AmeriScan: March 27, 2007

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Report Downplays Yucca Mountain Email Scandal

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - Government employees who discussed falsifying water reports in emails about their work at Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository did not actually falsify the reports, according to a report issued today by the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, OCRWM.

Three employees of the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, were involved in the computer modeling of water infiltration at Yucca Mountain between 1998 and 2004.

While the Root Cause Analysis Team "found no evidence that information associated with the USGS work was falsified or modified as suggested in the emails, certain of the infiltration modeling products on which these employees worked did not meet OCRWM's traceability and transparency requirements," the report said.

The team found that "corrective actions to address issues associated with the infiltration products were not always effective."

The report identifies as the root cause of these conditions "a failure by OCRWM senior management to establish and hold the OCRWM organization accountable for meeting quality expectations with regard to the USGS infiltration products."

Joseph Hevesi is the primary author of the emails that appear to indicate the data used in scientific studies at the Yucca Mountain Project was falsified. Hevesi denies having falsified any Yucca Mountain documents, and last April a report by Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman did not recommend criminal prosecutions.

One incriminating email from Hevesi, dated 3/30/2000, reads, "The programs, of course, are all already installed otherwise the ___ would not exist. I don't have a clue when these programs were installed. So I've made up the dates and names (see red edits below). This is as good as its going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff, as long as its not a video recording of the software being installed."

Although Hevesi and the two other USGS workers whose names appeared on suspect emails, Alan Flint and Lorraine Flint, are now said not to have falsified the, Nevada Senator Harry Reid is not reassured. He and the entire Nevada Congressional delegation believe the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear dump is unsafe and scientifically unsound.

Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, said today, "The Energy Department said it hopes this report puts the USGS email scandal to rest. Far from it. This report only highlights the fact that senior managers of the Yucca Mountain project were out of touch and failed to do their jobs. This is unacceptable when you consider the fact that we are talking about 77,000 tons of the most dangerous substance known to man."

"This is only one area of the Yucca Mountain project," said Reid. "One only has to wonder what else may have slipped through the cracks as a result of the DOE's admitted lack of leadership. If the Energy Department thought this report would make people feel better about Yucca Mountain, it is sorely mistaken."

The Root Cause Analysis report includes recommendations to ensure that USGS infiltration work conforms to OCRWM's quality assurance requirements, and also to improve OCRWM management processes. The report also includes a Corrective Action Plan to address the recommendations.

"We have developed an aggressive action plan to make necessary improvements, including enhancing the nuclear culture and improving line management ownership and implementation of quality," said OCRW Director MWard Sproat. "We are asking nuclear industry experts to provide insight into industry best practices and recommendations for implementation."

OCRWM also issued a technical impacts report in February 2006, and Sandia National Laboratories is now working to verify or replace the infiltration modeling work done by USGS.

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Early Site Permit Issued for Nuclear Plant in Mississippi

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, today unanimously authorized its Office of New Reactors to issue an Early Site Permit to System Energy Resources Inc. for the Grand Gulf site near Port Gibson, Mississippi.

System Energy Resources is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Entergy Corporation, the second-largest nuclear generator in the United States.

The staff has 10 business days to carry out the commission's directions and issue the permit, the second Early Site Permit, ESP, the commission has approved.

Earlier this month, the NRC approved the first ESP for the Exelon Generation Company's Clinton site, in central Illinois.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said, "We're seeing a lot of momentum in the nuclear world. While promoting nuclear energy is good policy for government, it can also be good business. NRC approval of two Early Site Permits in just one month represents a major accomplishment in the Bush administration's effort to improve the nuclear regulatory processes while still demonstrating its effectiveness."

The Early Site Permit process is new. It is intended to resolve site-related safety and environmental issues, and determines whether or not a proposed site is suitable for possible future construction and operation of a nuclear power plant.

The permit will be valid for up to 20 years. During that time, System Energy Resources Inc. - or any other potential applicant interested in the site - must still seek NRC approval for a Combined License to build one or more nuclear plants on the site before any construction can occur.

The NRC staff's technical review of the Grand Gulf ESP application covered issues such as how the site's characteristics affect plant safety, environmental protection, and plans for coping with emergencies.

The staff published a final safety evaluation and a final environmental impact statement for the Grand Gulf ESP in April 2006. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board conducted a hearing on the matter and ruled January 26 that the permit could be issued.

The NRC continues to work on two other Early Site Permit applications - in Virginia and the other in Georgia.

The United States generates about 20 percent of its electricity from 103 existing nuclear power plants. No new nuclear power plant has been commissioned in the United States for over 30 years.

Critics of nuclear power say nuclear plants would not be needed if sufficient energy efficiency measures were in place. They point to problems with waste disposal, as the United States still has no long-term geologic repository for high level radioactive waste, and the possibility of a catastrophic terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant.

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Five Ethanol Conversion Projects to Get $23 Million

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - The Energy Department has decided to spend over $23 million for five projects focused on developing efficient fermentative organisms to convert biomass material to ethanol. Combined with the industry cost share, more than $37 million could be invested in these five projects.

Two of America's largest corporations - Cargill and E.I. Dupont de Nemours - have been selected to share in the federal funding.

The research is intended to further the Bush's administration's goals of making cellulosic ethanol cost competitive by 2012 and reducing America's gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.

Cellulosic ethanol uses as feedstocks agricultural wastes such as corn stover and cereal straws, industrial plant waste like sawdust and paper pulp, and energy crops grown specifically for fuel production like switchgrass.

Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Alexander Karsner said, "Ultimately, success in producing cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol could be a key to breaking our nation's addiction to oil."

Projects were selected for the organism's capacity to convert lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol in conditions that would be economical in the commercial market.

The fermentative organisms must be able to survive a wide range of environmental conditions and remain stable from adverse mutation. Selectees must have the ability to produce at commercial scale in the future and have a sound business strategy to market the organisms.

Negotiations between the selected companies and the DOE will begin immediately to determine final project plans and funding levels. Funding will begin this fiscal year and run through FY 2010, subject to congressional appropriations.

Though it requires a more complex refining process, cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and results in lower greenhouse emissions than traditional corn-based ethanol, Karsner said.

E-85, an ethanol-fuel blend comprised of 85-percent ethanol, is already available in more than 1,000 fueling stations nationwide and can power the some six million flexible fuel vehicles already on U.S. roads.

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New Bush Plan Would Kill Endangered Species Act

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Interior Department is preparing a set of regulations which undercut the Endangered Species Act, according to internal documents released today by a national association of government employees in natural resources agencies and an conservation group.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, and the Center for Biological Diversity say the new regulations would remove recovery of a species or population as a protection standard.

The draft regulations are being circulated for final inter-agency review and are expected to be formally unveiled later this spring.

They would allow projects to proceed that have been determined to threaten species with extinction and would permit destruction of all restored habitat within critical habitat areas.

The new regulations would limit the listing of new endangered species and prevent critical habitat areas from being used to protect against disturbance, pesticides, exotic species, and disease.

Finally, the regulations would transfer most of the authority from the federal government to the states. They would empower states to veto endangered species introductions as well as administer virtually all aspects of the Endangered Species Act within their borders.

"These draft regulations slash the Endangered Species Act from head to toe," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona.

"They undermine every aspect of law recovery, listing, preventing extinction, critical habitat, federal oversight and habitat conservation plans all of it is gutted," Suckling said.

"Kicking responsibility for endangered species protection to the states will make it nearly impossible to restore national oversight when states fail to protect endangered species," said Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an ecologist who has worked for years on staff at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"State biologists will be under enormous political pressure to accommodate development interests while lacking, in many cases, even rudimentary legal protection to defend scientific concerns about species survival," Patterson said.

"Although states are key conservation partners, the reason we have a national act is that leaving species protection to the states was a recipe for extinctions," Patterson said.

Following the collapse of former U.S. Representative Richard Pombo's efforts to undercut the Endangered Species Act in 2006, the Bush administration has decided to use administrative rulemaking to accomplish some of the same objectives.

"If these regulations had been in place 30 years ago, the bald eagle, grizzly bear, and gray wolf would never have been listed as endangered species and the peregrine falcon, black-footed ferret, and California condor would never have been reintroduced to new states," said Suckling.

"This plan makes recovery all but impossible for most endangered species," he said. "Simply stated, it is the worst attack on the Endangered Species Act in the past 35 years."

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Supreme Court to Decide if Endangered Species Act Trumps Other Laws

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - The federal government cannot avoid its responsibility to safeguard species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act by handing off authority to the states. This is the main message of a friend of the court brief filed by Earthjustice and the National Wildlife Federation at the U.S. Supreme Court today.

The Supreme Court is considering two consolidated cases in which Defenders of Wildlife argued successfully that, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, delegates administration of the Clean Water Act to a state - as it does, routinely and legally - it must ensure that the state does not issue permits that violate the federal Endangered Species Act.

The government argues that the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act are in conflict and that, therefore, the EPA has no obligation to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

The two cases involve the National Association of Home Builders and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, vs Defenders of Wildlife.

In one instance at issue in the case, Arizona issued permits that appear to have negative impacts on several protected species that live near and depend on the San Pedro River in the southern part of the state.

The EPA issues permits under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. The state of Arizona asked EPA to turn the permit issuing authority over to the state, and EPA did so after consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service's position was that turning authority over to Arizona would have a negative impact on protection of endangered or threatened species, but that the EPA was required to do so anyhow.

The Endangered Species Act says that each federal agency "shall, in consultation with [the Fish and Wildlife Service], insure that any action authorized, funded or carried out by such agency ... is not likely to jeopardize" endangered or threatened species, or their critical habitat."

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the transfer was invalid because EPA had a statutory duty to take into account the risk of harm to endangered species when it decides to turn over the permit process to a state.

The National Association of Home Builders' case addresses whether a section of the Endangered Species Act which requires each federal agency to insure that its actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or modify its critical habitat, overrides statutory mandates or constraints placed on an agency's discretion by other acts of Congress.

"It's simply common sense," said Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice, coauthor of the friend of the court brief. "Protecting listed species includes protecting their habitat and their water supply. Allowing states to ignore the Endangered Species Act flies in the face of reason."

Earthjustice represents the American Fisheries Society, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Trout, Federation of Fly Fishers, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Miami Beach Rod & Reel Club, Native Fish Society, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Alliance, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Trout Unlimited, and Washington Fly Fishing Club.

In April, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the consolidated cases.

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Salamanders Suffer Delayed Effects Of Common Herbicide

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - Pollution from the common herbicide atrazine is causing die-offs in stream salamanders, according to biologists who say findings from their long-term study raise concerns over the role of the chemical in global amphibian declines.

Even extremely low concentrations of the chemical may be deadly to amphibians in the long run, the scientists say.

"We are concerned that most studies used to make pesticide registration decisions and to derive safe concentrations last for about four days," said Jason Rohr, research associate at the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. "They often do not consider recovery processes, persistent effects of chemical exposure, or interactions among individuals within and between species that can affect our estimates of safe chemical concentrations."

Atrazine is one of the most widely used pesticides in the United States, and around the world. It is relatively long-lived and is even found at the North and South poles.

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine is one of the most common contaminants in ground and surface water.

Rohr and his colleagues Brent Palmer, associate professor, and doctoral candidates Tyler Sager and Timothy Sesterhenn, all at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, exposed streamside salamander larvae to either four, 40, or 400 parts per billion of atrazine until metamorphosis, the stage where the water-dwelling salamanders lose their gills and develop lungs that enable them to breathe in air. Scientists then tracked their survival to near reproductive age.

Results from the study, which lasted about 500 days, indicated that the two highest concentrations increased salamander mortality during exposure, as expected.

But persistent effects of atrazine continued to cause mortality long after exposure ceased, said researchers. The net effect of atrazine exposure was even worse later in life than it was while the animals were being exposed.

"The biggest surprise was that it took nearly a year to detect the effects of atrazine at four parts per billion, which is just one part per billion above the maximum allowable level in drinking water set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency," said Rohr, who presented his findings at a recent workshop organized by the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Louis, Missouri.

"What this tells me is that we need to consider the long-term effects of chemicals, and that exposure to atrazine during formative stages might have permanent effects on these salamanders that increases their risk of mortality," Rohr said.

Findings from Rohr's study, which was funded by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Kentucky Academy of Sciences, could have implications for global amphibian declines.

"Salamanders, and amphibians in general, are crucial to ecosystems, as both predators and prey," explained Rohr. "They can be seen as bioindicators of environmental stress and harbingers of risk to other animals as well as humans."