The Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Working Itself Out of a Job

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Working Itself Out of a Job
AP Photo/John Bazemore, File

Earlier this year, Westinghouse Electric Company filed for chapter eleven bankruptcy, citing “certain financial and construction challenges,” related to its U.S. nuclear power plant projects.  The bland phrase conceals the source of the challenges, which in this case is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The NRC’s heavy-handed and capricious regulatory approach has engendered enormous uncertainty within the nuclear energy industry and made it impossible to build a new nuclear power plant. Indeed, no new plant has been built in the U.S. in 30 years. The Westinghouse bankruptcy is just the latest chapter in a decades-long narrative of a nuclear industry battered by unnecessarily burdensome regulation.

In the early 2000s, new reactor designs and favorable economic conditions gave rise to a much hoped-for nuclear renaissance.  The new designs promised greater simplicity, improved efficiency and enhanced safety features.

Before construction of a nuclear power plant can begin, the NRC must approve the design to ensure safety. In 2002, Westinghouse submitted the first version of their AP1000 reactor design to the NRC for approval. Westinghouse’s design was first approved by the NRC in 2006 and by 2009, the Georgia Public Service Commission approved the construction of two new AP1000 reactors. Just three months later, however, the NRC pulled the rug out from under Westinghouse by imposing the Aircraft Impact rule in response to fears of terrorism. This rule requires new reactors to be able to withstand direct impact from a large aircraft.

Prior to 9/11, the NRC had repeatedly withstood political pressure to impose an aircraft impact rule, arguing that such a rule would not enhance safety.  It finally succumbed in the face of the infamous terrorist attacks, but still maintained that “...compliance with the rule is not needed for adequate protection to public health and safety or common defense and security.”  The fact that the rule was not applied to existing plants or even to plants that had obtained construction permits further emphasized the needlessness of the rule.

Unfortunately for Westinghouse, which had not yet acquired a construction permit, this led to a protracted and financially burdensome period of further redesigns.  One such design was rejected on the basis that being made sufficiently rigid to withstand that impact of a jetliner, it was no longer flexible enough to withstand an earthquake.

Finally, two and a half years later, the final design certification was approved.

During that time period, resources had to be dedicated to changing the design rather than preparing for construction. This delay contributed to the cost overruns and missed deadlines that eventually led to Westinghouse’s failure. Westinghouse’s fate is still unknown, but as the only company building new plants in the U.S., their bankruptcy could discourage the nuclear industry from developing new plants for the foreseeable future.

This is detrimental to the overall energy outlook in the U.S. Nuclear power is an important component of U.S. electricity production, reliably generating about a fifth of the power we consume.  Regulatory resistance has prevented the building of new plants, but the industry has done an impressive job enhancing existing plants so that they can operate more than 90 percent of the time, up from 50 percent in the 1970s. While nuclear energy has its own environmental drawbacks, it also boasts several environmental advantages over its competitors.

Though highly publicized incidents make many fear nuclear energy, if safety is measured by the number of deaths per unit of energy produced, U.S. nuclear energy production is actually the safest energy source. In response to public concerns and pressure for safety-related measures, however, the NRC passes even more regulations.

Promoting safety is important, but some of these regulations increase costs for the industry without substantially increasing security. When energy companies have higher operating costs, they will charge more for what they produce. In this way, costs are eventually passed onto consumers in the form of higher electricity prices and should be carefully considered before any regulation is put in place.

Everyone should be concerned about safety, but because nuclear is already one of the safest energy sources, we should also be concerned about the cost of too many rules. As the movement away from fossil fuels becomes more popular and as world leaders look to secure energy independence, nuclear becomes an increasingly more attractive option. To accomplish these goals, the NRC should consider scaling back unnecessary regulations that have little real effect on safety, but carry high costs.

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