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Dems, Republicans Call for Defunding URI Nuke Facility

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Aerial of the Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center

Rhode Island's only nuclear reactor is under fire from the left and the right, with both sides of the political spectrum questioning the ongoing costs associated with operating the fifty year old facility.

"At some point we have to decommission this, it doesn't matter the cost," said former Democratic State Representative Ray Rickman, who has been an outspoken critic of the nuclear facility since his days in the General Assembly. "It doesn't have any power, so it can't do great harm if it explodes. We have to worry about a leak. They've had this free ride for 50 plus years. It's enough. I see nothing in the budget that's more of a ripoff."

The Rhode Island FY2015 budget proposed by Governor Chafee calls for $1.2 million for the Rhode Island Atomic Energy Commission, which oversees the Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center (RINSC) on the University of Rhode Island campus.

The RINSC is home to a 2 mega-watt, light water cooled nuclear reactor built in 1960, which has served as a research center for students and researchers. "There are only 31 research and test reactors in the United States and luckily for the state, one resides here. We are very focused on providing educational support for the state’s middle schools, high schools and universities," said RINSC Director Cameron Goodwin.

Mike Stenhouse with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a free market think tank, questioned its continued use -- and budget allocation.  

"It's being used by professors and for education, but we ask is when our budget is so strapped, and money is so wanting, can we afford this right now?" asked Stenhouse. "You don't have to take and all or nothing approach -- can we cut that in half? If you look at decommissioning, this could be a mid-range step."

Stenhouse's Center for Freedom for Prosperity bills itself as nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to providing concerned citizens, the media, and public officials with empirical research data, while also advancing free-market solutions to public policy issues in the state -- is part of the State Policy Network, which is "fighting to limit government and advance market friendly public policy."

"The liberal getting together with the conservatives -- there's a theory the left and right aren't that far apart," said Rickman. "We're the biggest civil liberties people going. I'm opposed to waste, I want to see it for social programs. They're just opposed to waste. They want tax cuts, I want swimming pools. We can fight on how to spend it."

Research, Education, and Safety

The budget touts the facility being used for medical, biological, environmental, and materials research, education and commercial activities, including environmental monitoring programs, and the development of new radio-pharmaceuticals.

"Last fiscal year, we gave approximately 40 tours of the facility and provided 35 laboratories/classes. We are already on track to exceed last year’s numbers," said Goodwin. "Within the past few months, the facility has been visited or used by students and researchers from URI, Providence College, Brown University, The Greene School in West Greenwich, Three River Community College in Connecticut, Central Falls High School, Rogers High School in Newport, BioPAL Laboratories of Worcester, Holtec International, Rhode Island Hospital and the Boy Scouts of America."

Addressing the issue of decommissioning the facility, Cameron spoke to the costs associated, and if there was even a need to do so.

"Unlike power plants, research reactors don’t have a set lifespan. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must relicense them every 20 years. A licensing review is expected to be completed this year for the state's reactor. Keeping it running is also cheaper than shutting it down, as the estimated cost to decommission the URI plant is about $30 million. The cost of building a new one at URI or anywhere else would be even more," said Cameron. "There is no age limit for the facility. We can continue to operate as long as we receive relicensing from the NRC. 

The proposed 2015 budget outlines performance measures, which show that outreach hours were just shy of the 2013 goals, as well as that the NRC inspects the facility biannually to ensure compliance with Federal regulations, and reported one "level IV non-cited violation" in 2012.

"I don't do scare tactics -- I don't say it will explode and kill a half million people. There's only one scenario, that's horrendously bad, is having a major hurricane or event, and it falling into [Narragansett] Bay," said Rickman. "I am more concerned that it's old, and there was an incident in recent years where a student was exposed to radiation. If there are exposure issues, lawsuits, that's a cost issue to consider in continuing to maintain an outdated facility.""

During the February 14 meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission, reference was made to pending litigation regarding the former Assistant Director of Safety -- a position which is currently vacant, but neither Goodwin nor the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would comment. "We don't comment on pending litigation," said Diane Screnci, Senior Public Affairs Officer at the NRC.  

Costs Called into Question

Rickman said that he disputed the cost estimates put forth. "I've talked with the people in the field, and it costs $600,000, $700,000 a year to do over several years. We might be looking at $3 million over the three years," said Rickman. "They're saying $30 million. I'd like to see where that quote comes from. A Michigan facility five times its size was recently decommissioned for $10 million."

Michigan Live reported in September that in 2004, the University of Michigan spent $9.4 million to decommission its 17,400 square foot facility, and is in the process of planning a rennovation and expansion to the facility. 

Stenhouse noted that the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is slated to be releasing a report on non-essential spending in the state later this month, which would look at the RI nuclear facility.  

"It's all about setting priorities. We can continue to over-spend and plod along with a failed economy, or we can be more prudent with how we spend taxpayer money and provide tax relief that will provide a sorely needed boost," said Stenhouse. "Lawmakers have an opportunity to both reduce the structural deficits we are projected to face and to grow our state's economy - it's time to move in this direction."

A preview report released by the Center in February "identified over a dozen major areas where budget savings can be achieved, including: state government operations and overtime compensation, community and legislative grants, corporate welfare, the HealthSourceRI exchange, the 38 Studios moral obligation bond, higher education 'capital' projects, the Convention Center Authority, historical tax credits, SNAP waste & fraud, the Governor's Workforce Boards, and arts & culture subsidies."  The full report is expected to identify dozens more.

Rickman offered his views the budget. "The fact that it's grown to $8 billion is unbelievable. This just adds to it. We would have to pay $100K for security measures a year if we defunded it, and there's possibly potential for federal funding for decommissioning."

"I disagree with [Stenhouse's] approach. Moderation in pursuit of happiness is no virtue. He wants to pay half to do nothing," said Rickman. "The state does no original research with it -- this isn't energy producing. They'll tell you there's a researcher, he's never authored original research from. They say there's a one in ten million chance there could be an incident that affects the Bay. The chance was minuscule that Fukushima could have happened, but it did."  


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