E2 Round-up: A push to bolster mine safety regulations, climate talks grind on, a big power sector deal, and fears about uranium enrichment

Overall, the story concludes that MSHA, despite a new mine safety law passed several years ago, “remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and it does not always use the powers it has.”

* The latest UN climate talks end amid lowered expectations and an emphasis on incremental steps.

The latest discussions underscored the low odds of a global treaty by the end of the year. Outgoing UN climate chief Yvo de Boer tells Reuters that the focus should instead be on practical steps to aid the poor and save forests.

Here’s what he predicts is possible at the next big ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico late this year: “I think that Cancun can agree an operational architecture but turning that into a treaty, if that is the decision, will take more time beyond Mexico. I think that we will have many more rounds of climate change negotiations before the ultimate solution is arrived at.”

The Associated Press notes that “After the letdown of Copenhagen, delegates and officials appeared determine to dampen expectations of a final deal this year, and said negotiations are almost certain to stretch past the next major conference in Cancun, Mexico, in December.”

* A big electricity sector merger is afoot as Mirant Corp., RRI Energy Inc. join forces.

The $1.6 billion stock transaction announced Sunday will create a new company – GenOn Energy – with a combined 24,700 megawatts of generating capacity, making it one of the nation’s largest independent power producers.

The deal is aimed at cutting costs and taking advantage of an expected recovery in power prices, Bloomberg reports.

From their piece: “Utilities are under pressure to consolidate after the recession reduced electricity demand, eroding profit for companies such as Mirant and RRI. Demand has begun to recover while earnings remain low, making the timing right for acquisitions, said Gregory Phelps, who manages $3.8 billion at MFC Financial Corp. in Boston.”

The Wall Street Journal unwraps the transaction here.

* An emerging uranium enrichment technology is prompting security fears.

With the major nuclear security summit in Washington getting underway, National Public Radio reports on fears about an emerging uranium enrichment method that doesn’t require big centrifuge projects.

The use of lasers to separate out uranium isotopes is meant for making power plant fuel. But it could pose security risks by enabling clandestine operations that are harder to spot than big centrifuge plants, Georgetown University physicist Francis Slakey tells NPR.

“That's the worry — things are starting to get so small and so efficient that it's below the detection limit,” Slakey said. “Which creates an enormous proliferation challenge.” General Electric-Hitachi want to build a laser enrichment plant in the U.S., but Slakey argues that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – which would license the plant – should consider scuttling the technology based on proliferation risks.

“GE-Hitachi declined interview requests for this story, but in e-mailed comments, the company said the NRC should not judge proliferation risks as part of its licensing process. The company says it already has the go-ahead from other federal agencies that deal with proliferation,” NPR reports.