Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Regulatory Environment in Nuclear Energy

In an analysis of an editorial in Sunday's New York Times, Half Sigma makes a case for nuclear energy:

But the NY Times editorial fails the mention the most important thing our government should be doing, which is to allow the use of nuclear power again. I say 'allow'” because our policies make it clear that nuclear power is not favored. After the Shoreham Nuclear Power Station fiasco in which billions of dollars were spent to build a power plant that was then closed and never used, no private company is going to build a nuclear power plant again unless the regulatory environment is changed, and that requires government action.
Actually, a lot about the regulatory environment has improved in recent years -- so much so, that the NuStart Energy consortium is committed to testing the new combined construction and operating license (COL) process that could lead to the construction of a new nuclear power plant.

There have been other changes as well, in particular, the rise of safety-focused regulation and the application of the principle of "realistic conservatism" on the part of the NRC and reactor operators. Back in March, NEI President and CEO Skip Bowman addressed this issue at the NRC's annual Regulatory Information Conference:
In short, reactor safety, security and emergency planning should work synergistically, in a conservative, but realistic way, to protect public health and safety regardless of whether challenges to plant safety are operational, acts of God, or acts of terrorists.

In the past, pure deterministic regulatory approaches led, in some cases, to gross over design in the zeal to build in unrealistic margins to protect against unrealistic events. This new concept, introduced only a few years ago, calls for application of realistic engineering, physics and experience centered on safety.

The NRC took the first step in this direction when it transformed the reactor oversight process to common sense, objective criteria that are focused on those systems and components that are most important to safety.

First thought to be unworkable, the safety-focused reactor oversight process demonstrates that this concept can work and bring practical discipline and rigor to the process.
Indeed, much has changed about the regulatory process in recent years. So much so, that NRC Chairman Nils Diaz has said that no one can credibly claim that the NRC's regulatory oversight process is standing in the way of new plant construction.

Granted, there is still plenty of uncertainty to deal with, including making sure that the new COL process works as intended. Eventual passage of the energy bill will help too. So while some obstacles remain to the construction of new nuclear capacity, the landscape is looking brighter for the nuclear sector than it has in several decades.

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1 comment:

Half Sigma said...

Thanks for linking to my blog. I was unaware that positives steps have been taken to improve the process.

But still, companies are very risk averse when billions of dollars are at stake, so power companies really need some sort of guarantee that if they begin the process they will be allowed to complete it and operate the power plant.