A few days ago, two ranking Republican senators wrote a letter to NRC Chairman Jaczko about the glacial pace of license renewal for nuclear plants that are perceived to be controversial. Platts reported on the letter, quoting Senators James Inhofe and David Vitter. These two senators said that the NRC has developed a "dual standard" for license applications, granting licenses quickly in many cases, but allowing "excessive, unmanaged delays for applications perceived to be more controversial."
What kind of delays are we talking about? As I noted in a previous blog post, Vermont Yankee and Duane Arnold are sister plants, BWRs of almost exactly the same size and vintage. However, tracing back from the NRC web page on license renewal, we see that Duane Arnold submitted its renewal application on 10/01/08 and was granted its renewal on 12/16/10, slightly more than two years later. On the other hand, Vermont Yankee submitted its application on 1/27/06 and has not received its renewal yet, more than five years later. In a recent letter from a vice-president of Entergy, Duane Arnold was listed as the second-most reliable of sixteen sister plants, while Vermont Yankee was the fourth-most reliable. Duane Arnold's capacity factor is 93.1% while Vermont Yankee's factor is 92.6%. This difference is certainly not worth three extra years of license review by the NRC.
It's Not About Regulation Anymore
I'm on a private listserve of nuclear communicators, and I sent the group a link to the Platt's article, along with this provocative message:
Read it and weep. The NRC no longer has objective criteria by which it evaluates plants. It's all about what the neighbors think.
The trouble with being provocative is that people got provoked. I received two opposite types of reply from the people in the group:
- Right on, Meredith!
- We can't exclude ordinary people from the process of licensing nuclear plants. It wouldn't be fair.
My answer is simple: Either there are objective criteria for evaluating a plant for relicensing---or there aren't. If the criteria are not objective, the situation is horrendous.
Let's imagine politics mattered for the safety inspections for a car. Say that cars with Obama bumper stickers got a real going-over when it was time for their safety inspections. What if everyone knew that the extent of a safety inspection depended partially on your car, and mostly on how your politics matched the politics of the inspectors or your neighbors? This would be a terrible situation. Sort of like the situation we have now in the nuclear industry.
The NRC is not supposed to have politics as one of its criteria. Supposedly, it doesn't. That should mean that plants are judged against a set of regulations, not against the plant-specific contentions of pro or anti- nuclear groups.
The Voice of the People?
My comments were provocative, and people in my email group had legitimate concerns. Would my comment about unequal treatment end up as a recommendation that ordinary people be excluded from the NRC relicensing process? Such an exclusion was not my intention.
I believe the public should be involved in the licensing and re-licensing process. However, the public should be involved in as it is involved in other public issues. The public should help to make the rules. The public should not be empowered to make exceptions about enforcing the rules. In a democracy, the public make the rules, but many systems are in place to ensure that the rules are enforced fairly.
For example, think of a town that is very proud of its attractive downtown area. The town has strict rules about signs on businesses: No neon signs, and signs must be smaller than a certain standard. The people of the town made those sign rules, but they are enforced on every business equally. If some people think shoe stores are ugly, those people still can't require that a shoe store must have a smaller sign than any other store. Rules are made with general input, and enforced fairly.
Fairness to power plant owners is not some kind of wild new concept that will take decades of trial and error to achieve. The NRC can learn about fair enforcement in many areas, such as zoning. All the NRC has to think about is this:
With Justice for all.
The top photo is from the NRC homepage in July. It shows Chairman Jaczko meeting with intervenors against Vermont Yankee in Brattleboro this summer. At that time, Jaczko met with plant opponents, but declined meetings with plant supporters. The image is more fully described in a previous post on this blog.
Sculpture of Lady Justice by J. L Urban. The statue is part of a court building in the Czech Republic. Lady Justice holds a book instead of scales, and is not blindfolded. I consider her to be Lady Justice for the Regulatory Process. (The usual Wikimedia license.)