By Stephen Nielsen
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia is creating a new agency to support development of nuclear power – a move that has upset environmentalists and open-government advocates, because the entity won’t have to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act and other laws.
For the past year or so, companies that work with nuclear energy have been speaking with experts at Virginia universities with nuclear engineering programs and at industry-related nonprofit groups. The goal was to foster collaboration among nuclear-energy advocates, according to Delegate T. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg.
In January, Garrett introduced House Bill 1790, which sought to create the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority. Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored companion legislation – Senate Bill 1138 – in his chamber. Both bills were passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Under the new law, the authority will create a nonprofit corporation, the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, which will consist of experts from the private sector, nonprofits and higher education. The consortium will collaborate on workforce development, educational opportunities, research opportunities and other issues concerning nuclear energy.
“The consortium is really to help create a platform to facilitate these folks,” Garrett said. “What paths they choose is really going to be up to them.”
A 17-member board will run the authority. It will include representatives of:
- The state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy
- The Virginia Economic Development Partnership
- The Virginia Community College System
- Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and George Mason University – the four state universities with nuclear engineering programs
- Two other institutions of higher education, including at least one private school
- A nuclear energy-related nonprofit
- A Virginia-based federal research laboratory
In addition, the governor will appoint “six individuals, each to represent a single business entity located in the Commonwealth that is engaged in activities directly related to the nuclear energy industry.”
By Jan. 1, the authority will create the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium. By law, the consortium will seek to make Virginia “a leader in nuclear energy”; will serve as “an interdisciplinary study, research, and information resource for the Commonwealth on nuclear energy issues”; and will raise money for the authority from businesses and foundations.
The authority is a state government agency; as such, it will be subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act – meaning its meetings and records will be open to the public. But the consortium won’t be a government agency – so it won’t be subject to FOIA. The consortium’s executive director and other employees also will be exempt from the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act and other laws governing public employees.
“The bill is clear: FOIA will not apply to the consortium,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The coalition promotes transparency in government at the state and local levels.
According to Rhyne, legislators feared that organizations wouldn’t be willing to participate in the consortium if its meetings were public. They also worried about the possible release of trade secrets from the nuclear energy industry if the consortium were subject to FOIA.
“The release of trade secret information is certainly reasonable, and there are exemptions within FOIA to deal with that,” Rhyne said. “They can certainly protect that information without exempting the entire body from FOIA.”
Rhyne said the new law sets a bad precedent by exempting a government-affiliated agency, using public funds, from FOIA, which is sometimes called the sunshine law.
“They are spending taxpayer dollars and advising a public body, and those kinds of organizations and entities need to be subject to sunshine,” Rhyne said.
Proponents of the nuclear energy consortium say the group needs more latitude than other government agencies to pursue Gov. McDonnell’s energy goals.
“One of his primary objectives was to reaffirm that the Commonwealth of Virginia will be the energy capital of the East Coast,” Garrett said. “Nuclear is a key component of that, as is coal, as is renewables. I think all of that packaged together comes under the umbrella of energy opportunities.”
He noted that Virginia also has an offshore wind authority and consortium. (The 2010 legislation creating the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority makes the agency subject of FOIA but says “personal and financial information” about offshore wind energy projects must be kept confidential.)
Nuclear energy provides roughly 40 percent of the electricity produced by Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s leading utility. The power stations in Surry and North Anna combined provide energy for about 870,000 households, according to Richard Zuercher, a Dominion spokesman. He said that, while the company was not directly involved in the formation of the authority, Dominion supported the plan.
Other organizations weren’t as supportive.
“It’s really a matter of opinion if you think we need nuclear in Virginia,” said Erica Gray, who organized the Richmond chapter of Nuclear Free Virginia. “Obviously we didn’t for I don’t know how many months when our earthquake knocked North Anna offline.”
Because of the earthquake on Aug. 23, 2011, the two nuclear reactors at North Anna Power Station automatically shut down. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed Dominion to restart the station less than three months later.
“There’s been several studies out that have shown we can get by and meet our energy needs with wind, solar and energy efficiency,” said Glen Besa, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. He said creating an agency to examine nuclear energy detracts from environmentally-friendly alternatives.
But Zuercher said protecting the environment is a reason to support nuclear energy.
“There’s a lot of attention placed on climate change and reducing CO2 emissions,” Zuercher said. “You’re not going to do that without nuclear energy.” CO2 is a by-product of coal, still a major source of electricity in Virginia.
However, it can’t be denied that nuclear power stations produce hazardous waste and that disposing of it is problematic.
“If they want to study anything, they ought to figure out what to do with the nuclear waste,” Besa said. He described the Surry and North Anna stations as “high level” nuclear waste dumps.
You can read and comment on House Bill 1790, and watch videos of legislative discussion of the measure, on the Richmond Sunlight website. You can read about Dominion’s nuclear power stations here. Nuclear Free Virginia’s website is nuclearfreeva.blogspot.com.
Gray agreed: “We need to invest renewable energy – things that don’t produce toxic waste that we have nowhere to put.”
Zuercher said nuclear-power opponents have complicated the waste disposal issue.
“Every nuclear site stores spent nuclear fuel on site,” Zuercher said. That is because the U.S. Department of Energy still hasn’t designated a long-term site – because of opposition from environmental groups.
“They don’t want it to go anywhere, and they don’t want it to be on the site,” Zuercher said. “In general, opponents of nuclear energy don’t want to solve the problem but push it off on future generations.”
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.