NUCLEAR SAFETY:

Debate over NRC regulations picks up speed on and off Capitol Hill

Republicans and watchdog groups are pitted against each other in a heated debate over "How safe is safe enough?" when it comes to nuclear power and how much the industry can absorb in new costs following the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

A host of GOP lawmakers, including Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), have called on Allison Macfarlane, the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to slow the implementation of new rules for plant operators stemming from the Japanese crisis.

The commission is beefing up security at U.S. plants after three reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant were crippled by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Emergency diesel generators needed to keep the units cool were washed away, allowing hydrogen to build up and trigger explosions and radioactive leaks.

NRC, Republicans have said, is moving too quickly with costly rules and is failing to consider Japanese and American differences, both cultural and in regard to nuclear safety (E&E Daily, Feb. 6). Republicans have said NRC should review differences in nuclear safety policies between the two countries to determine whether those in Japan made the Fukushima plant more vulnerable.

But Ed Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a letter to Macfarlane that such an analysis wouldn't help resolve safety concerns but instead would divert the agency's attention.

"Especially in a time of budget austerity, we do not support directing the NRC staff to divert scarce resources away from their core mission to pursue a time-consuming academic exercise," he wrote.

But the safety question is more than a simple political spat "between the left versus the right this week," and is actually a critical policy discussion that should be debated in the halls of Congress and decided by NRC commissioners, said Lake Barrett, a former DOE official and nuclear consultant.

A host of new NRC rules stemming from Fukushima could impose new costs on the industry and contribute to the retirement of some older reactors that are already facing stiff competition from natural gas and low demand.

One rule that has drawn the ire of the GOP and the nuclear industry is the NRC staff's proposal for plant operators to install venting systems at a third of U.S. reactors, systems that could help prevent hydrogen explosions. The systems could cost operators anywhere from $15 million to $45 million, and the Nuclear Energy Institute has said requiring the systems is unnecessary.

"You start adding [regulations] up and yeah, it can make a difference between 'This plant is economical' and 'Let's start using gas,'" Barrett said. "Is it the added straw that broke the camel's back? Maybe."

Lyman said NRC staffers have provided ample evidence to back up their conclusion that filters are a "prudent, efficient, cost-effective measure" that could reduce radioactive emissions during an emergency. "The presence of filters will give operators the confidence to use the vents if needed to reduce containment pressure if the status of the reactor core is unknown, as was the case at Fukushima," he said.

The debate also has political ramifications, ones that touch on climate change.

President Obama has recently elevated the issue of climate change, and nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source, Barrett noted. Although gas is cheap, prices could rise in the future -- as they have in the past -- and utilities are trying to diversify their portfolio, he said.

Members of a panel hosted by Bloomberg Energy and NEI this week echoed those sentiments.

Former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who now works for Duke Energy Corp., said the utility must carefully balance how much cheap gas it uses because prices could potentially rise. Gas is "extremely affordable at the present time, but what is the sustainability over the long haul, not only this decade but the decades to come?" Shuler said.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who also sat on the panel, said that nuclear power must be a crucial part of any plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Shimkus noted that his state obtains 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear.

"If we move down on the climate change debate, you can't argue that the emissions really is a positive benefit in this whole worldwide agenda," he said.

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