Nuclear regulatory policy
Nuclear regulatory policy (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the federal agency responsible for licensing nuclear power plants and regulating the civilian nuclear power industry. The federal government has broadly preempted the authority of individual U.S. states to regulate the industry. The NRC’s mission is threefold: to protect the public health and safety, to safeguard national security, and to ensure environmental protection.
The NRC licenses plant owners to construct and operate nuclear power reactors and issues a wide variety of technical and procedural rules governing reactor operation. In the United States, electrical utility companies have historically owned and operated nuclear power plants, but restructuring of the utility industry may eventually lead to ownership by other kinds of companies.
The nuclear regulatory system is largely based on self-regulation by plant owners, who are responsible for meeting the NRC’s requirements. Utility company personnel maintain and inspect their companies’ plants and submit regular reports to the NRC. Plant owners must notify the NRC of important safety lapses and equipment malfunctions. As with many industries, federal regulators set forth specific rules, but federal inspectors only spot-check for compliance. After the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) plant in Pennsylvania, the NRC stationed full-time inspectors at all U.S. nuclear power plants to conduct...
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State Regulation (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
U.S. states are largely preempted by federal law from health and safety regulation of the nuclear aspects of nuclear power plants. States retain the authority to regulate other aspects of nuclear plants that are common to all electricity-generating facilities. The most important of these are the ability of state public-service commissions to set utility rates and financial returns on utility investments and the broad powers of state agencies to regulate land use, facility siting, and nonnuclear environmental impacts.
States and members of the public have long been able to apply to the NRC to be granted status as “intervenors” in NRC licensing proceedings. This aspect of the regulatory system has been fundamentally adversarial. NRC licensing hearings have often resembled judicial proceedings in which parties enjoy certain rights with regard to reviewing documents, cross-examination, the right of appeal to the courts, and so forth.
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Antinuclear Activism (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Beginning in the early 1970’s, antinuclear activism and the number of interventions in construction permit and operating license proceedings increased. Industry proponents often claimed that most interventions were mere delaying tactics intended primarily to lengthen licensing times and drive up costs. Critics of the nuclear power industry argued that most interventions were warranted, and many brought to light safety-related problems that would not otherwise have been identified. Studies by government agencies and others concluded that most—but not all—delays in building nuclear plants resulted from factors other than interventions, such as changes in regulatory requirements and construction problems.
With regard to operating plants, the public has little access to the regulatory process. Although NRC regulations permit members of the public to submit a petition to seek a hearing regarding modification or revocation of a utility’s license on the grounds of possible safety or environmental problems, the NRC has granted hearings for only a handful of the hundreds of such petitions received.
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U.S. Regulatory History (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
The American effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II was accompanied by a tight government monopoly on nuclear materials and technology. The 1946 Atomic Energy Act created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which oversaw all aspects of atomic energy, and the powerful congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), which was given authority over all nuclear-related legislation and oversight. Amendments in 1954 loosened the government’s monopoly in an effort to spur the development of a private nuclear power industry. The AEC was given the additional charges of actively promoting the development of commercial nuclear energy and regulating the new industry. Government and private companies cooperated in what was regarded as a joint effort.
Between 1963 and 1974, forty-four U.S. commercial nuclear power plants began operation. Because of the cooperative nature of the endeavor and the relatively few operating facilities, federal regulation was initially modest. However, reactor safety issues soon began to draw media and public attention, and the AEC was widely perceived as too friendly with the industry it was supposed to regulate. In 1974 the U.S. Congress, responding to criticism that the AEC’s dual missions of promotion and regulation were conflicting, replaced the AEC with two new agencies. The task of regulation was given to the newly created NRC. Promotion of nuclear energy was...
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Changes in NRC Regulations (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Beginning in the late 1980’s, the NRC enacted a number of new regulations long sought by the nuclear industry. The most important changes addressed licensing of new reactors, emergency planning, siting, reactor design certification, and operating license extensions. For all reactors licensed through 1996, the NRC followed a two-step licensing process mandated by Congress in 1957. First, a utility company applied for a permit to begin construction. When the plant was completed, the utility applied for an operating license. In numerous cases, intervenors opposed the granting of operating licenses, usually on grounds of safety-related allegations relating to design, construction, or infeasible emergency planning. In 1992 the industry achieved a longtime goal when Congress approved a 1989 NRC regulation change that implemented one-step licensing for new reactors, permitting the NRC to issue a single combined construction and operating license prior to the onset of construction. The rule sharply limited the ability of intervenors to raise environmental and safety issues after a license has been granted, both during construction and before operation begins. Other rule changes in 1989 narrowed intervenors’ procedural rights during licensing hearings.
Following the TMI accident, the NRC adopted regulations requiring the agency to approve state and local emergency response plans before a plant could be granted an...
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Criticism of the NRC (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
The nuclear industry and antinuclear activists alike have criticized the NRC’s regulation, although for different reasons. In the late 1990’s the nuclear industry argued that the NRC’s requirements unnecessarily raise plant operating costs. The industry also complained that the NRC fails to set objective criteria by which adequate levels of safety and licensees’ compliance can be judged and that the agency does not rank the relative safety significance of compliance requirements and adjust regulatory priorities and enforcement emphasis accordingly. Meanwhile, antinuclear activists have asserted that the NRC has generally been allied with the industry and has often failed to maintain an arms-length relationship with its licensees. They also argue that the NRC has retreated from tough regulation, has failed to pursue important safety questions, and has been either unresponsive or obstructive to substantive participation by individuals and citizen groups.
The allegations are not mutually exclusive, and there is evidence to support arguments on both sides. However, it is difficult to deny that there has been a fundamental alignment of interest between the NRC and the nuclear industry. Such relationships between federal regulatory agencies and the industries they regulate are widely acknowledged, although the degree of cooperation or tension between the two sides may fluctuate over time. By the late 1990’s, assisted...
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Cooke, Stephanie. In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.
Duffy, Robert J. Nuclear Politics in America: A History and Theory of Government Regulation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Mazuzan, George T., and J. Samuel Walker. Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation, 1946-1962. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Murray, Raymond L. “Laws, Regulations, and Organizations.” In Nuclear Energy: An Introduction to the Concepts, Systems, and Applications of Nuclear Processes. 6th ed. Burlington, Vt.: Butterworth-Heinemann/Elsevier, 2009.
O’Very, David, Christopher Paine, and Dan Reicher. Controlling the Atom in the Twenty-first Century. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.
Rees, Joseph V. Hostages of Each Other: The Transformation of Nuclear Safety Since Three Mile Island. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Walker, J. Samuel. Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963-1971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
_______. A Short History of Nuclear Regulation, 1946-1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2000.
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