RICHLAND, Wash - The federal government agreed on Wednesday to clean up tanks leaking high-level nuclear waste near the Columbia River under a tough new timetable that will allow Washington state to sue the government if it does not comply.
Under a deal announced by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the federal government will sign a consent decree aimed at speeding up the cleanup of the most dangerous pollution on the sprawling Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
The 500-square mile (1,300 sq km) region, where plutonium and other nuclear bomb ingredients were processed for four decades, is site of perhaps the federal government's biggest environmental cleanup project.
In June, Locke called Hanford's ageing tanks filled with radioactive sludge "an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen" and threatened to sue the federal government over the slow pace of its cleanup efforts.
State environmental officials say the Energy Department has revised its schedule and will treat the most dangerous tanks first - instead of the easiest.
"Moreover, the U.S. Department of Energy will agree to a detailed cleanup schedule that it is specific and measurable so that we can all see the day when these highly radioactive wastes are no longer a threat to our groundwater and the Columbia River," Locke said.
The two sides will agree on a precise timetable within 60 days.
In 1989, the federal government promised the state to stabilise the radioactive leftovers in the 30 most dangerous tanks by 1995. Since then, the cleanup schedule has been pushed back 13 times and now will not be completed until well after the year 2000.
Under the proposed consent decree, which will be filed in federal court, the Energy Department won recognition that unanticipated problems could be grounds to adjust its timetable further. If the Energy Department fails to meet its schedule, the state could go to court to enforce the agreement.
"Obviously disputes aren't going to get the job done," said Richardson, who recently took over as energy secretary after serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "We are pleased to reach an agreement that will continue our efforts to clean up Hanford with a realistic schedule, accommodating safety and technical issues that could arise."
A watchdog group that repeatedly has warned of a potential explosion in the tanks praised the agreement.
"I have stood and watched the last four secretaries of energy promise to clean up Hanford and honour their agreements only to break them before the ink was dry," said Gerald Pollet of Heart of America Northwest. "This will be the first Hanford cleanup schedule that is likely to be kept."
ReutersBRUSSELS - European Energy Commissioner Christos Papoutsis said on Wednesday the 15 European Union states had no option but to adopt more environmentally sustainable methods of energy production and use.
"Business as usual in energy policy is no longer an option," Papoutsis told Reuters.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, was due later on Wednesday to publish a discussion paper outlining proposals for making member states' energy policy more environmentally friendly.
The paper will urge EU governments to focus on encouraging efficient use of energy, increasing renewable energy resources like wind, wave and solar power, and reducing damage to the environment from the use of conventional energy sources like oil, coal, gas and nuclear power.
"We have to be more environmentally friendly in the way we produce and use energy if we are to respond to the challenges of global climate change, as well as local environmental problems in our cities," Papoutsis said.
"I am committed to a greener energy policy promoting renewable energy sources and energy saving as a priority. But a stronger political commitment is needed from the member states."
Electricity supply industry sources predict the EU will fail to meet the target it agreed at world climate talks last December to slash output of carbon dioxide - produced by burning fossil fuels - and five other greenhouse gases to eight percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
In its discussion paper, the Commission will point out that it has already put a string of proposals for greening the energy industry before EU governments, including plans to double the share of renewables in the fuel mix from six to 12 percent. It will stress it is now up to ministers to turn these energy proposals into law.
The Commission is due to present energy ministers, when they next meet on November 13, with plans for harmonising measures to promote use of renewables, in a bid to prevent distortion of competition between nations as the bloc prepares to create a single EU energy market.
LONDON - A French government health study finding no significant increases in the incidence of leukaemia near the La Hague nuclear plant in northern France contradicts an earlier report published a year ago.
A report by Alfred Spira of the national medical research centre INSERM made public last week found there was no significant increases in cases of childhood leukaemia between 1987 and 1997 in the area around the La Hague nuclear plant and the Nord-Cotetin region as a whole.
The study, commissioned by the Health and Environment Ministries, is at odds with a report by epidemiologiest Jean-Francois Viel.
The Viel study published in January 1997 said there was evidence of an increased risk that children developed leukaemia if they lived within 35 km of the nuclear plant. Viel pointed the finger at the nuclear industry.
Spira said the the higher incidence of leukaemia found by Viel could be explained by a variety of causes and not the one advanced by Viel of radiation, France's Le Monde newspaper reported. Spira said pure chance, viruses, chemical contamination or genetic susceptibility could all account for the higher incidence levels of leukaemia.
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist and consultant on nuclear issues who used to work at Britain's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, told Reuters it is "extraordinarly difficult" to pinpoint the exact cause of leukaemia cases.
Chance, genetic suspectibilty and chemical contamination are all possible causes of leukaemia, but so is radiation, said Barnaby.
"The fact is there have been significant numbers of clusters (cases of concentrated leukaemia) around nuclear installations, and it is hard not to think they are connected. It does point the finger at radiation," he said.
Jannick Roselet, a Greenpeace activist in Cherbourg said the Spira study added a new element to the debate.
"We want to have more studies. It is a pity studies were not carried out when there were calls for investigations 20 years ago," he said.
In his report, Spira recommended stricter health monitoring programmes stating that the growth of the nuclear industry in France had not being "accompanied by an appropriate system of epidemiological monitoring".
LONDON - Congenital deformities in children in Belarus have risen by 83 percent since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a weekly science magazine said on Wednesday.
The increase in cases of cleft palate, Down's syndrome and deformed limbs and organs is highest in areas hardest hit by the fallout from the world's worst nuclear disaster 12 years ago.
But even in lightly contaminated regions of the former Soviet republic doctors have reported a 24 percent rise in deformities, that earlier scientific studies have linked to radiation damage.
"The Chernobyl accident continues to reap a grim harvest," New Scientist said.
The latest statistics resulted from a re-analysis of data collected in 1996 for a national genetic monitoring programme. Rose Goncharova, of the Institute of Genetics and Cytology at the Academy of Science in Minsk, re-examined the data.
"Goncharova's study is the first to quantify what local researchers have believed for years," the magazine said.
Her results contradict the findings of a 1996 World Health Organisation meeting in Vienna that concluded there had been no increases in diseases in Belarus, apart from thyroid cancer, because of the the nuclear pollution.
Belarus, now an independent state, bore the brunt of the nuclear fallout when the Soviet reactor in neighbouring Ukraine blew up in 1986.
An Italian study of Belarus children exposed to radioactive iodine from Chernobyl showed they may be more susceptible to thyroid disease and cancer.
Similar thyroid cancers have also been reported in people exposed to radiation following other nuclear accidents and atomic bomb explosions.
WASHINGTON - States demanding that U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson suspend collection of $6.5 billion in nuclear waste fund fees announced on Wednesday that 28 more state utility commissioners have joined their effort.
A total of 96 state regulators from 32 states have now personally signed onto a Sept. 9 letter to Richardson demanding that the agency limit the waste fund payments until the DOE actually starts removing waste.
Originally, the letter had support from 68 commissioners from 24 states.
Richardson was asked in the letter to cap payments for any year to each utility's share of those funds appropriated by Congress, stopping a siphoning off of the consumer payments.
"Never before has there been such a demonstration of nationwide, bipartisan agreement among state utility regulators," said Minnesota Public Service Commissioner Kris Sanda, the lead commissioner on the issue.
"We resoundingly agree DOE must keep this money out of the U.S. Treasury to stop Congress from diverting it for other purposes. We expect DOE to remove radioactive waste stranded at power plants across the nation and to protect the money paid to do the job," Sanda said.
The states asked Richardson to respond by Oct. 14 to their letter. A DOE spokeswoman said she "presumed there would be a response," but had no details yet.
The states are pressuring the DOE to start removing tons of hazardous waste from nuclear power plants owned by electric utilities. In August, a group of 36 states petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to mandate that the DOE ship the waste to a permanent storage facility.
The DOE has asked the Supreme Court to find lower courts in error for finding the agency obligated to make the removals. The dueling court petitions have not yet been decided.
Protesting states believe a 1982 federal law ordered the DOE to start disposing of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants no later than Jan. 31, 1998.
Utilities estimated that limiting the fee payments would preserve the equivalent of $90 million of waste-disposal funding for each of the 73 power plants requiring removals.
The 1982 act created the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, and required consumers to pay one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by nuclear energy.
States alleged that after 16 years of collecting nuclear waste fund fees, the federal government has received $15 billion in payments by U.S. electricity consumers.
In turn, states said Congress has rolled most of the money into the federal government's general fund for spending on other programmes, with DOE spending just $5 billion of the sum to build a national waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Earlier this year, the DOE offered to defer collection of the fees in exchange for the utilities surrendering all legal rights over the federal government's disposal obligations.
The states rejected that offer, and have said their letter to Richardson does not change the agency's obligations to transport, store and dispose of spent nuclear fuels.
The state utilities also said they were encouraged by the offer of T.J. Glauthier, the nominee for deputy energy secretary, to give "serious consideration" to their call for DOE fee deferrals. Glauthier also is associate director of the federal Office of Management and Budget.
STOCKHOLM - The Swedish government and power utility Sydkraft are near agreement on a voluntary shut-down of the Barseback nuclear power plant, government sources and Sydkraft said on Tuesday.
One of two Barseback reactors was due to close on July 1, the first phase in a government plan to end nuclear power by 2010. But in May the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the closure programme should be reviewed and it was suspended.
Sydkraft has said the closure of its reactors now would give an unfair advantage to its competitor, state-owned Vattenfall.
But the dispute could be solved by setting up a company jointly owned by Vattenfall and Sydkraft, government and Sydkraft officials said.
The new company would solve the problem of compensating Sydkraft from the loss of the Barseback 1 reactor, which accounts for 15 percent of its production capacity, by providing it with access to Vattenfall's nuclear plant Ringhals.
A Sydkraft spokesman confirmed that it was discussing the possibility of setting up a joint company.
The new power company would receive 300 million crowns ($37.5 million) a year from the government in compensation for the increased costs of generating power from only one of the two Barseback reactors.
"The 300 million crowns are intended for the extra costs that the new company will have by only running Barseback 2," state negotiator Kaj Janerus told Reuters.
Swedish business daily Dagens Industri said on Tuesday the new company will control the two reactors at Barseback as well as the Ringhals nuclear plant, with Sydkraft holding a 25 percent stake in the company.
Janerus declined to comment on when negotiations would be concluded, but said the government's compensation to Vattenfall for allowing Sydkraft access to Ringhals would be less than six billion crowns.
Sydkraft is partly owned by Norway's Statkraft and PreussenElektra, a unit of Germany's Veba AG.
At 1056 GMT its shares were up one crown to 154 crowns.
The government's determination to push ahead with the closure has been reinforced since last month's election, after which the ruling Social Democrats agreed to form a cooperation pact with two parties, the Left Party and Greens, both of whom oppose nuclear power.
LONDON - Britain is on track to become the world's premier store for plutonium - one of the most radiologically toxic materials known, independent researchers reported on Tuesday.
The British stockpile of civil plutonium is likely to double by the year 2010, at which time approximately half of all the separated plutonium in the world will be in the country, according to a study by the Oxford Research Group.
The study said the risks of storing such vast quantities of plutonium are manifold. A primitive nuclear bomb could be fabricated relatively easily while the ecological consequences of any accident could be catastrophic.
The Oxford Research Group, which studies policies and practices in the nuclear industry, argues that the management of plutonium is an environmental and a global security issue, and wants more active government policy and greater public accountability.
The latest report echoed comments made last February when the Royal Society of Britain's academy of sciences said there was a "growing consensus that a large stockpile of separated plutonium may pose a significant environmental and security (proliferation) risk".
Britain already has a stockpile of 54 tonnes of plutonium, enough to make 1,000 nuclear bombs, the group said.
Its large stocks arise because Britain is a leading nuclear fuel reprocessor through state-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL). The company receives spent nuclear fuel from reactors around the world for reprocessing and storage. The reprocessed fuel is eventually returned to the country it originated from, but only after several years of storage in Britain.
ADELAIDE - In a cheeky bid to shift the agenda of Saturday's Australian election, three Green activists staged a city-centre striptease late last week against a controversial uranium mine being built in northern Australia.
The three whipped off their clothes in central Adelaide, declaring they had "nothing to hide" in their opposition to the Jabiluka uranium mine bordering the remote Kakadu national park.
"We think what we have done here today is much less offensive than what the Labor and Liberal parties seem willing to do to national parks," declared campaigner Tim Graham outside the Adelaide office of Environment Minister Robert Hill.
Four police officers stood by, apparently prepared to shut down the show if anyone complained about the protesters doing The Full Monty - but no one did.
Australia's conservative coalition government, who were re-elected on Saturday, approved construction of the mine last year by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd .
The opposition Labor party had a "no new uranium mines" policy, but the Greens feared Labor would have declared the site to be already operational if it won office.
By Deena Beasley
LOS ANGELES - If some utility experts are right, sunshine could become one of the region's most valuable commodities - within the next 100 years or so.
That's because environmentally friendly solar power, collected in photovoltaic cells, is becoming an energy source of choice for consumers as they are unleashed from their traditional monopoly utilities.
As technology drives costs down, some industry experts say solar power may come to dominate the industry worldwide, relegating fears of global warming to a distant memory.
"Under the old system, captains of industry decided what plants would run and what resources would be degraded," said Renz Jennings, commissioner at the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates the state's utilities. "But now consumers can decide what risks to take and what resources to degrade by voting with their dollars."
He was referring to deregulation of the electric utility industry, a process that is meant to replace regulated monopolies with open competition between power suppliers.
Deregulation has chiefly been driven by big businesses looking to lower their power bills.
But environmentalists and other public policy watchers also applaud the trend, which they believe opens up opportunities to push the industry toward a cleaner system.
"PVs (photovoltaics) are a transforming technology," Jennings said. "They have the prospect for becoming a powerhouse in the next century."
The Worldwatch Institute reported in July that solar energy had surpassed wind power to become the world's fastest-growing energy source.
While solar energy makes up less than 1 percent of global power supplies, it is becoming more popular as countries move to reduce automobile and industry emissions, said Worldwatch, a research group that tracks emerging global trends affecting the world economy and environment.
Solar power has vast potential but it will take decades for it to become much more widely used, experts said.
"Wind is intermittent, as is solar. But solar alone could ultimately replace thermal power generation," Jennings said.
Technological advances are the biggest reason for the growth in solar power, but the need to diversify resources as well as cut greenhouse gas emissions, seen by many as the main cause of global warming, are also cited as key incentives.
Last week, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the largest municipal utility in the country, announced a new "green power" programme aimed at environmentally conscious customers.
David Freeman, general manager of the utility, called on the power industry to emphasise image as it markets renewable energy rather than focus entirely on cost.
"If people have the option and it is made simple, they will do it," Jennings said.
California, which launched deregulation of its electric utility industry earlier this year, so far has seen only a modest amount of supplier switching at the residential level.
That is largely attributed to the state's four-year transition plan for the industry, which limits competition on the basis of price, at least until the year 2002.
But the California Energy Commission estimated about 25 percent of the roughly 70,000 California households that have opted to stop buying power from their local utility did so in order to purchase "green" energy.
Those buyers are paying an extra 10 percent or so to show they care about the environment.
Meanwhile, utility regulators across the west are working to coordinate rules requiring power suppliers to disclose fuel mix and emissions data when they solicit new customers.
"The public doesn't understand that the energy sector is by far the most polluting segment of the economy," Jennings noted. "This is information that customers need to know. They will, in effect, be dispatching the system."