Making the Connections: Dr. Judith Johnsrud Speaks at GASP’s Annual Meeting

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Hotline, Winter 1998

What connection could possibly exist between electric utility deregulation and the “recycling” of radioactive waste into consumer products?

Speaking at GASP’s annual meeting, Dr. Judith Johnsrud defined and illuminated the connection. In so doing, she also related these current issues to GASP’s long-standing environmental concerns.

This year’s meeting took place on November 10, 1997. We appreciated the handsome facilities and the hospitality of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. Complementing Dr. Johnsrud’s presentation, representatives of Citizen Power and the Western Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Association provided brief updates on their activities (see the Resources box). Members of the audience also had the opportunity to inspect the GASPER.

The audience included a valued friend of GASP, State Representative Ivan Itkin. His presence testifies to the importance of the issues in discussion.

Dr. Judith Johnsrud is the director of the Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power, which is based in State College. For a quarter of a century, her work on nuclear power and radioactive waste issues has taken her all over the United States and to many places overseas. Few Americans can match her understanding of the true dimensions of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Dr. Johnsrud is active at the national level in Sierra Club and currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the Pennsylvania chapter. She heads the chapter’s committee on Radiation and the Environment and also the committee on Energy. On behalf of a coalition of environmental groups (including Sierra Club, GASP, and the Clean Air Council), she is deeply involved in legal action concerning the implementation of electric utility deregulation by the Public Utility Commission (PUC). What would be the best outcome envisioned by the environmental coalition? Writing in Sierra Club’s Sylvanian (Fall 1997), Dr. Johnsrud described it this way: “a genuine competitive marketplace that would encourage electricity conservation, energy efficiency, and ‘clean, green’ power from decentralized renewable sources.” Unfortunately, she warned, “hopes were fading” for this vision.

Like the environment as a whole, the goals suggested by this vision are inter-related. For instance, if consumers are to be offered the option of buying clean and green power, then it is necessary for smaller power producers to have a genuine opportunity to compete in the market. Standing in the way of that opportunity is a well-financed push for consolidation instead of competition, as exemplified by the proposed merger between Duquesne Light and Allegheny Power.

The issues are complex and often technical. In this landscape of litigation, politics, and big money, the focal points can shift quickly. See the Resources box for suggestions.

One question of special concern is (in Dr. Johnsrud’s words) “that the investor-owned utilities are likely to receive enormous bailouts from the PUC in the form of ‘securitized stranded cost recovery’ worth billions of dollars that residential and small business customers will be required to pay for over the coming years.”

Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) provides a case in point. Dr. Johnsrud described a settlement agreement proposed to the PUC by PECO in late August: “This settlement offered PECO ratepayers a 10% rate reduction for some 28 months (starting in September 1998), but reducing back down to zero in the following years. However, ratepayers would also begin to pay for between $5.46 billion and possibly as much as $10 billion in ‘stranded costs’ claimed by the utility for its unfortunate investments in nuclear power and for future costs of decommissioning its nuclear reactors. Critics pointed out that the arrangement, including the electricity pricing proposed by PECO, would effectively prevent other companies from entry to compete in the Pennsylvania electricity market.”

Environmentalists opposed the PECO settlement offer and also opposed a competing offer submitted by Enron, a large production firm based in Texas. The coalition developed a “Better Choice” plan, and lobbied the PUC to the extent their finances permitted.

As this article took shape, the coalition’s effort produced an impact. On December 11, the PUC announced a decision that appeared to be more favorable to consumers than the PECO proposal or the Enron alternative. Stranded costs for PECO would be capped at $5 billion — still an enormous figure. The PUC vote was 3-2. The two PUC dissenters issued a statement which included the opinion that the decision failed to provide enough money “to compensate utility stockholders.”

Several months ago, Dr. Johnsrud wrote: “One significance of the PECO settlement agreement and the Enron proposal lies in the precedents that will be set by the PUC decision, and may then be extended to the several other utility restructuring proceedings that are underway elsewhere in the state.” Separate hearings concerning Duquesne Light, Allegheny Power, and the merger of those two companies were scheduled for late December, with PUC decisions expected in the spring.

The stranded-cost issue, in which a utility seeks to evade responsibility for the financial consequences of its investments in nuclear power, serves as a point of connection to the other topic discussed by Dr. Johnsrud on November 10: the “recycling” of radioactive waste into consumer products made from scrap metal. As radioactive waste piles up, and disposal costs continue to soar, the nuclear power industry and its allies in the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are, in Dr. Johnsrud’s words, “demanding deregulation of massive amounts of radioactively contaminated scrap metal from nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons production facilities, and other nuclear facilities.”

Under this deregulation scheme, radioactive scrap metal would be smelted with uncontaminated metals, and then refabricated into consumer products like building materials, automobile parts, tools, kitchen equipment, furniture, jewelry, and children’s toys. The EPA would establish a separate radiation dose standard for a single exposure to each radionuclide, but every object could contain a mix of radionuclides. In evaluating this approach to standard-setting, as Dr. Johnsrud reminded us, it is wise to remember the MACS principle.

Environmentalists active on hazardous waste issues would immediately recognize this scheme for deregulating radioactive waste as an example of “linguistic detoxification.”

Just as the nuclear power industry is seeking to redefine its financial losses as “stranded costs” to be covered by utility customers, it is seeking to redefine its radioactive waste as “scrap metal” to be “recycled” into consumer products. Is this really very different from the actions of a factory that disposes of its waste products by depositing them in the lungs of the people who live nearby? GASP is grateful to Dr. Johnsrud for sharing with us her understanding of these issues.

Resources

Dr. Judith Johnsrud can be reached through the Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power (ECNP), 433 Orlando Avenue, State College, PA 16803-3477. The phone number is 814-237-3900. You can also contact her through e-mail (johnsrud@csrlink.net).

For a Harrisburg-based environmental view of statewide energy issues, visit the web page of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Clean Affordable Energy (http://www.paenergycampaign.org/) or call 717-697-2111.

Citizen Power’s web page (http://www.concentric.net/~jmeuhl/duqlite.shtml) includes a solid rebuttal to Duquesne Light’s claim that it was forced into investing into nuclear power (and thus justified in claiming stranded costs).

The latest newsletter from the Western Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Association can be found at their web site (http://www.envirolink.org/orgs/wpsea/index.html).

Two national groups that have pulled together worthwhile information about electric utility deregulation are the National Resources Defense Council (http://www.nrdc.org/nrdcpro/utilprof/) and the Environmental Defense Fund (http://www.edf.org/programs/energy/).

by John Warren, GASP Board Member