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May 2, 2005 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 83, ISSUE 18

Chemical plant security aired


The Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs last week held the first in what committee Chairman Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) said would be a series of hearings to examine chemical plant security. Panelists painted a grim picture of inadequate security safeguards for the nation's 15,000 largest chemical manufacturing and storage facilities as well as insufficient preparation for emergency responders who would react to a terrorist attack. All the speakers, as well as many of the half-dozen senators present, urged that national legislation be passed; most said that voluntary, industry-certified security measures were not enough. Panelists included a former official with the Department of Homeland Security and officials with the Government Accountability Office, the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Changes in the Senate have given this committee jurisdiction over plant security. For four years, chemical plant security legislation was before the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, but it never reached the Senate floor.

$5 million fine for nuclear plant violations

The largest-ever fine for a nuclear power plant violation--$5.45 million--was recently issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) against FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. The fine was for the company's failure to report near-disastrous damage to the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. During an oversight inspection in March 2002, NRC discovered that boric acid had corroded through six inches of the carbon steel reactor vessel head that encases the reactor core. Only a half-inch plate of stainless steel remained to avoid a loss-of-coolant accident and a possible core meltdown. NRC knew of the potential for such corrosion for more than a decade and had required owners of reactors prone to this problem to increase their self-inspections. FirstEnergy knew the vessel head had been corroded since at least 2000 but took no action and did not inform NRC, according to an independent incident review (C&EN, May 12, 2003, page 27). NRC penalized FirstEnergy for falsifying company inspection reports, and it also singled out the engineer who signed the documents by prohibiting his involvement in any NRC-regulated activity for five years. NRC took no action against plant managers. The commission said that future action may be taken, however, and a federal grand jury is investigating the incident but has reached no conclusions. Davis- Besse was restarted in March 2004 after being repaired.

Mercury rule estimates are off, CRS says

Mercury emissions from power plants will drop only 50% by 2020 under a new EPA regulation, not 70% by 2018 as the rule suggests, a Congressional Research Service report says. CRS projects that the rule's anticipated 70% cut in current annual mercury emissions of 48 tons may not be achieved until 2030. The regulation, issued in March, establishes a yearly cap on mercury emissions from power plants and allows facilities to buy and sell pollution allowances. Utilities at first would not have to install any special pollution control equipment because reductions in mercury emissions will occur as the result of a separate regulation requiring power plants to curb releases of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. CRS says that, according to an EPA analysis, the agency passed over an option to require utilities to install special mercury control equipment from the get-go. The report adds that EPA relied on cost estimates of mercury emission reduction technology that are four to 20 times higher than current projections by the pollution control industry.

OPCW inspectors visit Anniston

To verify compliance with the chemical weapons treaty, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons paid an unannounced visit to the Anniston, Ala., chemical weapons stockpile the week of April 17. This was OPCW's 11th visit to Anniston, and the inspectors were there to ensure that the Army depot was maintaining accurate records of its stored chemical weapons. According to Lt. Col. Darryl Briggs, Anniston Chemical Activity commander, "The inspection concluded earlier than expected" and "was very successful." The inspectors did not inspect Anniston's chemical weapons destruction program. In fact, the incinerators that destroy weapons were not operating because equipment was being reconfigured to begin destroying 155-mm artillery shells filled with the nerve agent sarin. The campaign to destroy the stockpile of 9-inch sarin-filled artillery shells had recently been completed. Since the weapons disposal program began in 2003, Anniston has destroyed nearly 57,000 rockets, warheads, and shells, totaling more than 600,000 lb of sarin.

Climate-change program fails to report

The Administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) has missed its congressionally required deadline for a comprehensive assessment of the research on and potential impacts of climate change, a Government Accountability Office report says. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 requires that CCSP publish such a scientific assessment every four years in order for Congress to make informed decisions about climate programs. The first report was issued in 2000, and the second was due in November 2004. When it became clear that the November deadline would be missed, CCSP set a schedule for releasing the assessment as a series of 21 reports to be completed by September 2007. But according to GAO, none of the CCSP studies is designed to explicitly address the impacts of rising temperatures on the natural environment, agriculture, energy, land and water resources, health, transportation, and biological diversity, as the law mandates. Consequently, GAO says, "it may be difficult for Congress and others to use this information effectively as the basis for making decisions on climate policy."



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