USA | Nuclear Proposals Draw Ire

Posted on July 14, 2011



The nuclear-power industry voiced concerns Wednesday about new regulatory proposals that could require significant upgrades without taking their costs into account.



A dozen major recommendations to improve plant safety were included in a report from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force that was created after the March accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

The panel also proposed essentially setting aside a 1988 rule that has protected the nuclear-power industry against costly upgrades. The industry has used the rule, which requires benefits to public safety to be balanced against industry costs, to beat back regulatory changes it didn’t like.

Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer for the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, said the proposal to set aside the cost-protection rule amounted to “sweeping change.” The NRC “will have to think long and hard,” he added, before embarking on such a “major policy shift.”

The NRC is expected to discuss the issue Tuesday when it considers the task force’s report.

The cost-protection rule was created to shield the nuclear sector after its costs spiraled out of control because of the NRC’s reaction to the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania. Billions of dollars of added costs were imposed on the nuclear-power sector, which the industry said stalled its growth for more than two decades.

The cost-protection rule adopted in 1988 has insulated the industry against major upgrades without proof that human health benefits exceeded those costs. In the calculation, a human life was valued at about $3 million. Critics say the rule undervalues human lives, noting that other federal agencies place a value on a human life of between $5 million and $9 million for the purpose of cost-benefit calculations in other areas.

There was a key exception to the rule: The NRC could impose any requirement without the cost-benefit analysis if the change was needed for “adequate protection.” The task force said all of its recommendations should be imposed under the “adequate protection” clause, and that the commission should “redefine what level of protection of the public health is regarded as adequate.”

The task force also recommended that nuclear plants be capable of shutting down and remaining in a safe condition for at least three days without power from the outside electrical grid or on-site backup generators. Currently, U.S. plants are required to have four to eight hours of backup battery power if grid power or generators won’t work.

The plant at Fukushima Daiichi experienced a total loss of power for many days, leading to damage to nuclear fuel at several reactors, hydrogen explosions and the release of dangerous levels of radiation.

The task force also said that many guidelines—some mandatory, some not—should be codified into a single set of instructions that would be easier for the industry to follow and easier for regulators to enforce.

Nuclear experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, critics of the NRC, said the task force’s recommendations could have been broader, but urged the agency to follow through on the insights from the incident in Japan.

“It’s not enough for the NRC to order safety nets,” said David Lochbaum, who directs the group’s Nuclear Safety Project. “They must ensure that the safety nets are actually installed at the plants.”

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