Nuclear plant licensees could face an added level of state regulation just as they move to cut costs.Permanent disposal capacity for low-level radioactive waste (LLW) and spent nuclear fuel, long a top priority for the nuclear industry, has not yet become a reality. But the storage question draws more attention for its impact on nuclear power costs as electric generation grows more competitive. So far, most discussion has centered on fuel-cycle costs: Whether "back-end" costs (waste storage, disposal, and decommissioning) will render nuclear generating assets uncompetitive.
At the same time, this lack of disposal capacity has created another significant, though more subtle, effect. It has forced commercial nuclear power plant licensees to rely more heavily on onsite storage for LLW and spent fuel, prompting state agencies to show increased interest in regulating nuclear operations. This heightened interest, coming as it does when nuclear utilities are increasingly sensitive to their relationships with state regulators, threatens to erode exclusive federal authority.
If the trend continues, power reactor licensees may attempt to protect their economic viability by accommodating state regulation of LLW and spent-fuel storage. But such action could expose licensees to the costs and uncertainty of overlapping and often inconsistent regulation. Preserving federal preemption in regulation-while ensuring favorable relations with state regulators and yet preserve traditional federal preemption-will require support from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and perhaps even from Congress. It will certainly require a unified proactive industry effort.Eroding Federal Preemption