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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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Bank CEO Stephen Calk charged with soliciting Manafort for Trump admin job

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By Tom Winter, Joe Valiquette and Adiel Kaplan

Bank CEO Stephen Calk tried to exchange $16 million in loans to Paul Manafort for a top position within the Trump administration, according to an indictment against the banking executive unsealed Thursday.

Calk, the president of the Federal Savings Bank, approved millions in “high-risk loans in an effort to secure a personal benefit, namely to an appointment as Secretary of the Army, or another similar high-level position in the incoming presidential administration,” said Deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss of the Southern District of New York.

Stephen CalkThe Federal Savings Bank

Federal investigators were probing last year whether Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, promised Calk a job in the White House in return for $16 million in home loans, NBC News first reported in February 2018.

Calk, who surrendered to the FBI Thursday morning, allegedly approved multiple high-risk loans for Manafort, who urgently needed them to avoid foreclosure. While the loans were pending approval, Calk allegedly provided Manafort with a ranked list of positions he desired. At its head were the two top positions at the U.S. Treasury, followed by Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Defense. The list also included 19 high-level ambassadorships, among them ambassador to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.

Manafort received three separate loans in December 2016 and January 2017 from Federal Savings Bank for homes in New York City, Virginia and the Hamptons. The three loans were questioned by other officials at the bank, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told NBC News last February.

The loans raised red flags at the bank in part because of Manafort’s history of defaulting on prior loans and that the size made Manafort’s debt the single largest lending relationship at the bank, according to prosecutors. Calk was required to authorize an unusual lending scheme to avoid passing the lending cap to a single borrower.

In exchange, Manafort provided Calk with personal benefits, prosecutors said. The bank CEO was appointed to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in August 2016, just days after the bank approved a proposed $9.5 million loan to Manafort.

According to the indictment, Manafort and his son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, approached the bank in an effort to refinance loans tied to a construction project in Los Angeles.

During a meeting held on July 27, 2016 — while Manafort was Trump campaign chairman — Calk allegedly broached the idea of him joint the Trump campaign. By the next day, the first loan of $5.7 million was approved. Less than a week later, Manafort offered Calk a position on the economic advisory committee for Donald Trump, according to the indictment.

Calk issued another loan for over $9 million later in the fall of 2016. Then, Calk reached out to Manafort asking him if he was involved in the Trump presidential transition following the election, according to the indictment.

Manafort allegedly responded, “total background but involved directly.”

Shortly after the election, in November or December 2016, Manafort recommended Calk for an administrative position, leading to a formal interview of Calk for Under Secretary of the Army at the transition team headquarters in Trump Tower in 2017. When Manafort made the recommendation, he had more than $6 million in loans pending approval at Calk’s bank.

Calk ultimately was not hired for the position.

Months later, the loans to Manafort were downgraded by the banks regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Calk allegedly lied to regulators, telling them he never desired a position in the presidential administration.

A November 14, 2016 email Calk sent to Manafort that included his resume and list of desired positions in ranked order was as exhibit in the Manafort trial.

Charlie Gile contributed.



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European elections UK results time: What time is the result of EU election due?

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THE EUROPEAN elections kicked off in the UK this morning, with polling stations open from 7am. What time is the result of the EU election due?

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Trump lashes out at Rex Tillerson for saying Putin out-prepared him

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By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump lashed out at Rex Tillerson on Thursday morning after his former secretary of state reportedly told a House committee that the president was ill-prepared for a 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

The tweet followed a Washington Post report that Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Putin out-prepared Trump for the meeting at the 2017 G-20 summit. Tillerson said Putin’s higher level of preparation put Trump at a disadvantage during the meeting.

The U.S. had anticipated a shorter meeting between the two leaders, but it instead turned into a two-hour plus discussion of geopolitical issues, committee aides told the Post. Tillerson spoke before the committee for seven hours in a closed-door session on Tuesday.

“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide told the Post. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”

Tillerson spoke with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff at the request of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the newspaper reported. Unlike Trump’s solo meeting with Putin in Helsinki last summer, advisers — including Tillerson — were present alongside him at the meeting with the Russian president in Germany.

Tillerson and Trump had sparred for months before the president fired him in March of last year. The former secretary of state nearly resigned in the summer of 2017 amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, NBC News reported, citing senior administration officials. As tensions came to a head, Tillerson called Trump a “moron” following a meeting at the Pentagon with Cabinet officials and members of Trump’s national security team, three officials familiar with the incident said.

In December, Tillerson told CBS News that Trump was “undisciplined,” didn’t read much and tried to do things that would violate the law. In response, Trump said Tillerson “didn’t have the mental capacity needed” to be secretary of state.

“He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough,” Trump tweeted. “He was lazy as hell.”

In hiring Tillerson to run the State Department, Trump pointed to the former Exxon Mobil executive’s “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments” and called him “a world class player and dealmaker.”

“He will be a star,” Trump tweeted after Tillerson was sworn in.



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