Nuclear, Reactors

Benign Neglect Pays Off

Issue 6 and Volume 104.

A funny thing happened while the media were focused on oil prices, global warming and fuel cells: nuclear reactor regulation took a turn for the better.

One of last year’s significant power industry trends, consolidation of generation assets, hit nuclear plants full-force. Eight nuclear plants changed hands, and utility mergers and buyouts affected many more. But the companies involved could not have completed these transactions without the cooperation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Several years ago Dr. Shirley Jackson, then NRC chairman, told me that she thought one of the Commission’s biggest challenges would be dealing with industry restructuring as it would affect nuclear plant ownership. The NRC would have to satisfy itself that new owners were qualified to maintain high operating standards. As it turned out, all the companies which purchased nuclear assets already operated nuclear plants with good track records. This facilitated the process considerably, but the fact remains that the NRC had recognized industry trends, had done its homework, and was prepared to deal with license-transfer requests. Thus far, the process seems to be progressing smoothly and with a minimum of political interference and press notoriety.

Another significant indicator of licensing progress is the 20-year license extension the NRC granted the two Calvert Cliffs units in March. After carefully evaluating all aspects of plant operation and equipment, the NRC concluded the plants can continue to operate safely for at least another 20 years, given proper equipment replacement and maintenance practices. The Commission did not reach this decision lightly. The NRC staff, along with industry researchers and owners’ groups, engaged in a long and laborious process, complete with the usual legal challenges by anti-nuclear groups. The official part of the process took less than two years, but the work actually took much longer than that.

Utilities now have license extensions pending for Oconee, Arkansas Nuclear One and Hatch, with the Oconee approval expected this year and the others scheduled for 2002. Other companies have notified the NRC that they plan to submit license extension applications for 21 more units. If these applications progress methodically, and with as little political interference as Calvert Cliffs had, the economics of existing nuclear plants will receive a well-deserved boost.

In yet another significant change, the NRC in April revised its oversight process for operating plants. The new approach was tested last year in pilot programs at 13 reactors around the country. The new process acknowledges the nuclear power industry’s maturity and continuously improving safety and reliability records. The NRC will now focus its inspections where the risks are greatest, paying more attention to plants with performance problems and reducing unnecessary burdens on the rest. Instead of nitpicking a plant’s paperwork, the Commission will focus on what it calls “cornerstones” of safety. These cornerstones are: initiating events, mitigating systems, barrier integrity, emergency preparedness, occupational radiation safety, public radiation safety, and physical protection of the plant and its nuclear materials.

The NRC also hopes to improve public understanding of each plant’s status by classifying its performance as “green,” “white,” “yellow” or “red” in the various evaluation categories. The Commission has published carefully worded descriptions of what these categories mean, ranging from all cornerstone objectives being met to a significant reduction in the safety margin for a particular parameter. The good news is that you had to read trade publications to know about this. The media didn’t distort and sensationalize it; they ignored it.

Also, last December 15 the NRC issued its design certification for the Westinghouse AP600 advanced nuclear power plant. There are now three advanced reactor designs approved for construction in the United States. This means that, for the next 15 years, any company wishing to build a new nuclear plant here can choose from one of these standard designs, with their enhanced safety features and simpler, modular construction, and know that a significant amount of the licensing work is already done.

It may seem far-out to worry about new reactor orders when none have been forthcoming for more than 25 years, but who knows? In March, rumors surfaced that one company is seriously considering building a second reactor at a one-reactor site it now operates. With environmental regulations and lawsuits beginning to cripple coal-burning plants, and with nukes’ superior performance of late, why not?

It appears the NRC has made significant progress in rationalizing the nuclear regulation process. I believe this new environment is a direct result of the fact that, by and large, politicians and the media are ignoring nuclear energy. Let’s hope 60 Minutes and others don’t suddenly notice that the industry is still alive and decide to do a hatchet job on it, as they did in the 1970s. Nuclear power might even thrive if it experiences a few more years of benign neglect from the media.