Via DP

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 Del. T. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg.

In January, Garrett introduced a bill to create the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority. Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored companion legislation 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 Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; the Virginia Economic Development Partnership; the Virginia Community College System; the four state universities with nuclear engineering programs; a nuclear energy-related nonprofit; and 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 whose purpose is to make Virginia "a leader in nuclear energy."

The authority is a state government agency so 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.
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.
"They are spending taxpayer dollars and advising a public body, and those kinds of organizations and entities need to be subject to (FOIA)," Rhyne said.

Proponents of the consortium say the group needs more latitude than other government agencies to pursue McDonnell's energy goals.
Garrett 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.