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U.S. Nuclear Safety Lacking, Watchdog Says
WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2006 (ENS) - U.S. regulators are failing to adequately monitor safety at the nation's nuclear power plants, according to a report released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The report shows that severe problems have caused U.S. nuclear reactors to shut down 31 times for a year or longer.
More than 70 percent of those outages were caused by programmatic breakdowns that led to cumulative, systemic degradation of reactor components, UCS said. In essence, the report finds, plant owners failed to find and fix problems that subsequently caused safety margins to deteriorate to levels so low that reactor operations could not continue.
The study finds that the year-plus outages resulting from this poor management and ineffective regulatory oversight have cost ratepayers and stockholders nearly $82 billion in lost revenue.
"Nuclear power is clearly not safe enough when so many reactors have to be shut down for a year or more," said David Lochbaum, author of the new report and director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission tolerated unsafe conditions until they became too serious to ignore. Regulators must address the safety problems in the current generation of nuclear plants before allowing utilities to build new ones."
The nation's 103 commercial nuclear reactors currently produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Industry advocates have begun a campaign to increase nuclear power as a way to combat global warming and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign sources of energy.
The UCS report is the first study to analyze every U.S. nuclear power outage lasting a year or longer.
According to the study, 36 of the 51 year-plus outages were caused by "excessive tolerance" by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of plant owners who did not identify problems early enough or address them effectively.
Twenty-two percent were necessitated by the replacement and repair of large components, while eight percent were the result of events that caused extensive damage to the plants.
"A one-in-three chance of incurring a year-plus outage was not supposed to be part of the bargain when these plants were built and licensed," said Lochbaum. "Some proponents of nuclear power have justified all these safety problems by arguing that no U.S. nuclear plant has experienced a meltdown since 1979. That's as fallacious as arguing that the levees protecting New Orleans were fully adequate prior to Hurricane Katrina by pointing to the absence of similar disasters between 1980 and 2004."
The report includes six recommendations to protect public safety, including a call for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to follow federal regulations to identify and fix problems in a timely manner.
Pork Producers Settle Clean Water Contamination CasesWASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. government has reached two settlements with pork producers resolving allegations the companies contaminated groundwater and surface waters near several of their facilities.
The government's complaints against Seaboard Foods LP and PIC USA Inc. include alleged contamination of ground water near five farms in Oklahoma as well as failure to properly investigate or remediate the source of the contamination, in violation of an EPA Order issued under the federal hazardous waste statute, known as the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act.
Seaboard Foods is one of the nation's largest vertically integrated producers and owns more than 200 farms in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado. PIC USA is the former owner and operator of several of the farms located in Oklahoma now operated by Seaboard.
"This settlement represents a significant effort to address the impacts of animal waste handling practices and to bring operations into compliance with all applicable environmental regulations," said Granta Nakayama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for enforcement.
One settlement calls on Seaboard Foods and PIC USA, Inc. to pay a civil penalty of $240,000 for violations of the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act.
In the second settlement, Seaboard will pay a civil penalty of $205,000 for failure to comply with the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and for failure to comply with the continuous release reporting requirements of Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.
Payment of a $100,000 civil penalty by Seaboard in a separate Air Compliance Agreement with the EPA will be credited toward this amount.
The companies have also agreed to clean and close leaking lagoons, implement measures to ensure any future leaking pipes or lagoons are identified and addressed promptly, and take steps to ensure that the area ground water is cleaned up.
In addition, both companies have agreed that when manure is used for crop fertilization purposes, it will be applied at appropriate rates, so to prevent future soil or ground water contamination.
As part of a separate settlement, Seaboard Foods will be required to implement various erosion control measures at 16 farms to prevent any future runoff of soils and sediments to nearby rivers or streams, and to establish protective buffer zones around sensitive wetland areas at 17 of its farms.
Interior Department Approves $29 Million for Wetlands ConservationWASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2006 (ENS) - The federal government has approved $28.9 million to fund 30 conservation projects aimed at restoring wetlands and preserving habitat for migratory birds. The money was allocated by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.
First enacted in 1989, the law is considered by many to be one of the nation's most popular and effective conservation programs.
The latest round of funding will fuel projects in 17 U.S. states and 12 Canadian provinces. Partners in the 26 U.S. projects will add some $130 million, including more than $55 million in obligated match, to restore more than 209,000 acres of wetlands and associated uplands.
Partners in four Canadian projects will add more than $7.5 million to improve more than 24,000 acres of habitat.
The grants are financed by Congressional appropriations, fines, penalties and forfeitures under the Migratory Bird Treat Act, interest accrued to the a federal wildlife restoration law and excise taxes paid on small engine fuels.
"This is a marvelous example of how the public and private sectors can and do work together to maintain and expand outdoor opportunities for Americans," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. "Acre-by-acre, public and private partners are restoring wetlands across the nation. Wetlands provide excellent habitat for wildlife and provide millions of Americans with a range of outdoor recreational opportunities."
Some 3,150 partners have been involved in nearly 1,800 wetlands conservation projects throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico since 1990.
Partners in all three countries focus on long-term protection, restoration, or enhancement of critical habitats.
More than $742 million in grants have been invested in the three countries, and partner contributions have topped $2 billion.
Nearly 23 million acres of wetlands and associated uplands across the continent have been positively affected as a result of the program.
The Commission also earmarked more than $6.5 million and approved the acquisition of fee title and conservation easements for 4,253 additional acres of habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
New Jersey Ratepayers Stop Big Utility MergerTRENTON, New Jersey, September 18, 2006 (ENS) - After two years of public hearings, litigation, testimony and negotiations and more than 11,500 letters, phone calls and emails to state decision makers, New Jersey consumers avoided higher electricity rates when Exelon walked away from its takeover bid to buy-out Public Service Enterprise Group, PSEG, a publicly traded energy and energy services company headquartered in New Jersey.
Critics of the merger said it would have raised rates in New Jersey by as much as $2.3 billion a year, reduced reliability and quality of service, and risked public safety, according to critics of the merger.
A diverse coalition of residential, consumer and industrial utility ratepayers joined to oppose the companies' proposed marriage.
New Jersey Citizen Action, NJPIRG, Public Citizen, the New Jersey Large Energy Users Coalition, the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, the New Jersey Tenants Organization, the Service Employees International Union, New Jersey State Council, the Sierra Club of New Jersey and others worked to educate the public and decision makers about the damage to the state economy if such a monopoly were to be created.
"New Jersey ratepayers struggling with high energy costs have a huge weight lifted off their shoulders today," said Suzanne Leta, energy advocate for New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. "This deal would have created an energy giant large and powerful enough to dictate electric rates with the potential to cost every ratepayer in the state hundreds of dollars more a year."
In December 2004, Exelon filed its proposal to take over PSEG with the federal and state regulators. It was approved by federal agencies, but the states' Board of Public Utilities (BPU) issued a standard of review aimed at protecting consumers. The board required the company to show the merger would provide positive benefits to the state in terms of rates, competition, employees and service.
During the fall and winter of 2005, the agency conducted a series of public hearings and joined the New Jersey Public Advocate, NJPIRG, the New Jersey Large Energy Users Coalition and others in filing testimony before Judge McGill detailing the harms the merger would bring to the state. This spring, Public Advocate Ron Chen urged Judge McGill to reject the proposal.
In May, members of the coalition worked to build support for a state legislative resolution calling on the BPU to reject the deal. Assemblyman Joseph Cryan led the effort, and by the end of June, a bi-partisan majority of the state assembly and 10 state senators had signed on as co-sponsors.
"We in New Jersey should be very proud that unlike any other state regulator or the federal agencies in Washington, who proved to be more interested in protecting corporate interests instead of consumer interests, we took a firm stand against the exercise of market power and anti-competitive prices," said Ev Liebman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action.
The discussions made clear that gaps separating the parties' positions are insurmountable, Exelon and PSEG said in a statement, and the executives of both companies said they were "disappointed" that agreement could not be reached. Major differences included issues relating to rate concessions and market power mitigation.
The merger is part of a trend towards utility consolidation across the country and within New Jersey. PSEG is the state's only remaining electric and gas utility that has not already been bought out by an out-of-state company.
D.C. Triathlon Sunk by Polluted Water
WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2006 (ENS) - Saturday's triathlon in the nation's capital was a triathlon in name only as racers were forbidden from swimming in the Potomac River because of health concerns.
Last week D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey denied a request to allow the swim to go ahead, citing concerns raised by the D.C. Department of the Environment about water quality. The department sounded warnings about levels of fecal matter in the river, which often registers far above safe levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials with the Nation's Triathlon said they provided water quality tests starting in late July that found the water was safe for swimming. But recent heavy rains in the nation's capital and the surrounding metropolitan area have sent sewer overflows laden with human wastes into the river.
Traditional triathlons feature a swim, a bike ride and a run - organizers replaced the planned 1-kilometer swim in the Potomac with an additional run.
Organizers said the process for testing the water for the specific purpose of conducting a swim event has "never been well identified" and "there is no precedent for permitting swimming for a triathlon."
The event was the first triathlon in Washington, D.C. Organizers said they are already planning next year's event and are confident they'll be able to get the required permit for the swim portion of the event.
The Potomac River has long had pollution concerns. Maryland, Virginia and Washington all have consumption advisories for fish in the Potomac.
Earlier this month scientists reported bass fish with both male and female characteristics in the Potomac, a finding that has raised concern about waterborne contaminants in the river.
New Technique Could Improve Beach WarningsNEW YORK, New York, September 18, 2006 (ENS) - A new monitoring technique could help public health officials know instantly when pollution has entered the coastal ocean, researchers announced Monday. The new technique could help enable authorities to post warnings or close beaches in minutes rather than days, said scientists with the University of California at Irvine.
"If we could use this knowledge to build a next-generation pollution warning system, bathers could know quicker when pollution moves into the surf zone," said Stanley Grant, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of California at Irvine. "The economic and personal benefits would be enormous. The public could go to the ocean and have fun and not get sick the next day."
Decisions to post a warning or close a beach are currently made one to three days after a sample is collected. Bathing in polluted ocean water can cause gastrointestinal disease, diarrhea, vomiting, and eye and ear infections.
"This would be fine if you were testing water that sits in a tub, but ocean currents are highly dynamic, and water quality varies hour by hour and minute to minute," Grant said.
Coastal ocean observing systems - devices that use technology to sense environmental conditions - collect large amounts of data such as temperature, salinity and water level. The data is streamed in near real-time via the Internet for scientists and coastal managers to process and interpret.
These sensors cannot measure bacteria levels that officials use to determine whether surf-zone water is safe for bathing, but the found that fluctuations in the sensor data correlate with changes in water quality as soon as they occur. This type of analysis may lead to detection methods that are far faster than the current method of physically collecting water and testing it in a lab.
"This information could, in concert with traditional monitoring data and new ocean observing systems, eventually result in the creation of an up-to-the-minute water-quality report accessible by the public on the Internet," Grant explained.
The research appears in the current online issue of "Environmental Science and Technology."