Nuclear :

NEI's Pietrangelo discusses progress on safety regulations post-Fukushima

With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission providing more clarity and direction on expanded accident management and safety measures, how will the nuclear industry respond and comply? During today's OnPoint, Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, gives his reaction to the NRC's latest steps on safety standards and discusses the impact of Japan's Fukushima incident on the U.S. nuclear industry.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute. Tony, thanks for coming on the show.

Tony Pietrangelo: My pleasure, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Tony, we're a little clearer now on the direction that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would like to take on expanded accident management and safety measures. Is the nuclear industry ready to comply with new standards immediately?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well, we've been taking action since the event in Fukushima. As a matter fact, the Monday after the Friday event we put an initiative together through all the chief nuclear officers in the industry, took a walk down and inspected all the equipment and procedures, training, personnel put in place to deal with severe accidents and extreme events. Even since that time, we've initiated a number of actions and we put together a Fukushima steering committee to coordinate the industry's actions. And we generally align I think with the NRC in terms of what areas we think need to be addressed. To me the main lessons learned from Fukushima was that this was a real extended loss of power event where they were unable to preclude damage to the cores in three different units because they couldn't sustain operations long enough without AC power. We're in particularly better shape here in the United States. There were measures we put in place after 9/11 largely for fires and explosions from aircraft impact, but that also could be employed for natural phenomena like hurricanes or earthquakes and such. So, we're looking at those measures to apply to a Fukushima-like event and there's a number of areas really since the March 11 event that we've moved this studied and we'll move forward with our regulator to enhance safety in those areas.

Monica Trauzzi: So, are the NRC's actions redundant with what's already been done or do they take it a step further?

Tony Pietrangelo: No, I think the areas we're looking at as an industry and that the NRC has recommendations now that have been approved by the commission are in the same general areas, like looking at seismic events, looking at flooding, looking at extended loss of AC power, trying to make our accident management procedures better integrated with our emergency operating procedures, looking at spent fuel pool safety, enhanced monitoring of the pools. So, we think, again, we're generally very well aligned where the NRC came out on the areas that we have to tackle.

Monica Trauzzi: Congressman Markey has said that some of the NRC's timelines for safety upgrades are too drawn out. Would the industry be prepared to get in line with a more stringent timeline perhaps or get in line with these regulations earlier?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well, the first conclusion from the NRC's task force report that studied Fukushima was that there's no imminent threat to the current safety of the plants. I think it's more important that we do it right the first time, that we have a common problem statement with our regulator on the areas to address, that we have success criteria in each of those areas so that we can effectively implement whatever new rules or regulations come out. We'd like to do it quickly as well. We think the chairman has laid down five years as an expectation to get these items done. We think that's doable, so we look forward to working with the commission to make sure that we can do this expediently, but also smartly. And we don't want to have to redo something we've already done either, so it's important to get on the same page as soon as we can.

Monica Trauzzi: How much money are we talking about here? How much will it cost the industry?

Tony Pietrangelo: We still don't know. I think in terms of permanent plant modifications we don't see a lot thus far. It's really for these we call beyond design basis events, where this is kind of the unknown, how bad could a severe weather event get or a flood get? What we're looking at is a diverse flexible approach with portable equipment, like we did after 9/11, where you don't know exactly what the nature of the threat is going to be, so the more flexibility and diversity you have with your response strategies, you can deal with these what-if scenarios. Because there's a lot of uncertainty in terms of how bad something could get, so you don't want to just design for one particular thing and it turns out to be something else that you're not prepared for.

Monica Trauzzi: How would you rate Chairman Yasko's response thus far since Fukushima and moving into these new regulations?

Tony Pietrangelo: Oh, we look at the whole commission. The chairman is one of five commissioners. I think the commission has been taking a very measured approach. They set up a task force and the staff weighed in with their recommendations. They did seek stakeholder input, which is very important, not only from the industry, but other NRC stakeholders. So I think the commission has done quite well. Also, they've continued to do their day-to-day business in terms of licensing actions, whether it's license renewal or new plan items, with the keenest eye on the safety of the current operating plants. I mean there's going to be a lot of things we're going to have to do post Fukushima, but our number one priority remains the safe operation of the current plants. We understand we're going to have to divert some attention and resources to implement the Fukushima related items, but it can't be at the expense of operating the current fleet safely and reliably every day.

Monica Trauzzi: So the discussion that we're having here right now sort of indicates that for the industry it's full steam ahead moving forward with expanding nuclear in the United States. But there is a discussion also happening throughout the country about whether nuclear should even be a factor any longer in our energy policy. Do you think there's credibility there and is there something there that needs to be looked at in terms of the percentage of nuclear that should be used and whether it should be used at all?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well, right now we represent about 20 percent of the generation, electric generation in the country. It's emission free. No greenhouse gas is emitted from nuclear power plants and they operate very safely and reliably. It would be very hard to replace that baseload source of electricity. You can't expand other baseload capabilities like coal and gas to some extent. I think gas is kind of the source of choice right now, because natural gas is quite cheap. But the only real expandable baseload generation source that doesn't emit greenhouse gases is nuclear. We're not against solar or wind or any of the other renewable sources, but they're not baseload capacity. The sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow and you would need backup for those different generation sources as well.

Monica Trauzzi: So, government subsidies have been getting a lot of attention on the heels of Solyndra's bankruptcy. Should the nuclear industry be subsidized by the government and at what point will the industry be able to stand on its own?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well, the entire energy infrastructure is going through a major renovation if you will. The grid itself is decades old and will need to be upgraded over time. There's generation parts, distribution parts, etc., that will require—I think one of the estimates I've seen is one and a half trillion dollars over the next 20 or 30 years. We believe that there should be some sort of government financing available to support the infrastructure build-out. Nuclear is just one small part of that. But it makes sense from an energy policy perspective that these are large, capital intensive projects and I think once we establish an energy policy we want a level playing field for the generation sources and look at their costs and benefits and I think the market will decide.

Monica Trauzzi: Exelon CEO John Rowe was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that cheap natural gas is a curse to the nuclear industry because it pulls down nuclear's wholesale price. Would you agree with that and what do you see as the interaction between natural gas and nuclear?

Tony Pietrangelo: Well, in the deregulated markets that's correct, but in the regulated markets that's not correct. It makes perfect business sense for the projects that are going forward in the regulated markets. We do have four units that are starting construction in Georgia and South Carolina. And from their business model in a regulated environment they're expanding their rate base, they're diversifying their generation portfolio, and they're getting an asset that's going to be baseload for 60 years. And it gives them an hedge on forward-looking volatility in gas prices or other generation sources. So, it's a good investment in those cases.

Monica Trauzzi: How far back as Fukushima made the U.S. industry?

Tony Pietrangelo: It hasn't taken us far back. We're going to benefit from Fukushima longer-term. Our ultimate goal is to apply the lessons learned to enhance the safety and reliability of our plants. We were projecting four to eight new plants in the United States well before Fukushima and we have not changed our estimate for that at all. Again, I think we'll be better for Fukushima. We'll apply the lessons learned. That's our industry does business. That's how we've gotten better over the years and we stand on our safety record.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it there. Thank you for coming on the show, nice to see you.

Tony Pietrangelo: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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