Trump EPA sides with farmers over refiners in biofuel waiver decision

By Stephanie Kelly

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it rejected scores of requests from U.S. oil refiners for waivers that would have retroactively spared them from their obligation to blend biofuels like ethanol into their fuel, delivering a win for farmers and a blow to the oil industry just ahead of the November presidential election.

Reuters had reported last week that U.S. President Donald Trump, under the advice of his allies in the Midwest, ordered his Environmental Protection Agency to deny the waivers because they had become a lightning rod of controversy in the Farm Belt, an important political constituency.

“This decision follows President Trump’s promise to promote domestic biofuel production, support our nation’s farmers, and in turn strengthen our energy independence,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement announcing the agency was denying 54 applications that the Department of Energy had reviewed.

Refiners say the waivers are crucial for reducing regulatory costs for small fuel producers and keeping them in business, but the corn lobby argues the exemptions undermine demand for corn-based ethanol at a time farmers are already suffering from the impacts of a trade war with China.

CONTENTION LAW

Under the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, refiners must blend some 15 billion gallons of ethanol into their gasoline each year or buy tradable credits from those that do. Small refiners have also been able to seek an exemption if they can prove financial harm from the requirements.

The Trump administration has roughly quadrupled the number of exemptions given out to refiners in a trend that had angered the biofuel industry.

In January, an appeals court handling a case initiated by the biofuel industry cast a cloud of doubt over the EPA’s waiver program, ruling that waivers granted to small refineries after 2010 should only be approved as extensions. Most recipients of waivers in recent years have not continuously received them.

That triggered a wave of requests for retroactive relief by refiners seeking to comply with the court decision. Since March, 17 small refineries in 14 states submitted 68 petitions, Wheeler said in a memo. The Department of Energy, which advises EPA on the waiver requests, had transmitted its findings on 54 of the petitions.

“(T)hese small refineries did not demonstrate disproportionate economic hardship from compliance with the RFS program for those RFS compliance years,” Wheeler said.

It is unclear what will happen to refining facilities that had benefited from waivers in recent years that are non-compliant with the court’s ruling. But sources told Reuters the administration may seek to offer them another form of financial relief to compensate.

It was also not immediately clear how this would affect 28 pending waiver applications for 2019 and three pending applications for 2020.

The Trump administration’s decision on Monday is a major victory for biofuel advocates in the long-standing battle between the deep-pocketed Corn and Oil lobbies.

“This is outstanding news for biofuels producers, farmers, and RFS integrity,” said Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Executive Director Monte Shaw. “With gap year waivers denied, the number of refiners eligible to even apply for – let alone receive – an RFS exemption going forward is reduced to single digits.”

Some in the oil industry criticized the decision. “EPA has turned a blind eye to merchant refineries and their workers in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas,” said the Fueling American Jobs Coalition, a group that includes union workers and independent refiners.

Trump over the weekend also tweeted that he would allow states to permit fuel retailers to use their current pumps to sell gasoline with higher blends of ethanol, or E15, a move that could help lift ethanol sales.

“Today’s announcements will help provide more certainty to our biofuel producers, who have for too-long been yanked around by the EPA, and help increase access to E15, which drives up demand for corn and ethanol,” said Iowa Senator Joni Ernst.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly; Editing by Dan Grebler and Marguerita Choy)

Hanford nuclear site accident puts focus on aging U.S. facilities

An aerial photo shows Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, U.S. on July 5, 2011. Courtesy National Nuclear Security Administration/Handout via REUTERS

By Tom James

SEATTLE (Reuters) – The collapse of a tunnel used to store radioactive waste at one of the most contaminated U.S. nuclear sites has raised concerns among watchdog groups and others who study the country’s nuclear facilities because many are aging and fraught with problems.

“They’re fighting a losing battle to keep these plants from falling apart,” said Robert Alvarez, a former policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy who was charged with making an inventory of nuclear sites under President Bill Clinton.

“The longer you wait to deal with this problem, the more dangerous it becomes,” said Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he focuses on nuclear energy and disarmament.

The Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment.

No radiation was released during Tuesday’s incident at a plutonium-handling facility in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, but thousands of workers were ordered to take cover and some were evacuated as a precaution.

The state of facilities in the U.S. nuclear network has been detailed by the Department of Energy, Government Accountability Office and Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. They have noted eroding walls, leaking roofs, and risks of electrical fires and groundwater contamination.

In 2016, Frank Klotz, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department agency overseeing maintenance of nuclear warheads, warned Congress about risks posed by aging facilities.

Decontaminating and demolishing the Energy Department’s shuttered facilities will cost $32 billion, it said in a 2016 report. It also noted a $6 billion maintenance backlog.

In the 1940s the U.S. government built Hanford and other complexes to produce plutonium and uranium for atomic bombs under the Manhattan Project.

“That was an era when the defense mission took priority over everything else,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re dealing with the legacy of that.”

RISKS DOCUMENTED

Many of those sites are now vacant but contaminated.

A 2009 Energy Department survey found nearly 300 shuttered, contaminated and deteriorating sites. Six years later it found that fewer than 60 had been cleaned up.

A 2015 Energy Department audit said delays in cleaning contaminated facilities “expose the Department, its employees and the public to ever-increasing levels of risk.”

Risks identified at the sites included leaking roofs carrying radioactivity into groundwater, roof collapses and electrical fires that could release radioactive particles.

A 2014 Energy Department audit noted a high risk of fire and groundwater contamination at the shuttered Heavy Element Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is surrounded by homes and businesses near California’s Bay Area.

Problems have also been identified at active facilities including the Savannah River Site, a nuclear reservation in South Carolina. A 2015 report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board found “severe” erosion in concrete walls of an exhaust tunnel used to prevent release of radioactive air.

A 2016 Energy Department audit of one of the United States’ main uranium handling facilities, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, warned that “intense precipitation or snow” could collapse parts its roof, possibly causing an accident involving radioactivity.

“It sounds crazy, but it’s true,” said Don Hancock, who has studied the Tennessee facility in his work at the Southwest Information and Research Center, an Albuquerque nonprofit that monitors nuclear sites.

In Hanford’s case, risk of a tunnel collapse was known in 2015, when the Energy Department noted wooden beams in one tunnel had lost 40 percent of their strength and were being weakened by gamma radiation.

Energy Department spokesman Mark Heeter in nearby Richland said in an email that the agency saw Tuesday’s prompt discovery of the collapse as a success.

“The maintenance and improvement of aging infrastructure across the Hanford site … remains a top priority,” he said.

Nationwide, part of the risk comes from having to maintain and safeguard so many sites with different types of nuclear waste, said Frank Wolak, head of Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development.

“You’re asking for trouble with the fact that you’ve got it spread all over the country,” he said. “The right answer is to consolidate the stuff that is highly contaminated, and apply the best technology to it.”

(Reporting by Tom James; Editing by Ben Klayman)

Ex-government employee pleads guilty in nuclear secrets cyber attack scheme

A former government employee who was accused of trying to orchestrate a cyber attack against computers that contained information about nuclear weapons pleaded guilty to a federal computer crime, the Department of Justice announced in a news release on Tuesday afternoon.

Prosecutors said 62-year-old Charles Harvey Eccleston, a former employee of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, admitted his guilt in the attempted “spear-phishing” attack that took place last January. Eccleston was arrested after an undercover operation in which prosecutors said the accused dealt with FBI employees who had been posing as foreign government officials.

Spear-phishing is a type of cyber attack in which people send authentic-looking emails to their targets, encouraging the recipients to open them. However, the emails contain malicious code.

According to the Department of Justice, Eccleston sent an email that he believed contained a virus to about 80 Department of Energy employees, thinking the code would allow a foreign country to infiltrate or harm their computers. Prosecutors said Eccleston targeted employees “whom he claimed had access to information related to nuclear weapons or nuclear materials.”

The code was harmless and was actually crafted by the FBI, according to the release.

Eccleston, who thought he would be paid roughly $80,000 for sending the spear-phishing email, was arrested last March during a meeting with an undercover FBI employee, prosecutors said.

“Eccleston admitted that he attempted to compromise, exploit and damage U.S. government computer systems that contained sensitive nuclear weapon-related information with the intent of allowing foreign nations to gain access to that information or to damage essential systems,” Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said in a statement announcing the guilty plea.

Prosecutors said Eccleston was fired from his job with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010. He moved to the Philippines the following year and had been living there until his arrest.

The alleged cyber attack wasn’t the first time that law enforcement heard Eccleston’s name.

Prosecutors said the FBI first learned about Eccleston in 2013 after he walked into an embassy in the Philippines and offered to sell a list of 5,000 U.S. government email accounts for $18,800. If the nation wasn’t interested, Eccleston said he would offer the list to China, Iran or Venezuela.

That November, the FBI sent undercover employees to meet with Eccleston and had them pose as foreign government officials. One FBI employee bought a list of 1,200 email addresses for $5,000, prosecutors said, though an investigation found the accounts were publicly available.

Prosecutors said Eccleston communicated with the employees for “several months,” and offered to help design the spear-phishing emails during a meeting with an undercover FBI employee in June 2014. He made the bogus emails look like advertisements for a nuclear energy conference.

Eccleston pleaded guilty to attempted unauthorized access and intentional damage to a protected computer and faces 24 to 30 months in prison and a $95,000 fine when he is sentenced in April, prosecutors announced.

New Mexico Nuclear Dump Has Second Radiation Leak

New air samples taken near the New Mexico nuclear storage facility where a leak had been detected after an underground fire now has a second leak of radiation.

Department of Energy officials confirmed that an elevated radiation reading was found outside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico on March 11th.

The leak comes less than a month after a Valentine’s Day leak contaminated 17 works and closed the facility to incoming waste.  The plant is the only storage site for nuclear waste from the country’s bomb program.

Officials say it’s likely the contamination in the air comes from previous radioactive deposits on the inside of exhaust ducts.  The low-level release of radiation is believed to happen on a rare basis but is what is called “well within safe limits.”

There has been no date offered for the opening of the plant after shipments were stopped following a fire on a truck hauling salt through the repository’s tunnels in February.

More Radiation Leaks Found At Nuclear Storage Site

The nation’s first underground nuclear waste site is reporting more airborne radiation leaks.

The Department of Energy said Monday they found radiation in air samples collected last week at various monitoring stations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and also in some stations outside of the grounds of the Plant.

The Plant’s first confirmed leak of radiation came last week.

The site is the storage location for plutonium-based waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other government nuclear locations.

Scientists and Plant officials insist that the public is not in any danger from the radiation release.