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Nuclear Energy Industry’s Strong Safety Performance Clears Way for Regulatory Reform

WASHINGTON—The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs to fulfill its safety mission while adapting to the fast-changing technology and growth of the competitive electricity marketplace, a leader of the U.S. nuclear energy industry told a congressional committee today.

Even as the NRC continues the past year’s successful effort to sharpen its focus on issues most important to nuclear power plant safety, the agency should modify regulations and adjust priorities to make the oversight process even more effective and efficient, said Joe F. Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Colvin testified before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Work Committee’s subcommittee on nuclear safety.

“Outstanding nuclear power plant safety and performance helped set the stage for important changes in the regulatory arena” in April 2000, Colvin said. “For a program involving change of this magnitude, the initial implementation (of the new reactor oversight process) has gone well. … However, regulatory reforms must be codified. The next step is to revise the regulations to incorporate risk insights and performance-based approaches consistent with those used in the reactor oversight process.”

At a time when policymakers, business owners and consumers are looking to nuclear energy to supply greater amounts of affordable, reliable electricity, obsolete regulations often force nuclear power plant operators to pay higher prices for equipment that could be bought less expensively were it not for the added cost of verifying its capability, Colvin said.

“The NRC and the industry agree on which equipment has high safety significance and on how to treat it. We also agree on equipment that is non-safety-related. But there is disagreement about how to deal with equipment and systems categorized since the early years of the industry as safety-related, but which have been proven to have low safety significance,” Colvin said.

He noted that while an industrial-grade 10-horsepower electric motor could be bought for $350, the same motor, designated as a safety-related item, would cost $20,000. “The two pumps function the same; the cost difference is huge,” Colvin said. Congress has an important role to play in assuring that the NRC fulfills its safety mission while adapting to the requirements of a competitive electricity marketplace. For example, the next series of new nuclear power plants will be built under a streamlined, but untested, licensing process.

“Investors need to have confidence that this process will be predictable, reasonable and consistent. This committee can help greatly by supporting NRC in proving these processes,” Colvin said.

Colvin told the committee that U.S. nuclear power plants achieved record safety and reliability levels last year.

“Once-common unscheduled shutdowns are now rare,” he said. “Similarly, the number of significant events—which are precisely defined occurrences that must be reported to the NRC—has dropped 93 percent over the past decade to a record average low of 0.03 across the industry last year.”

Colvin called on Congress to renew the Price-Anderson Act due to expire in August 2002. The Act, established in 1957, requires the industry to purchase two levels of liability coverage--$200 million up front and another $9.3 billion in coverage that would be bought retroactively in the unlikely event of a catastrophic accident.

“Like all the costs of electricity from nuclear power plants, the costs of Price-Anderson are included in the price of producing electricity,” Colvin said. “Congress must renew the act this year to ensure that Price-Anderson coverage will be available to companies that are considering building new nuclear power plants.”


The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at .