Regulating Nuclear Power in the United States

This week’s readings provide perspective on the challenge of creating effective and efficient government regulation of the nuclear industry. Federal nuclear energy policy appears to be caught up in the countervailing forces of demands for safety and secure regulation as well the desire to incentivize a low carbon-emission energy source’s production. The results are expensive and conflicting. We’re currently witnessing massive expenditures to support the construction of two new nuclear plants, the first of their kind since the 1970s, while other reactors shut down, unable to afford repairs and uncompetitive electricity rates compared with gas.

This conflict is especially observable in the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future’s 2012 report to the Energy Secretary and his subsequent adoption of many of their recommendations in his “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-level Radioactive Waste”, where both parties avoid actively addressing the issue of Yucca Mountain, instead focusing on the need to create a new “consent-based” disposal facility siting process. The focus on process over substance is understandable, but unhelpful in addressing the problem.

I was also struck by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 2011 report “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century, Near-term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident”. The “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century” report came out directly in response to Fukushima and finds that current NRC procedures consist of “a patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives” that can be improved upon “by including explicit requirements for beyond-design-basis events.” Which is essentially bureaucratese for “better preparations for highly unlikely events.” The report then provides a list of infrastructure and procedural recommendations to enhance mitigation and emergency preparedness.

This is one of a bevy of reports which place special emphasis on the “lessons from Fukushima”. Is this renewed focus on enhanced reactor security merely a product of the freak event that was Fukushima, and would these new regulations have ever been proposed otherwise? The support for nuclear energy seems to vary wildly in response to historical accidents, having been quite popular in the 50s and 60s, and then falling dramatically in response to events like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The much-heralded “nuclear renaissance” of the 21st century had barely gotten started when it was hit by the twin forces of Fukushima and rising gas prices. Can an industry this dependent on the whims of fate ever realistically achieve a favorable economic climate, strong public support and an accommodating regulatory framework, all at the same time? The odds seem to be stacked against it. — E. S.