Last year was pivotal for nuclear power. On May 13, 1994, the board of directors of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) voted 9-4 to terminate reactors WNP-1 and WNP-3, triggering a dismantling of the two mothballed reactors, both about 70 percent complete. For ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest, the decision offered no relief from bills for construction of the two plants (em recently estimated at about $350 million per year for the next 24 years1. In many ways, WPPSS and its troubled history is a microcosm of the U.S. nuclear industry, now largely brought to a halt.Meanwhile, other nations continue to build nuclear reactors, such as France, Japan, Korea, and China. Still others are planning to start nuclear programs, including Indonesia, Thailand, and Turkey. This contrast between domestic and foreign nuclear experience remains largely hidden from view in America.
So what went wrong?
Common journalistic lore tells us that the WPPSS default was a case of bad management (em of farmers acting as nuclear construction contractors, of reactors built when they weren't needed. In fact, there were management problems; past managing director Bob Ferguson has said so. The public has also been told there were labor problems. And yes, labor leaders concede that too. But what the public has not been told is the tremendous impact of regulatory agencies upon the domestic nuclear industry.
A recent study indicates that 60 to 80 percent of the nuclear cost overruns in the United States are attributable to regulations,2 not to management or labor. That large power plants were built in the United States in the early 70's for $150 million suggests the magnitude of the subsequent regulatory costs as well. A quick look reveals that the problems encountered at WPPSS mirrored those from around the country. They fall within five broad categories:
s Rules. Exploding regulations boosted construction and operating costs by 500 percent and more.
s Backfitting. With continual changes in regulations, low bidders on construction contracts could expect to make millions from change orders.
s Stubbornness. Reluctant to share and learn from each other, utilities forfeited their collective knowledge.
s Secrecy. Media relations failed to communicate effectively with the public.
s Bad Press. An unholy alliance between critics and journalists soured public opinion.
Only recently have utilities opened up to discuss nuclear power. Ken Harrison, president and chief executive officer of Portland General Electric, owner of the recently terminated Trojan
reactor, acknowledged that poor communication played a big part in forcing the plant's closure. He stated:
"People were not prepared. We didn't lay the groundwork to help them, help allay the skepticism, the uncertainty, the uneasiness . . . . We know we have all the technical expertise. We know how to build these things. We know what's most economic. Just let us do it and stay out of our hair."3Historically, the public has been frightened of the technology. A few more regulations, good or bad, promoted under the concept of greater safety, would appear reasonable to most persons. But the direct relationship between regulation and energy costs still eludes the public.
A Window on the Critics
Regulatory excesses have been recognized for years as a weapon for increasing costs. The Wall Street Journal quotes Barry Commoner:
"They [the antinukes], would succeed [in stopping nuclear power] through harassment tactics that would delay nuclear plants, escalate their costs and make them uneconomical to build."4
The underlying intent to make energy more costly in the United States is evident throughout antinuclear literature. A handbook prepared by opponents of the Seabrook and Shoreham reactors described the shutdowns as "successes" in antinuclear activism.5 With the concurrence of New York Gov. Cuomo, the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) was able to write Shoreham off as a loss. This shift of the payment for the Shoreham reactor (em from Long Island ratepayers to the American taxpayers (em took place without so much as a "thank you" to the American public.
Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire asked rhetorically at a meeting of scientists in 1985 (referring to the escalating costs of the Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire): "What is more anticonsumerist than those consumer groups who go about making electricity intentionally more costly to the consumer?"
Congressmen also discovered that such anticonsumerist activities improved their popularity. Ed Markey of Massachusetts stated in a campaign brochure: "If I am reelected I will obtain another Subcommittee chairmanship, which will enable me to finish my efforts to abolish nuclear power in this country."6
The Salzburg (Austria) Conference for a Non-Nuclear Future (1977) also discussed these tactics.7 F.C. Olds, editor of Power Engineering magazine and an observer at the meeting, reported: "Economics was a crucial topic. Principal discussions have dealt with strategies for driving nuclear power costs to unbearable heights." Olds, quoting Walter Patterson of Friends of the Earth in Great Britain: "The real leverage in the safety implications of nuclear power lies in their use to drive costs upward. If we try to make systems safe, they become more expensive. Eventually, we get to the point where we can convince ourselves that they are adequately safe, but we no longer want to pay for them."8
Antinuclear fervor comes from ideology (em just as some may feel it was a mistake to discover the polio vaccine or even attempt to discover the causes of AIDS. John Davis of Earth First Journal has stated, "I suspect that eradication of smallpox was wrong. It [smallpox] played an important part in balancing ecosystems."9 Similarly: "[A]s radical environmentalists we can see AIDS not as a problem, but as a necessary solution."10
Risk analyses, many performed by agencies outside the nuclear industry, show that there is no safer way to generate electric power in bulk than from a nuclear plant.11 Simple body and injury counts (the bases of risk analyses) repeatedly demonstrate that (em relative to coal, oil, wood, conservation, and other options (em nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy available. The hypocrisy of the antinuclear movement is never clearer than in a discussion of the risks of burning coal (10,000-20,000 deaths per year). Nuclear energy does, of course, carry risks. But they are invariably smaller than the risks of these other forms of energy. Nuclear energy's safety record is superior to that of most forms of energy production, and the envy of those involved with industrial safety.12
In fact, the nuclear safety record remains a major irritant and
impediment to the critics' agenda. Patricia Ross reported this statement from a conference leader: "Let's face it, we don't want safe plants (em we want the ones being planned to be blocked, and the ones operating to be shut down."13
These political and ideological pressures have forced the regulatory agencies to act as the authors and enforcers of a prohibitive flood of costly regulations and regulatory changes. And what enforcers. Their efforts have imposed needlessly high costs on electrical energy, and have weakened the nation's competitiveness in the world markets of steel, aluminum, and other manufactured goods, with a concomitant loss of highly skilled manufacturing jobs. These trends continue today.
More and more, the United States must look to Japan, France, Korea, Canada, England, and other nations to find the nuclear technologies that were once largely its domain: reactor technology, waste technology (France and England sell their waste services commercially around the world), breeder technology, isotope technology, and geologic repository technology. Our nation has walked away from high-tech multibillion-dollar markets due to lack of leadership and an abundance of fear.
The close relationship between increasing regulations and increasing construction costs is stunning. For example, Olds pointed out that during the few years prior to 1979, the Federal Register was publishing 7,000 pages of new regulations annually.14 During 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island accident, the Federal Register published 77,000 pages of new regulations (em 290 pages per working day. Just how many of these affected the nuclear industry? Too many, I would venture. Anyway, knowing what the regulations actually required is much more important than a mere page count. Let's take an example.
A Technical Example
Consider General Design Criterion 4, set down in Title 10, Part 50, Appendix A of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR 50 App. A): "These (reactor) structures, systems, and components shall be appropriately protected against dynamic effects, including the
effects of missiles, pipe whipping, and discharging fluids, that may result from equipment failures and from events and conditions outside the nuclear power unit."
Pipe whipping is a phenomenon that has never been adequately demonstrated, let alone demonstrated to be a real problem in a reactor (or anywhere else). Thus, there is little or no engineering basis for the requirement of pipe restraints. Steel pipe is alleged to whip about after a hypothetical pipe break, much like a fire hose. Implementing this regulation required the manufacture, inspection, testing, acceptance, approval, and installation of costly steel restraints, some weighing several tons. By a conservative estimate, it cost U.S. utilities (em and, therefore, ratepayers (em about $500 million to protect themselves against events that don't occur.
But the sad story of regulatory instability doesn't end here. On July 18, 1986, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a proposed rule that modified Criterion 4, essentially rescinding the requirement after it had already cost utilities and ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This is what a mere seven lines of regulation cost the industry; the price the United States has paid for thousands of pages of such
regulations is staggering. Promulgating regulations, however capricious, was considered laudable behavior at the NRC. The threat of even more regulation kept the industry silent. A past NRC commissioner's statement, "I don't give a damn about nuclear energy, I just want to make it safe," sums up the mob mentality among the regulators. In 1991, Kent Hansen et al. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) issued a report stating: "What is unique to the United States is a highly antagonistic relationship between regulators and utilities."15 Insiders have known this for 20 years.
Obviously, a few of the new regulations did bring improvements. For example, great strides have been made in the past 10 years in what is known as "human factors engineering," or the interface between man and machine. This area has applications in computer "friendliness," cockpit design in airliners, automobile design, as well as control room design for reactors. Reactor control rooms are now much more "user friendly" than those completed earlier.
A second example relates to emergency preparedness and evacuation exercises, which have organized and coordinated the local, state, and federal agencies that would be involved in plant-related emergencies. These emergency plans have often been activated during real situations. Interestingly, most of the emergencies have not involved the nuclear plant itself, but rather nearby chemical spills, railroad derailments, and other accidents having nothing to do with the nuclear power plant. The cost of the emergency facilities, communication centers, emergency practices, and training have largely been borne by the nuclear utility (em not by those responsible for the neighboring emergencies.
Other improvements include the 24-hour presence of a "shift technical advisor" in the control room. He or she enhances the ability of the reactor operators to respond to off-normal conditions. These and other changes are good; they have been implemented at relatively low cost. But the vast majority of regulations offer little justification in the way of engineering or safety improvements. Fear, not wisdom, drives the regulatory process even today.
Too late for many utilities and ratepayers, the NRC and Congress have at last come to recognize these regulatory excesses. For example, Congressman James Broyhill entered the following statement into the Congressional Record: "It is now widely recognized that many of the problems plaguing our nation's nuclear power program are due in large measure to the manner in which the federal government regulates this industry."16
In his report to Congress, issued March 11, 1985, James Tourtellotte, chairman of the NRC Regulatory Reform Task Force, made this statement about the backfitting rule (10 CFR 50.109):
"The primary purpose of the [backfitting] rule when it was passed on March 31, 1970, was to improve the stability of the licensing by minimizing the alterations of structures, systems or components of a nuclear power plant after the construction permit had been issued. The rule has been selectively ignored by the [NRC] staff for nearly 15 years. There is a substantial amount of evidence suggesting that the staff's backfitting practices, which have cost consumers billions of dollars, have made nuclear plants more difficult to operate and maintain, have injected uncertainty and paralyzing delay into the administrative process, and in some instances may have reduced rather than enhanced public health and safety."17NRC regulations have also given the American public the impression that nuclear energy is inherently costly and inherently lengthy in construction. It is neither, as other nations are demonstrating.
There are several indications that the NRC is revisiting many of these issues with an increased emphasis on reasonableness.18 That is good. However, it is too late for the terminated reactors around the nation. The WPPSS was not prepared to build five plants simultaneously during a period of unreasoned regulations and unruly, powerful critics.
The regulatory problems of the U.S. nuclear industry make up only a part of the total problem. Such excesses are pervasive today in other areas of environmental regulation. Today the American public pays over $115 billion per year to comply with the current body of environmental regulations,19 excluding the hundreds of billions incurred in the construction and operation of U.S. nuclear power plants. Much of this is unjustified. And this does not include the billions in additional costs imposed by state environmental regulations. These
regulations (and the associated compliance costs) increase dramatically each year. Collectively, compliance costs will contribute little to improved health, safety, or a better environment for the American people.
It has been said that a people get the government they deserve. The American people deserve a better and more effective government, better judiciaries, and commonsense health, science, energy, and environmental regulations. t
Michael R. Fox, who earned a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Washington, has 29 years of experience in the nuclear energy field (em at the Hanford plant and the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and served as national chairman for the ANS public information committee, 1990-92. (Reprinted as a condensed version of the original article, which first appeared in Technology: Journal of the Franklin Institute, ISSN 1072-9240, Volume 332A, 1995, #1, pp. 53-60. Permssion granted by the publisher, Cognizant Communication Corp.)
Short on CreditIn 1983, the Washington Public Power Supply System defaulted on $2.5 billion in construction bonds after the courts essentially ruled that publicly owned utilities operating in the State of Washington (municipals and public utility districts, representing about two-thirds of the participants) had no authority to pledge credit to WPPSS, even though the agreements were found valid in Oregon. See, Chemical Bank v. WPPSS, 99 Wash.2d 772, 666 P.2d 329, 53 PUR4th 1 (1983).
The case drew criticism in law reviews, and may have been influenced by Washington state politics. (Justices on the Washington State supreme court are elected by the voters.) Nevertheless, the case marks the largest bond default in U.S. history.Long on ConcreteCompare the Trojan nuclear plant, located on the Columbia River in Oregon, with WNP-2, completed in 1984 for a total cost of $3.2 billion. The Trojan reactor was completed only 8 years earlier for a cost of $460 million-seven times less. Why?
WNP-2 contains more than double the amount of concrete (2.4 times), more than double the cable trays (2.4 times), and a spectacular six times the amount of electrical conduit, WNP-2 weighs two-and-a-half times as much as Trojan.
The quantities of materials in the two plants are not be dependent upon management practices. Nor on rates of inflation or interest rates. The differences stem from a huge explosion in regulations and, worse, changes in existing regulations.Political Equationsmore safety demands = more regulation
more regulation = higher nuclear costs
higher nuclear costs = advantage for higher-cost energy (coat, oil, etc.)
fossil advantage = reduced nuclear availability
reduced availability = greater popularity for some Congressmen
greater popularity = reelection1. "WPPSS Votes to Terminate Nos. 1 & 3," by John Stang, Tri-City Herald, May 14, 1994.
2. "Nuclear Power Plants (em What They Cost," by J.P.M., Maidment et al., available from Lewis, Mitchell & Moore, Vienna, Virginia, July 1987.
3. Northwest Energy News, Northwest Power Planning Council, July/August, 1993.
4. Editorial, Wall Street Journal, May 2, 1983.
5. "Shutdown Strategies: Citizens Efforts to Close Nuclear Power Plants," by Joseph Kriesberg, Public Citizen's Critical Mass Project, New York, May 1987.
6. Campaign literature by Congressman Ed Markey (MA), signed by Rep. Markey and dated June 28, 1984.
7. There is constant collaboration and global computer networking among the international groups of critics.
8. "Outlook for Nuclear Power," F.C. Olds, Power Engineering, Nov. 1981.
9. Reported in Organization Trends, Capital Research Center, January, 1991.
10. Earth First Journal, quoted by Lynn Wallis in "Vital Speeches of the Day", Nov. 1991.
11. See for example, Reference 5, Chapter 1, Before Its Too Late, Bernard L. Cohen, 1983. Footnote 5 in Chapter 1 of Cohen's book contains 23 references to comparative risks in energy production. Nuclear energy is invariably rated highly, even one by nuclear critics.
12. Before It's Too Late, By Bernard L. Cohen, Plenum Press, 1983.
13. A past member of Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy. She was once expelled from a conference of the nuclear critics (Nuclear Information Resource Service, March 23, 1983).
14. Outlook for Nuclear Power, F.C. Olds, Power Engineering, November, 1981.
15. "Making Nuclear Power Work," by Kent Hansen, Dietmar Winje, Eric Beckjord, Elias P. Gyftopoulos, Michael Golay, and Richard Lester, Technology Review, Feb.-March, 1989.
16. Congressional Record, March 10, 1985.
17. Report on Backfitting and Licensing Practices at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Regulatory Reform Task Force, James Tourtellote, Chairman, March 11, 1985. (Backfitting is the word used to described the results of changing the regulations after construction began. In many instances it meant tearing out concrete, rebat, piping, conduit, wiring, etc., and rebuilding per the next new regulation.)
18. "Achieving Effective Regulation Through the Application of Universal Principles", speech (S-05-94) presented by Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 27th Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Annual Conference, Hiroshima Japan, April 13-15, 1994.
19. Science, Editorial by Dr. Phil Abelson, June 25, 1993. Abelson is a past president of the National Academy of Science.
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