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Nuclear industry pushing for fewer inspections at plants

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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The nuclear power industry is pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cut back on inspections at nuclear power plants and throttle back what it tells the public about plant problems. The agency, whose board is dominated by Trump appointees, is listening.

Commission staffers are weighing some of the industry’s requests as part of a sweeping review of how the agency enforces regulations governing the country’s 98 commercially operating nuclear plants. Recommendations are due to the five-member NRC board in June.

Annie Caputo, a former nuclear-energy lobbyist now serving as one of four board members appointed or reappointed by President Donald Trump, told an industry meeting this week that she was “open to self-assessments” by nuclear plant operators, who are proposing that self-reporting by operators take the place of some NRC inspections.

The Trump NRC appointees and industry representatives say changes in oversight are warranted to reflect the industry’s overall improved safety records and its financial difficulties, as the operating costs of the country’s aging nuclear plants increase and affordable natural gas and solar and wind power gain in the energy market.

But the prospect of the Trump administration’s regulation-cutting mission reaching the NRC alarms some independent industry watchdogs, who say the words “nuclear safety” and “deregulation” don’t go together.

For example, “the deregulatory agenda at SEC is a significant concern as well, but it’s not a nuclear power plant,” said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney for nuclear issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the federal government’s Securities Exchange Commission.

“For an industry that is increasingly under financial decline … to take regulatory authority away from the NRC puts us on a collision course,” said Paul Gunter, of the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear. With what? “With a nuclear accident,” Gunter said.

The industry made its requests for change in a letter delivered by the Nuclear Energy Institute group. A “high-priority” ask is to eliminate press releases about lower-level safety issues at plants — meaning the kind of problems that could trigger more inspections and oversight at a plant but not constitute an emergency.

The industry group also asked that the NRC reduce the “burden of radiation-protection and emergency-preparedness inspections.”

Nuclear plant operators amplified their requests at an annual meeting in the Washington, D.C, area this week.

Scaling back disclosure of lower-level problems at plants is “more responsible … than to put out a headline on the webpage to the world,” said Greg Halnon, vice president of regulatory affairs for Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., which says its fleet of nuclear and other power plants supplies 6 million customers in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

When the NRC makes public the problems found at a plant, utilities get “pretty rapid calls from the press, SEC filings get impacted because of potential financial impact,” Halnon said.

Requests by utilities for rate increases also can be affected, Halnon said.

Trump has said he wants to help both the coal and nuclear power industries. So far, it’s the more politically influential coal industry that’s gotten significant action on the regulatory rollbacks that it sought from the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

In January, Trump appointees to the NRC disappointed environmental groups by voting down a staff proposal that nuclear plants be required to substantially — and expensively — harden themselves against major floods and other natural disasters. The proposal was meant to be a main NRC response to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster after Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Caputo, who previously worked for nuclear plant operator Exelon Corp, told operators this week her aim was “risk-informed decision-making,” concentrating regulatory oversight on high-risk problems.

“We shouldn’t regulate to zero risk,” said David Wright, a former South Carolina public-utility commissioner appointed to the NRC board last year.

“The NRC mission is reasonable assurance of adequate protection — no more, no less,” Wright said.

Tony Vegel, a Texas-based reactor safety official for the NRC, pushed back when industry executives publicly made their case for fewer NRC inspections.

“It’s difficult to come across as an independent regulator and rely on self-assessment” from plants, Vegel said.

The current review, commissioned by the new NRC panel, was looking at the inspections issues and related ones, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. Commissioners will decide after receiving the staff recommendations whether to adopt any of them, Burnell said.

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Senate votes to end Trump national emergency, as 12 Republicans join in rebuke

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By Allan Smith and Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 59-41 on Thursday to cancel President Donald Trump’s national security declaration to fund a wall on the border, as 12 Republicans joined Democrats in an unusual rebuke of the president.

Trump has vowed to veto the measure, which would block him from making an end run around Congress to obtain billions of federal dollars that have been set aside for other purposes to build the wall he has promised along the border with Mexico.

The vote could play a role in coming lawsuits challenging the emergency declaration. Before the vote, nine Republican senators said they would support the measure: Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mike Lee of Utah, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine.

The number of GOP defections grew when the final votes were tallied to include Marco Rubio of Florida, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Moran and Alexander have announced that they don’t plan to seek re-election next year, while Collins is up for re-election in 2020.

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conceded last week that the resolution would clear the 51-vote threshold needed to pass.

After the measure passed, Trump tweeted simply:



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BREXIT LIVE: Leavers and Remainers CLASH on Nigel Farage Brexit BETRAYAL march

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REMAINERS have clashed with Leave voters as Nigel Farage’s Brexit betrayal march on London got underway.

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10 things about Beto O’Rourke

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By Dareh Gregorian

Beto O’Rourke formally threw his hat in the ring for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination Thursday. Here’s some things you might not know about the native Texan:

1. MET WIFE ON A BLIND DATE

O’Rourke met then-teacher Amy Hoover Sanders on a blind date in El Paso after being set up by friends. He took her across the border into Juarez, Mexico, for drinks. “It was a little bit of a test, to see if she was up for an adventure,” he told the Washington Post in 2017. They got married 10 months later.

2. WORKED AS A NANNY

After graduating from Columbia University, O’Rourke reportedly worked for a few months as a live-in nanny for a family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He took several other temporary gigs, including as an art mover for a company called Hedley’s Humpers. He later returned to El Paso, where he started his own media company called Stanton Street. It helped build and maintain websites, and published an alt-weekly style paper.

3. POLITICS IN THE FAMILY

O’Rourke’s father, Pat O’Rourke, was the El Paso county commissioner from 1978 to 1982 and a county judge from 1982 to 1986. The dad also worked on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988.

4. WON SOME ELECTIONS

While he’s best known for losing his Senate race campaign against incumbent Ted Cruz in 2018, O’Rourke had been 5-0 in elections before that. He was elected to the El Paso City Council in 2005, defeating a two-term incumbent, and was later re-elected. He first ran for Congress in 2012, and reportedly knocked on 16,000 doors to defeat an eight-term incumbent in the Democratic primary. He served three terms before launching his Senate bid, where he was defeated by heavy favorite Cruz by a margin of 50.9 percent to 48.3 percent.

5. A ‘PUNK’ KID

O’Rourke has said he got into punk music in eighth grade thanks to the classic Clash album “London Calling.” He and three pals formed a band called Foss, and put out a record called “The El Paso Pussycats” in 1993. O’Rourke played bass.

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