Is the Government's War against Baseload Power going Nuclear?


In the aftermath of the August 23rd 5.8 magnitude earthquake on the East coast of the US the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dispatched teams of experts to several of the nuclear plants most affected by the quake to assess any damage to the plants or nuclear safety issues.  The plants performed as designed during the quake and powered down or were routinely removed from service for inspection, as of today we know of no material damage to any nuclear plant from the quake.

This action was in addition to the NRC action forming a safety review team in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake to assess any implications from that quake on US nuclear power plant operations.  Nor was this the first time such a seismic review has taken place in the US.

The NRC conducted seismic reviews in the 1990’s and issued a report on the subject in 2002 concluding there were “no plant vulnerabilities” not already considered in the NRC’s planning, siting, licensing and review of the plants.  In 2005 the NRC decided that new nuclear power plants including some proposed for existing sites had factored in seismic risk assessments that showed risks greater than those of first generation nuclear plants built on those sites.  The NRC released its report from that 2005 assessment and opened a generic issue proceeding (GI-199) to better understand the additional seismic safety margin issues at operating plants.

The latest NRC report concluded that nuclear power plants are safe, the overall seismic risk estimates remain small, and current seismic designs provide safety margin to withstand potential earthquakes exceeding the original design safety standards. But the NRC also said it felt more study was prudent on the additional issues raised to better characterize the safety margin and develop an efficient method for performing future evaluations of new seismic information.

The NRC decided September 1 2011 to conduct that new assessment of seismic risk and released a draft requirements document for public comment.  Its action directs completion of those 2005 vintage update studies within two years.

This is not new news.  The NRC has been “considering” requirements to periodically model earthquake risks using newer, better technology and seismic data since 1991 without taking any definitive action beyond continuing to order monitoring studies.  This has always sounded like a prudent and reasonable thing to do as the technology and seismic science improved but there was and is no evidence to suggest any imminent risks.

The primary reason these periodic studies have shown incremental seismic risk issues is that they have progressively covered more equipment, more components or larger systems in much greater detail and granularity that each of the previous studies.

Despite the recent earthquake there still is no imminent nuclear safety risk, but now there is politics and that may make all the difference.

You can be sure that advocacy groups in these incremental studies will use them to call for more strenuous safety regulations or retrofits of the plants.  This has been the fate of nuclear energy since the beginning and the reason these plants are so expensive and time consuming to build because the planning and engineering is continually second-guessed and the plumbing and wiring and other components have been repeatedly modified after the fact to reduce perceived risk.

What does that have to do with politics?

There are those who have been on a career mission to shut down America’s nuclear power fleet, and this call for additional safety studies is a ready-made platform to undermine the public confidence in nuclear energy.

The problem is that nuclear energy provides about 20% of our national electricity supply and the existing fleet of nuclear power plants have enviable record of high capacity factors, efficiency rates and low operating costs.  An independent study of the performance of merchant nuclear power performed by my firm Global Energy Decisions in 2005 that was included as testimony in FERC‘s Electric Energy Markets Competition Task Force in Docket No. AD05-17-000 showed that efficiency gains from improved operation of divested nuclear plants to merchant generators saved enough energy to power more than 10 million average American homes for one year.

Replacing some or all of America’s nuclear fleet would be enormously expensive and take a long time. Doing so in a political environment where the current administration is waging a literal regulatory war on coal fired power generation in order to reduce power plant emissions would be impossible. And because both coal and nuclear plants are baseload units that run 24/7 year round to assure reliability, they cannot be replaced by building more intermittent wind or coal energy.

If there are real safety issues with America’s nuclear power plants then obviously those risks must be addressed by the NRC.  But a backdoor regulatory strategy to set new ‘politically correct’ rules that make the nuclear plants uneconomic to operate or impossible to permit for license extension seems an infinitely more imminent risk to America’s nuclear power fleet than any safety issues identified to date.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade group that represents the nuclear industry in Washington said it would review the draft requirements with its members and prepare comments for the NRC by the October 31st deadline.

Let’s hope this issue is not used as a way to score political points in the approaching election silly season.  The real imminent risk in this issue is the collateral damage that could undermine American’s energy reliability and our only commercially practicable opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emission using zero emission nuclear energy.