WASHINGTON—Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) improvements in recent years to sharpen safety-focused concepts should be codified into federal regulations to assure future regulatory stability, an industry leader told Congress today.
The excellent safety record of nuclear power plants operating in 31 states is a key reason that business and political leaders are advocating new nuclear plant construction, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s chief nuclear officer, Marvin Fertel, told the Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
However, the largest perceived risk with new nuclear plant construction is regulatory uncertainty, Fertel said. He urged the committee to work within its purview to ensure certainty, stability and predictability in the NRC’s regulatory processes and oversight of 103 reactors operating today, and in the licensing of new nuclear power plants.
“An effective, credible and stable NRC is vital to both assuring public health and safety and to providing an environment that allows for positive business decisions,” Fertel said. “The industry fully supports the NRC’s efforts to make the regulatory process more safety focused, but we believe its work is far from complete. The agency must move forward systematically and aggressively to incorporate its safety-focused approach into the rules themselves.”
The industry is concerned that NRC progress in other areas has slowed as well. Fertel called for:
The NRC to review its budget and staffing levels, particularly its regional structure, to more efficiently allocate resources to take advantage of consolidation of the nuclear energy industry.
The committee to review the NRC’s fee structure and to identify improvements for the commission given that reauthorization of industry user fees is likely to be passed next year. A user fee is paid by companies or organizations regulated by the NRC for services rendered. The industry believes that the NRC should collect fees for specific services. A provision requiring the NRC to collect 10 percent of its budget from general revenues within the federal budget will expire in fiscal year 2005. If not extended, the NRC’s budget will be fully funded by user fees despite many programs that do not benefit the industry.
Nuclear power plants are strategic national assets that contribute to the fuel and technology diversity of our electricity sector. “In an environment of great volatility in the cost of oil, gas and coal, electricity from nuclear plants provides consumers and businesses with a high degree of forward price stability,” Fertel said.
“Our energy diversity is at risk because today’s business and market conditions hamper investment in new large capital-intensive technologies, such as advanced design nuclear power plants and clean coal power plants. Although the industry expects that most reactors will be relicensed for an additional 20 years, the nuclear industry’s potential is limited if new nuclear plants cannot be financed. Any reduction in stability of the regulatory process will damage the availability of financing for new nuclear plants that will be needed to meet the energy needs of a growing population and economy.”
Fertel commended the NRC for the new regulatory oversight process that has been in place since 2000. The new process is objective, safety-focused and more transparent to the industry and the public. However, Congress must “explicitly monitor the NRC’s progress on changing the regulations to be more safety-focused, as well as the agency’s continued activities to review license renewal applications and on new facility licensing reviews,” Fertel said.
The industry believes these changes are necessary because of the vital role emission-free nuclear energy plays in our national security and meeting air quality requirements.
“The 103 reactors in the United States are among the world’s most efficient and reliable—providing the most affordable baseload source of electricity to 20 percent of American homes and businesses. It is our largest source of emission-free electricity and the nation’s second largest source of electricity after coal,” he said.
Record levels of electricity production and plant efficiency have been achieved during the past decade, Fertel noted. In 2003, U.S. nuclear power plants safely produced 767 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, a 25 percent increase compared to 1993 and the third-highest amount of electricity ever.
“Throughout this period of record production and efficiency, the industry has maintained a steadfast commitment to safety. The level of significant events—equipment malfunctions or operational anomalies—is 30 times lower than it was at the end of the 1980s. The U.S. reactor fleet continues to operate at high levels of safety and efficiency, and the NRC should regulate the industry commensurate to this excellent record of performance."
The industry is expanding programs to ensure the material integrity of components and systems at nuclear power plants. The industry, through NEI, last year launched a program funded at $65 million per year to proactively detect and resolve materials issues at nuclear power plants. “I can assure you that, along with the NRC, we are fully committed to detecting and resolving materials issues well before they challenge the safe operation of our plants,” Fertel said.
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 http://www.nei.org.