Monday, February 14, 2011

The NRC Loses Its Way: Why Should Controversial Plants Take Longer to Review?

Unequal Treatment for Similar Nuclear Plants

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.)


Martin Burkle said...

One way to make all of the requests take the same time would be to set aside time for intervenors even if there are no intervenors. The relicense process would perhaps take 5 years, but all of the relicense processes would take the same time. This is not an ideal situation. I would rather have a shorter time if there are no intervenors.

Currently, both Southern and Scana, are waiting through a 4 month scheduled intervention waiting for their COL. There are no intervenors. Both are really ready to start construction but they have to wait 4 more months for nothing to happen.

Be careful what you wish for.

donb said...

If the relicense process for Vermont Yankee took an extra 4 months due to intervenors, there would probably be few complaints. As it stands now, it has taken nearly 3 years longer and still counting.

I guess all license renewals are treated equally, but some are more equal than others...

Mike Mulligan said...

It sounds liek with the House Republicans and now the Senate republicans, you notice both political parties are not all adds up to the Keating Five. This isn’t about Vermont Yankee or Pilgrim...the mad dog rabid Republicans want to reduce regulations nationwide and intimidate the NRC commissioner. This is all out of the old Republican playbook.

Unknown said...

Great article Meredith! I agree that the public should have an input in the licensing process, but it should not necessarily be weighted equally to that of a nuclear physicist, for instance. It happens all the time in the media: one quote from a nuclear expert who has decades of primary experience in the field, next to a quote from a Greenpeace member, who has done a few google searches on nuclear energy and is repeating false information from an unknown source. The two perspectives simply are not of equal merit or relevance, and should not be treated as such.

Unlike much of the media, the NRC is in a position to disregard public concerns that are not based in fact, and they should exercise that ability to the fullest extent to minimize unnecessary costs and untimely delays. The anti-nuclear community is going to be upset if a project gets licensed next year or in ten years, so we might as well stop trying to appease them by delaying the process.

Atomikrabbit said...

After watching Sen. Reid’s hand-picked protégé Jaczko so rapidly elevated to Chairman by President Obama (for the express purpose of blocking Yucca Mountain), anyone who thinks today’s NRC isn’t politicized has their head deep in the Nevada schist.

Paul Blanch said...


You are absolutely correct with respect to regulations and inspections. Nuclear power plants are licensed and are suppose to be inspected per the requirements of 10 CFR 50 and other parts of 10 CFR.

The problem is that neither the NRC nor Entergy can identify which regulations are applicable to a particular plant such as Vermont Yankee.

So when a a plant such as VY applies to renew its license under 10 CFR 54 and members of the public such as myself and New England Coalition ask how the plant complies with the requirements, the NRC and Entergy have a nearly impossible task of demonstrating compliance.

It is my strongest belief that if VY were required to identify and comply with the regulations the cost of this effort would make the plant non competitive.

The submerged cables are a typical example. There are clear requirements under 10 CFR 50 including Appendix A for these cables yet the NRC will not impose the requirements.

The problem with the relicensing delay is that when NEC or any member of the public asks how, there is no answer.

The root cause of the problem is the inspection stations and its inspectors, the NRC.

Every car (Nuclear Plant) just drives through and gets an OK unless there is a member of the public telling the NRC that the hydraulic lines and the electrical wiring is defective and about to fail.

In all of my efforts I am only requesting one thing and that is the identification and enforcement the applicable Federal and State regulations. Nothing more.

Anonymous said...

Jaczko is definitely political. The others? Not so much. Bill Magwood, for example, is a man of integrity and conscience. The others appear to be capable and reasonable. If the Chairman imposes a political agenda (e.g., slow-walking the Yucca Mountain license, a clear violation of Federal Law), Congress has a duty to remedy the situation.

Bill Young said...

I, like many pronuclear people, grow impatient with the relicensing process. However, it is important to remember that, as long as the application was filed in a timely manner (as was VY), that the existing license is extended until the application is adjudicated.


Mike Mulligan said...

Remember, the nuclear industry and Entergy has placed themselves in a extraordinarily vulnerable are walking out on thinner and thinner ice. You are in a very fragile condition. If VY or any Entergy plant, even a non Entergy plant, if we get a Davis Besse or TMI level event, the perception of lying would make it more energetic, the current condition of VY would leverage the fallout from a accident. It would turn a local or regional event into a full fledge national media and political frenzy lasting over a decade or more.

Anonymous said...

Which shows the irony of the energy safety issue in the cruelest sense. How many people were hurt or killed in the Davis Besse situation? Answer: none. How many people were hurt or killed in the TMI accident? Answer: zero. You anti-nuclear people are the ones who are walking out on thinner and thinner ice. You are agitating for nuclear plants to be shutdown yet you know full well what generation source will replace it: natural gas.

Let's looks at the recent safety record of gas pipelines. February 14, 2011, a pipeline blew up in Northern Ohio, fire and explosion seen for miles, minor property damage, no one hurt or killed, thankfully. February, 2011, Allentown, PA: five people killed, including a four month-old infant, several homes destroyed/damaged in a pipeline explosion. September, 2010, San Bruno, CA: four people killed and an entire neighborhood incinerated in a gas pipeline explosion. Where is the media and political "frenzy" over people dying in these horrible manners? Why aren't you agitating to shut down the gas industry? And you have the nerve to call out the nuclear industry for being on thin ice, when what you propose to replace it actually kills people by the dozens, year in and year out, while nuclear plants harm no one, and have little chance of doing so?

Meredith Angwin said...

I would like to thank everyone who has commented. Briefly speaking, I do not agree with Paul Blanch that without intervenors, the NRC wouldn't even bother to look at the plants, but just let them "drive through." There is plenty of evidence that the NRC inspects plants!

Suzanne, I agree that not all sources are of equal weight, but even uninformed people must have the opportunity to bring up their concerns. My issue is that these concerns right now don't become part of generic rule-making, but rather they just lengthen the process of re-licensing for individual plants.

In my "business sign" analogy, it would be the equivalent of someone not being able to remodel their store because "we haven't made the rules yet on what kind of sign you can have." The owner might answer "Well, I am in compliance with the existing rules." To which the answer: "Yes, but you are probably not in compliance with the new rules that don't exist yet!" This answer would probably get the zoning board sued! Yet that is what happens with nuclear plants.

And yes, I have been very very very tired of people dying of inhaling coal dust or being blown up by gas pipelines while the media shrugs "so it goes." However, the media gets all excited by the idea that, under some elaborate scenario, someone could conceivably be hurt by a nuclear plant...that gets the column inches!

Bill Rodgers said...

To respond to several of Mr. Blanch’s comments:

I am not familiar with the details of the submerged cabling issue Mr. Blanch discusses and since Mr. Blanch included no references, I will respond more about the generalities of Mr. Blanch’s comments.

It is readily apparent from wording and tone of the comments provided by Mr. Blanch that he and the NEC do not intend to actually ensure Vermont Yankee is safe. If Mr. Blanch and the NEC were actually concerned with real plant safety then the following comment would not have been stated by Mr. Blanch:

"It is my strongest belief that if VY were required to identify and comply with the regulations the cost of this effort would make the plant non competitive"

Why use the term non-competitive? Why is Mr Blanch and the NEC concerned with the competitiveness of VY when their claim is for safety? Why celebrate the fact that Vermont Yankee is now the longest running relicensing activity currently within the NRC relicensing group if plant safety were truly the concern?

If Mr. Blanch and the NEC were truly concerned about safety then the issue of non-competitiveness would not have been brought up. If Mr. Blanch were truly concerned about plant safety then Mr. Blanch would focus not on malicious compliance with the regulations that only results in unnecessary added costs for both the ratepayers as well as taxpayers. Instead, Mr. Blanch would focus on real solutions to real problems but that is not happening. Someone who is concerned about safety would celebrate the successes of the relicensing activities the make the plant safer not the fact that VY relicensing is take 2-4 times longer than any other similar licensing activities.

Instead, Mr. Blanch and the NEC focus their energy on malicious compliance issues that then convolutes the public involvement phase of the relicensing process.

It is a well known phenomena that strict, literal compliance to regulations does not necessarily result in increased safety in any industry be it natural gas, nuclear, chemical processing, etc since the regulations are not written for each specific site. But then Mr. Blanch appears to understand that concept since he states the following:

"the NRC and Entergy have a nearly impossible task of demonstrating compliance."

It is also well known that variances, safety reviews and other regulated mechanisms are allowed by the NRC and used by plants to justify technical differences between site-specific implementation of code-regulated activities and the codes themselves. This fact alone under normal circumstances would seem to invalidate Mr. Blanch’s arguments since submerged cabling issues are neither discussed in NUREG 1907 nor its amendment. That would seem to indicate both Vermont Yankee and the NRC have dealt with this specific issue using a different licensing and safety review avenue instead of the relicensing process.

However, I am not entirely familiar with the details of his comments relative to his concerns of compliance with 10CFR50 and 10CFR54 as Mr. Blanch. If Mr. Blanch has technical or licensing information he wishes to provide to this forum such as a weblink to NEC memos sent to the NRC stating the concerns he discusses, I am sure many of us pro-nuke types will be more than happy to review it and provide comments.
It appears due to the political (not technical) nature of Vermont Yankee’s relicensing activities there seems to be a focus on the part of the NRC to allow significantly more weight to the anti-nuclear groups then to the technical people who are actually signing their name to the legal relicensing and safety review documentation.

Therefore, I dispute Mr. Blanch’s final comment where he states that the only concern on his part is enforcement of federal regulations. I would say that Mr. Blanch’s comments about adherence to the regulations are more analogous to a Trojan horse situation. The ultimate goal of Mr. Blanch and the NEC is to close down Vermont Yankee not make the plant safer to operate.

Mike Mulligan said...

Can one even imagine a day, when our energy resources would not tear us apart in competition and derision, but would coalesce all as together as we never could be before.

When is the day we could all be one nation?

Meredith Angwin said...

I hope that day will come.

Anonymous said...

Touche. Solid arguments. Keep up the great effort.