The Obama administration is close to a decision on filling two vacancies on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to industry and congressional sources. The appointments would come at a pivotal time for the industry's hopes of a revival, as NRC weighs operating license applications for a handful of new reactors and a review of its waste fuel policy.
The administration is believed to have settled on former Energy Department official William Magwood and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor George Apostolakis as the nominees. Both would be welcomed by the industry, officials said.
NRC is headed by chairman Gregory Jaczko, chosen in May for the position by President Obama, and two Republican commissioners, former chairman Dale Klein and Kristine Svinicki. Apostolakis could not be reached for comment yesterday. Magwood said, "I've heard the same rumors," but declined to comment further.
The two NRC appointments "are very important," said Christopher Guith, vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy. "A number of utility boards are looking to that as a possible sign of where things are going in the future," he said. "There has been great apprehension [that] the wrong appointments could really set a bad tone."
The industry's concerns have focused on Jaczko, former science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid has led a battle to kill the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in his state.
Apostolakis, a professor at MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, is a member and former chairman of NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards and an expert in complex risk and reliability analysis. "He knows the industry. He knows the technology," said Jay Silberg, an attorney handling nuclear energy issues with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. "He'd be someone the industry would be comfortable with."
Before leaving the Energy Department in 2005 to enter consulting, Magwood had been director of nuclear energy, science and technology, the federal government's senior nuclear technology official. Silberg said he has known Magwood for decades: "He would be very good." Silberg said he has heard reports that the two were under consideration for NRC but did not know whether they had been finally selected. Several sources said that the two men are at the top of the administration's list.
Multibillion-dollar issues await
The outlook for a potential revival of nuclear reactor construction in the United States rests on several key decisions that are pending from NRC and the Energy Department.
NRC is currently reviewing three new and one modified reactor designs, and has received applications for operating licenses for 26 new reactors. These applications include four projects that have been chosen by the Department of Energy as candidates for a total of $18.5 billion in federal construction loan guarantees. The guarantees are essential to funding the projects, the industry says.
NRC is also reviewing what it calls its Waste Confidence Policy, a finding that spent fuel and other high-level radioactive reactor wastes can be "permanently disposed of safely," in the words of a court mandate. That decision has been complicated by Obama's decision to terminate federal funding for the Yucca Mountain site, an industry official said.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu plans to appoint a blue-ribbon committee to review nuclear waste policy, presumably including options for recycling spent fuel. Guith said the makeup of this panel will be another test of the administration's intentions concerning nuclear power's future.
Economic question marks loom large
The nuclear industry's future now awaits NRC decisions on new reactor designs and licensing. If the new reactor designs and operating licenses are approved and the plants go forward within the next few years, they could be online in 2016 or 2017, industry planners say. These new plants would provide a vital benchmark on whether nuclear power can be a competitive, affordable option in reducing the utility industry's carbon dioxide emissions.
Nuclear power opponents and skeptics said it is the fast-rising cost estimates for new projects, not regulatory hurdles, that pose the greatest threat to a nuclear power revival. "The NRC can't save the industry from itself on the economic side," said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a former Energy Department official.
But new nuclear plants cannot be built -- and indeed, construction costs cannot be pinned down -- until NRC completes certification of at least two new designs, experts say. While the design review has been under way for several years, no new designs have been approved, and Jaczko said the commission's work has been hampered by continuing modifications to designs.
A critical factor in the cost of plants will be the length of time required for construction once a project has been approved. NRC's new policy for reviewing nuclear plant proposals is meant to expedite the process, and the commission's ability to do so without compromising on the safety of plant design and operation will be a central issue in nuclear power's future, experts agree. NRC commissioner Svinicki referred to that balancing act this spring, telling an energy conference, "The nuclear industry remains ... just one accident away from retrenchment."