Policy News: March 25

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here.

NUCLEAR CRISIS: LAWMAKERS URGE NRC TO RAMP UP, REVIEW PLANT SAFETY STANDARDS

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened March 16 for a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan and its implications for the United States.

Congressional Democrats have expressed concerns about the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, especially reactors that lie on fault lines and are calling for new reviews.  Lawmakers with nuclear power plants in their states raised concerns that NRC has not yet taken proactive measures to ensure the safety of the U.S. plants that use similar technology as the Fukushima plant. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) cited examples in Switzerland and Germany where older nuclear plants have temporarily been shut down in the wake of the Japanese disaster to ensure their safety.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that 23 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors use the same General Electric Mark I boiling water containment design as those at the Japanese plant. They stressed that precautions have been taken at each plant to avoid disasters such as the one brought about in Japan from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Jaczko maintained that NRC plans to conduct a “systematic and methodical review” of the Japanese situation and would apply that to its review of the safety of U.S. reactors.

Chairwoman Boxer and Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) issued a letter March 17 to Chairman Jaczko seeking a comprehensive investigation of the NRC’s preparedness for natural disasters. This was coupled with a separate letter from Chairwoman Boxer and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) requesting that the NRC conduct a thorough inspection of the San Onfore and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California.

In the House of Representatives, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) declared his intention to hold a series of hearings on the nuclear disaster in coming weeks. He also reaffirmed his support for legislative efforts aimed at speeding up the federal approval process for building new nuclear reactors.

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRC requesting more information on the seismic safety features that are included in nuclear reactors currently in operation in the United States. The letter states “there are eight nuclear reactors located near the New Madrid fault line in the Midwest. There are additionally thirty-one nuclear reactors in the United States that are of the same Mark 1 or Mark 2 design as those currently imperiled in Japan, and twelve of these are located in seismically active zones.”

On March 17, President Obama also ordered a safety review of the nation’s nuclear power plants while seeking to reassure Americans that existing facilities have undergone exhaustive study and have been found to be capable of weathering any number of extreme contingencies. The Obama administration has said it would not stall the licensing process for existing or new plants because of the disaster.

However, a report from the NRC Inspector General (IG) published March 23 found that nearly 30 percent of U.S. nuclear reactor operators are failing to report certain defects in plant equipment. The IG report notes that operators failed to report at least 24 defects in reactor components that could have caused a substantial safety hazard from Dec. 2009 to Sept. 2010, as well as 11 additional defective components between June 2009 and June 2010. The IG recommended that the NRC clarify Part 21 of its Reporting of Defects and Noncompliance.

Since the accident, the nuclear industry, led by the Nuclear Energy Institute, has made a concerted effort to keep Members of Congress informed of the crisis in Japan. The industry has sought to maintain Capitol Hill support for nuclear power by holding numerous briefings with congressional staff and lawmakers in recent weeks.

View the Boxer/Carper letter, the Boxer/Feinstein letter, the Markey/Capps letter and the NRC IG report.

APPROPRIATIONS: CONGRESS PUNTS SPENDING NEGOTIATIONS TO APRIL

After the House and Senate passed another short-term continuing resolution (CR), President Obama signed it into law on March 18.  This CR will fund the government through April 8, 2011.

The bill will reduce spending this year by $6 billion. The measure includes $2.1 billion in rescissions of funds that have not been used; $2.5 billion in earmark terminations and  $1.1 billion to financial services/general government programs. This includes $276 million for a fund to fight flu pandemics; $225 million in funding for community service employment for older Americans; and $200 million in funding for Internet and technology projects.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 87-13. The no votes came from nine Republicans, three Democrats and one independent: Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), John Ensign (R-NV), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), James Inhofe (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Rand Paul (R-KY), Jim Risch (R-ID), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Conservatives mostly opposed the measure because it did not include many of the House-passed CR’s provisions to defund Planned Parenthood and prohibit funding to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148). Liberal Senators asserted the measure’s cuts were too deep.

EPA: HOUSE COMMITTEE APPROVES DEREGULATION BILL, SENATE STALLS SIMILAR EFFORTS

On March 15, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act, a bill to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The House measure was introduced by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) while its Senate companion measure was introduced by Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK).

Committee Democrats continued their contention that Congress should not ignore scientists’ warnings about the consequences of climate change. Republicans countered that they are concerned about the negative impact of the regulations on jobs.

SENATE: ENERGY COMMITTEE LEADERS RELEASE CLEAN ENERGY STANDARD PAPER

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have released a white paper soliciting comments on key questions regarding the potential provisions that would be included in a national Clean Energy Standard (CES).

The document cites President Obama’s State of the Union address as its impetus and intends to narrow some key questions about what consensus provisions, if any, might be included in a national CES. It is intended to “lay out some of the key questions and potential design elements of a CES, in order to solicit input from a broad range of interested parties, to facilitate discussion, and to ascertain whether or not consensus can be achieved.”

The questions cover a wide array of topics, including some that could be met with intense debate, including “to what extent does a CES contribute to the overall climate change policy of the United States.” Others cover broader topics, such as whether there are “specific supporting policy options that should be considered for coal, nuclear, natural gas, renewable energy, and efficiency.”

The white paper, released March 21, poses six basic questions (and 36 clarifying questions) about design elements of a CES. The committee invites all interested parties to respond by Monday, April 11, 2011.

For instructions on how to respond to the white paper, visit the committee’s website.

AIR POLLUTION: FIELD HEARING CONVENED TO DISCUSS TEXAS, EPA CLIMATE REGULATIONS

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power convened March 24 in Houston, TX for a field hearing entitled “EPA’s Greenhouse Gas and Clean Air Act Regulations: A Focus on Texas’ Economy, Energy Prices and Jobs.” The hearing was intended to highlight an ongoing debate between the Texas state government and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the regulation of greenhouse gases and several other air quality programs.

The sentiment that EPA’s regulatory efforts would have dire economic consequences for the state of Texas, was echoed by committee Republicans and other state officials who testified, including Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. In his written opening statement, Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield asserted “EPA’s actions in the state of Texas reflect an overreach of federal authority.”

AIR POLLUTION: EPA PROPOSES EMISSIONS RULES FOR POWER PLANTS

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 16, proposed the first national standards for emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants from coal-burning power plants. The proposed rules would limit the amount of toxic pollution that can be released into the air for every unit of electricity that is generated. In total, the plan would reduce mercury and acid gas emissions from the U.S. power sector by 91 percent while cutting soot-forming sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution by 53 percent, according to the agency.

The reductions are intended to protect vulnerable Americans from asthma, developmental disorders and other health problems, according to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Jackson’s announcement included the endorsement of the American Lung Association and other prominent health officials to underscore the agency’s assertions that the proposed rules are intended to protect the public health.

FWS: SETTLEMENT REACHED ON GRAY WOLF DELISTING

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it has reached a settlement with the Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and eight other conservation organizations to temporarily remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho. The settlement provides for the continuation of recovery efforts throughout the rest of the Rocky Mountains region.

Under the settlement, FWS has agreed to address the delisting of wolves in the region as a distinct population segment, rather than on a state-by-state basis. Interior would maintain federal protections for wolves in portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah where they were removed as part of the disputed 2009 delisting. FWS intends to address the longer term status of wolves in Oregon, Washington, and Utah when it issues a new rule addressing status of wolves across the Northern Rocky Mountain region.

The proposed settlement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, whose August 2009 decision returned ESA protections to wolves on the grounds that they could not be delisted in Montana and Idaho if they were not also being delisted in Wyoming. The parties requested that the court allow the 2009 delisting to be reinstated in Montana and Idaho on an interim basis, in accordance with approved state management plans, until a full delisting can be completed for the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.

The settlement would also be terminated if Congress enacts its own wolf delisting language. House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID), who inserted language in the House’s continuing resolution to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana and prohibit legal challenges, warned that continued efforts to force species protections through the courts would only intensify legislative efforts on Capitol Hill.

Separate negotiations are ongoing between FWS and the state of Wyoming in an effort to reach agreement on a management plan for wolves in that state. A separate Nov. 2010 federal court decision ordered FWS to come up with a “meaningful” scientific explanation for why Wyoming’s management plan would not maintain a minimum of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves. FWS and environmental groups have criticized the Wyoming plan for allowing wolves to be shot on sight in most parts of the state, rather than be treated as trophy game under managed hunts.

Read more on the settlement or read the full Policy News.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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