

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

Washington state accused the federal government Monday of missing crucial legal deadlines to clean up 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste at the former Hanford nuclear weapons site in southeastern Washington, demanding a new set of schedules by April 15.

Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz demanding that eight new double-shelled storage tanks be built to hold waste that is in leaky underground tanks with single steel walls. A state attorney said the eight tanks would cost $640 million, based on federal estimates.

The aging tanks contain plutonium, cesium and other toxic material, the byproduct of decades of nuclear weapons production that represents a dangerous environmental threat.

Inslee said the federal government had failed to come up with a plan to fix serious technical problems that undermined construction of a treatment facility for the waste — a technology about which there are growing doubts.

“I understand they have challenges, but that is no excuse for not meeting their obligations,” Ferguson said in an interview. “They entered into an agreement, and I intend to hold them to the agreement.”

The state’s new demands are a response to the Energy Department’s disclosure last year that it will probably fail to meet more than a dozen key milestones in constructing a $13.4 billion waste treatment plant that would transform radioactive sludge into solid glass, which could later be buried at a disposal site.

The 27-page plan that Washington state sent to Moniz accuses the Energy Department of operating on its own schedule, despite signing off on stringent deadlines in a 2010 legal agreement meant to remedy years of violations of a pact dating from the 1980s.

Critics of the cleanup project said they were encouraged that Washington is talking tough and demanding new tanks but questioned whether state officials are repeating the kinds of political mistakes that have dogged the project for decades.

“The state has to be asking itself, ‘Here we are holding another press conference on Hanford. What has changed?’” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit group that has assisted several high-profile whistle-blowers who were fired after raising public concerns about flawed engineering at the project. “The issue is whether the cleanup is only a series of press conferences, saying we have to do better in the future.”

After the Hanford site was taken out of operation in the 1980s and the public learned that the vast 586-square-mile area was badly contaminated, the Energy Department agreed to begin treating the waste by 1999. That deadline slipped to 2011 and then again to 2019.

Construction of key parts of the treatment plant was stopped in 2012, when senior engineers began to question whether the design was critically flawed. And last year, the Energy Department disclosed a vague plan to change direction, proposing to build a limited-purpose interim plant that would process some waste while problems on the main plant were resolved. Washington state officials want that interim plant built as quickly as possible.

Whatever the problems and their solutions, Ferguson said, the state would no longer accept delays. “Each and every delay does damage to the state of Washington,” he said. “They increase the risk of further contamination.”

AFP Photo/Atta Kenare

Radiation Leak Forces Closure At New Mexico Waste Burial Site

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

The Energy Department suspended normal operations for a fourth day at its New Mexico burial site for defense nuclear waste after a radiation leak inside salt tunnels where the material is buried.

Officials at the site, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, activated air filters as a precaution and barred personnel from entering the 2,150-foot-deep repository as they investigate what caused the leak. Radiation sensors sounded alarms late Friday, when no workers were in the underground portions of the plant.

Officials at the site discounted any effect on human health, saying no radiation escaped to the surface. But they said little about the extent of the problem or how it could be cleaned up.

“Officials at WIPP continue to monitor the situation,” spokeswoman Deb Gill said. “We are emphasizing there is no threat to human health and the environment.”

How long the repository will be closed and the impact on the defense nuclear cleanup program was unclear.

The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, a federal operation in eastern Idaho that is the biggest user of WIPP, said Monday that it had suspended waste shipments.

Gill said the repository shutdown occurred earlier this month after another incident in which a truck caught fire in an underground tunnel. That matter is still under investigation.

Any prolonged shutdown could cause a backup of waste at a dozen nuclear-weapons-related sites across the nation. In 2012, those dozen sites made 846 shipments to the dump, more than two per day. A spokesman at the Idaho operation said it was continuing normal business and storing the waste onsite.

WIPP officials have said little about what could have triggered the radiation leak.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he believed the cause most likely involved radioactive material on the outside of a container that was not been properly decontaminated. Waste is typically packaged into sealed containers. Any contamination on the outside of the containers normally would be cleaned, Lyman said.

A less probable cause, he said, was a radiological process inside a container that forced material out. WIPP has acceptance criteria for the waste that is supposed to prevent such an accident.

Lyman said the extent of the cleanup operation necessary to get the repository back in operation depends on the intensity and range of contamination in the underground tunnels.

“It could be a mess,” Lyman said. “If there is airborne contamination and it involves plutonium, they are going to need to decontaminate surfaces. If it is in the ventilation system, it could have spread to other areas.”

WIPP is the repository for so-called transuranic waste, which includes plutonium and other artificial elements heavier than uranium. In Idaho, for example, contaminated clothing, tools, wood and paper are bundled up in 55-gallon drums, then crushed into 4-inch “pucks.” The pucks are put into massive, lead-lined shipping containers with 3-inch-thick tops and bottoms designed to withstand highway crashes.

The New Mexico repository places the waste inside shafts within an ancient salt bed, which is supposed to collapse around the waste in the future and seal it. The operation began in March 1999.

The nuclear waste sent to WIPP is far less radioactive than the spent fuel or sludge from nuclear weapons production that was intended to go to a dump at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. After technical and political problems with that project, the Obama administration has studied an alternative site. Federal officials had hoped an exemplary record at WIPP would help build support for a more complex high-level repository.

“It hasn’t been a good month for WIPP,” Lyman said.

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory via Flickr

Winds Of Change: Floating Power Turbines Envisioned Off Oregon Coast

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES—A Seattle energy company received initial regulatory approval Wednesday to build five massive wind turbines floating 16 miles off the Oregon coast.

The pilot project off Coos Bay would be the first offshore wind facility on the West Coast. It also would be the biggest demonstration of technology that places floating turbines on platforms in deep water, according to federal officials and executives at Principle Power, the developer.

The turbines would be as tall as a 60-story building, vastly larger than typical turbines on land-based wind farms, and able to tap strong ocean winds that blow consistently in southern Oregon, said Kevin Banister, Principle’s vice president for business and government affairs.

Each 6-megawatt turbine would be supported on three floating platforms moored by cables anchored to the sea floor, about 1,400 feet below the surface. The electricity would be transmitted to shore via underwater cable.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, part of the Interior Department, gave approval for the company to submit a formal plan for building the 30-megawatt project. Principle Power would lease 15 square miles of ocean away from shipping lanes and barely visible from the coast.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber announced the project Wednesday in Oregon, invoking the Obama administration’s vision for clean energy and reducing carbon pollution.

Banister said the venture would cost about $200 million and was expected to be operational by 2017. It has received $4 million in Energy Department funding as an advanced demonstration project. Principle hopes to reach a power purchase agreement with Oregon utilities.

Approval for the lease application followed a process to ensure there was no competitive interest from other parties in the 15 square miles of ocean that Principle would have access to. The company still must go through a complex federal regulatory approval process under the National Environmental Protection Act, said Doug Boren, the bureau’s renewable energy manager for the West Coast.

“It is a relatively new technology that the Department of Energy is interested in funding,” he said.

The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that the West Coast has 800 gigawatts of wind energy potential, equal to more than three-fourths of the nation’s entire power generation capacity. Banister said the company’s research has determined that southern Oregon and Northern California have some of the strongest and most consistent winds, along with parts of Southern California.

“Offshore wind in the right locations is a very promising technology,” said Bill Corcoran, the Sierra Club’s western director for its Beyond Coal campaign.

Banister said the company’s studies indicate that the turbines will produce about 40 percent of their maximum potential generating capacity, significantly above the 20 percent to low 30 percent that is typical on land-based California wind farms. The best wind farms planned for Wyoming are expected to product at 45 percent capacity.

Boren and other wind experts say the economic feasibility of generating power offshore still needs to be determined. Only three wind turbines operate on floating platforms, including one in Portugal that Principle built for research.

The Portugal turbine has given the company confidence that it can engineer floating platforms that will remain stable in major storms, Banister said.

“It has gone through 50 foot waves and performed through those conditions,” he said.

AFP Photo/Morten Stricker