OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Feds set to approve first new nuke reactors in decades

State of play: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is set to approve the construction of two nuclear reactors at Southern Co.’s Vogtle power plant in Georgia.

The approval, expected Thursday, would mark the first time that the commission has authorized construction of a new nuclear reactor since 1978.

ADVERTISEMENT
Industry and anti-nuclear groups expect the commission to approve the license, a move that would allow construction of the reactors and conditionally authorize their operation.

The commission is slated to vote at noon Thursday on whether Southern’s application and the NRC’s staff’s safety and environmental reviews of the project meet requirements set out under the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

If the commission votes in the affirmative, NRC staff will issue the license in the coming days, according to NRC.

Approval of the license would pave the way for finalizing an $8.3 billion conditional loan guarantee issued by the Energy Department in 2010 for construction of Vogtle reactors.


Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke cautiously Wednesday when asked if the NRC’s expected decision will prompt the department to finalize the loan guarantee.

“I would have to look at the details of the contract,” Chu said.

But he praised NRC’s expected approval of the license. “That is certainly good news in the sense that I do think nuclear power should be a part of our energy mix in this century.”

Not everybody is happy about the anticipated approval.

Nine groups critical of nuclear power — including Friends of the Earth and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy — said Wednesday that they intend to file a lawsuit challenging the decision.

The groups argue that the commission should conduct a new environmental analysis of the Vogtle project that takes into account the lessons of last year’s nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a vocal critic of nuclear power, echoed the group’s concerns Wednesday.

Markey called on the Energy Department to hold off on the Vogtle loan guarantee.

“I think we are putting our taxpayer money at unnecessary risk given the unresolved safety issues and the lessons that have been learned from Fukushima,” he told The Hill.


NEWS BITES:

White House loan guarantee report coming soon

The White House is expected to unveil a post-Solyndra review of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program by the end of the week.

Herb Allison, a former Treasury Department official who oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), conducted the review and delivered his report to the White House late last month.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu defended the loan guarantee program Wednesday ahead of the report’s release.

Read more here.

State Department IG report on Keystone imminent

The State Department’s inspector general (IG) is expected to unveil a report as soon as Thursday on the department’s review of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Sources tracking the issue say the report is expected this week, and one informed Capitol Hill aide said Thursday’s the day. The State Department IG’s office did not provide comment Wednesday afternoon.

The IG announced the probe last November following complaints by some lawmakers and environmental groups, who called State’s review of the proposed Alberta-to-Texas pipeline biased in favor of developer TransCanada Corp.

Plenty has happened on the Keystone front since the IG probe was disclosed.

Later in November the Obama administration delayed a decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 elections. But then December's payroll tax cut package included a GOP provision that set a Feb. 21 deadline for a permit decision, and President Obama, alleging the GOP deadline would short-circuit review, rejected the pipeline in January.

The administration has invited TransCanada to reapply.

Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing new bills that would require approval of the project, which provides them a political rallying point even though the measures are extremely unlikely to clear the Senate, much less win Obama’s signature.

House Dems criticize Interior’s Arctic oil-leasing plan

More than 60 House Democrats are unhappy with the Interior Department’s decision to sell oil-and-gas leases in Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast in coming years.

The department’s broader 2012-2017 plan calls for lease sales there in 2015 and 2016, drawing the ire of Democrats who say there’s no way to adequately respond to a spill in the unforgiving region.

Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), David Price (D-N.C.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) led a letter to Interior Wednesday from 64 Democrats. Here’s a blurb:

The Arctic Ocean is at best a challenging climate for offshore drilling. At worst, the Arctic is a place with harsh weather conditions, sub-zero temperatures and long periods of darkness. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away from areas under consideration for leasing. Spill response capacity is simply nonexistent in these remote, icy waters.

The letter calls for a “series of strategies” that should be in place before the Arctic lease sales are included in the five-year plan. For instance, they note that “DOI must prioritize protections for important ecological and subsistence use areas based on adequate science that ensures the Arctic Ocean and its wildlife and people are protected.”

Interior has said the Arctic sales are in the latter years of the plan to allow time for further analysis of environmental and infrastructure needs in the fragile Arctic seas.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT...

Here's a quick roundup of Wednesday's E2 stories:

— Religious right bashes green evangelicals for supporting EPA rules
— Judicial Watch sues Energy Dept. for documents related to $529M Fisker loan
— Energy Secretary Chu defends loan program as White House report looms

Please send tips and comments to Ben Geman, ben.geman@thehill.com, and Andrew Restuccia, arestuccia@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @E2Wire, @AndrewRestuccia, @Ben_Geman