Hope for Nuclear Regulatory Reform?

by Jim Hopf

As I’ve discussed in many previous ANS Nuclear Cafe posts (see: How Can Nuclear Construction Costs be Reduced & Cost/Benefit Analyses of Nuclear Requirements), my belief is that the primary reasons for the lack of nuclear power’s growth/success are the extremely burdensome requirements and regulations. They are vastly more strict than those applied to competing sources, in terms of dollars spent per life saved, or amount of environmental impact avoided. For various (non-scientific) reasons, nuclear is held to standards that are orders of magnitude higher than those applied to competing sources.

Many in the nuclear field believe that nuclear’s future success can be attained through new, superior reactor designs and fuel cycle technologies that will be successful, and economic, even under this tremendously uneven regulatory playing field. I have always been less sanguine, and believe that without changes in the regulatory playing field, there will be little new nuclear, at least in the developed world. However, given the politics and public attitudes, I haven’t been too hopeful that significant regulatory reform was possible.

Senate NRC hearing
Recent events, however, suggest a ray of hope, i.e., that some amount of regulatory reform may actually be possible. After the Republican takeover of the senate, Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) has been elevated to chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Energy and Water Development. During a March 4 hearing on the the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget, Alexander made reference to “excessive and unnecessary” regulations, and his desire to work with the NRC to address the issue. He also stated that federal law “doesn’t say that it should be so hard and expensive to build and operate reactors that you can’t do it,” suggesting that NRC regulations and requirements may have reached that point.

In response to Alexander’s remarks, NRC commissioner Kristine Svinicki admitted that recent cost/benefit analyses by the NRC, which had been used to justify recent additional (post-Fukushima) regulations, underestimated the costs of compliance by several orders of magnitude.

A video of the hearing and transcripts of prepared remarks can be found here. Of particular interest are Alexander’s prepared remarks. This senate hearing is also discussed in this Atomic Insights blog post.

NRC cost/benefit analyses?
It should be noted that (by my understanding) the NRC cost/benefit analyses only apply to new regulations and/or required backfits. They do not apply for older/existing regulations, or compliance with requirements for new reactors under construction. It seems clear to me that cost/benefit analyses have not been applied to nuclear regulations overall. In other words, cost vs. benefit analysis appears to be something the NRC has either only recently started doing, or is something that it only does selectively. My own evaluation suggests that the overall body of nuclear regulations (and NQA-1 Quality Assurance requirements) has an overall cost that runs well into the billions of dollars per life saved, which is orders of magnitude higher than the cost of regulations applied to other energy sources, and orders of magnitude higher than the general government safety criterion of about $10 million dollars per life saved.

If cost/benefit analyses were done at all in past decades, it is likely that extremely unrealistic or inaccurate estimates of meltdown consequences were used as the basis. For decades, we have been told of official accident consequence estimates that involved thousands of short term deaths (from acute exposure) as well as tens of thousands of latent cancer fatalities in subsequent decades. Suffice it to say that Fukushima, and even Chernobyl, have shown those estimates and analyses to be wildly off the mark, by orders of magnitude. Fukushima showed that even a worst-case event, with the full meltdown of three large reactors along with a significant failure of containment, caused no deaths and is projected to have no measurable public health impact. It should also be noted that the maximum potential release from a small modular reactor would be more than an order of magnitude smaller still.

Given these facts, one has to wonder how one could come up with any finite cost-per-life saved for any nuclear safety measures (that would reduce the frequency or magnitude of reactor accident releases). It looks more like this is a purely financial risk on the part of the utility, which would lend itself to the utility (and their insurers) making a purely financial decision (that weighs cost vs. reduction in financial liability).

Needed changes
Not only does the NRC need to perform more realistic and accurate cost/benefit analyses for new and/or backfit-related regulations, but it needs to do a bottoms-up review of its entire body of existing regulations, requirements, and procedures. That review needs to be based on realistic accident consequences, based on what we now know from Fukushima, etc. I’ve discussed this in more detail in previous posts.

With respect to fabrication QA (e.g.. NQA-1), cost/benefit analyses need to be performed that are based upon realistic estimates of component failure frequencies (for various “Q” levels), realistic types and severities of component failure (no assuming that a failed component simply disappears), and realistic estimates of component failure consequences. With respect to component or design deviations, cost/benefit analysis should be considered instead of just requiring verbatim compliance. Can anyone argue that the rebar issue with the Vogle basemat really involved potential public health risks that were worth the huge cost of the long process that was required to “address” the issue? Did it involve a tangible increase in release risk at all? More generally, I personally doubt that NQA-1, a unique and more strict fabrication QA program that applies solely for the nuclear industry, has benefits that are worth the cost. I’d love to see a cost/benefit analysis of using NQA-1 vs. using the standard QA programs that are used for most heavy construction/industry.

In terms of policy, all energy sources should be held to the same standard, in terms of dollars spent per life saved (where impacts other than public deaths could also be considered). Perhaps more specifically, all regulations, for all sources, should be subject to cost/benefit analyses that use the standard government public safety criterion (which is about $10 million dollars per life saved at the moment). Under such a standard, nuclear regulations would likely become much less strict, whereas restrictions on fossil (mainly coal) plant pollution would become far more strict.

Needed action
I’m considering writing to Alexander to express the above thoughts, but past experience suggests that my letter will almost certainly go straight into the circular file, since I’m not a resident of Tennessee. I have never written to a congressman or senator from another state and gotten a response. My view is that the chairman of a house or senate committee is a national office, with respect to the issues covered by the committee. Congressional practice, however, is that even committee chairs (let alone committee members) ignore all correspondence from people who do not live within their state or (house) district.

Thus, I’m hoping that anyone reading this who hails from the state of Tennessee will write Alexander about this issue. Feel free to use any, all, or none of the ideas expressed above. In my view, the main points would be:

  • NRC regulations should be subject to cost/benefit analysis. Not only should any new regulation be subject to such analyses, but a bottoms-up review of all existing NRC regulations and other practices and procedures should be performed, with each requirement or practice being subject to cost/benefit analysis.
  • The regulations and requirements governing all energy sources should be subject to cost/benefit analyses, with the same criteria (dollars per life saved, etc.) applied to all sources. The standard government public safety criterion (now about $10 million per life saved) should be considered as the basis for all analyses.
  • With respect to fabrication/construction QA, the value of having a unique nuclear industry QA program (NQA-1) should be investigated, and subject to cost/benefit analysis. That is, the possibility of having the nuclear industry be subject to the same fabrication/construction QA programs that apply for other large construction projects (bridges, buildings, industrial sites, etc..) should be evaluated, with respect to cost vs. benefit.

jimHopfJim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Communications Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe

10 thoughts on “Hope for Nuclear Regulatory Reform?

  1. Sidney Bernsen

    Right on. Current QA and licensing requirements have become a terrible burden . Not only has the Regulator induced these but the industry itself has been complicit. I have been actively involved with Nuclear QA since it was introduced through 10CFR50 Appendix B and led the effort to develop the QA standards. I have witnessed the extensive growth in both the requirement and more importantly the interpretation and implementation of them. In addition to QA, the 10CFR21 reporting requirements have unnecessarily added to the cost through imposition of ridiculous requirements on high quality commercial items. I have also been actively involved in helping to adopt risk-informed information to focus effort on what is truly important.

    Although now retired, I would be pleased to participate in any effort to held rationalize and optimize requirements and practices.

  2. Greg Housh

    Excellent discussion. We re-wrote our QA program a few years ago using the majority (but not all) of the NQA-1 requirements to provide better guidance on quality control. It has been a big benefit to us in all our heavy industrial construction efforts. On the other hand, while one of the goals was to place us in a position to perform work in a re-vitalized Nuclear industry, my observation is that there will be none. It is not possible as things appear to be proceeding. As stated above by others, my opinion is that the process and implementation not the spirit of the NQA-1 guidelines that need to change; or, the Nuclear Power industry appears to be on a death spiral business plan.

  3. Jim Hopf

    RTK42C,

    I hope you’re right about the possibility of SMRs being cheaper due to being less complex (fewer components), even if full QA requirements are applied to many or most components. I write about SMRs in some of my earlier posts.

    Concerning site work, my feeling is that it’s imperative that none of the on site work be subject to nuclear-grade QA or rigorous NRC requirements or oversight. The idea is that all components and features that are actually important to safety are within the NSSS which is fabricated at the factory. The package that arrives is essentially inherently safe (meltdown proof). At the site, things are no different than they are for a conventional (non-nuclear) power plant.

    When the NSSS arrives, you just put it in place and attach it to the (non-nuclear) balance of plant (which is entirely non-nuclear grade). Of course, central to this idea is that the SMR must not need to maintain active cooling to prevent fuel melt (since such a requirement would tend to make the external features have a potential impact on safety).

    Also augmenting the case (justification) for this would be an analysis showing that the worst conceivable event or (credible) breakdown would produce a release far smaller than Fukushima, which would have no measurable public health impact and would not result in any significant land area with radiation levels outside the range of natural background. The point is that SMRs are fundamentally incapable of having any significant impact, on public health anyway (due to their smaller size, and much smaller potential release). Given this, what is the justification for rigorous NRC requirements and oversight, as their mandate (I think) is to protect public health and safety.

  4. RTK42C

    Jim,
    I absolutely agree with you that the industry needs to do something different and we, in general, should walk away from any form of government subsidies (e.g., loan guarantees). Those types of polices might work in other countries, but it only takes a change in power in Congress or the Presidency to nullify those “benefits.”

    Regarding “inherently safe” reactor designs, I think the best way that those designs can reduce costs is simply by needing fewer components (like not needing an emergency core cooling system). The SMR concepts that can utilize a production line-type of process will reduce costs simply due to the ability to spread costs across many units (if they ever get enough orders). The best example in the nuclear industry of this is submarine, and to a lesser extend air craft carrier, production. However, the SMRs will still be challenged by the “site work” (concrete, etc.) that cannot be done on a production line. If any new reactor design can eliminate the need for safety-related concrete and rebar, then they will likely have a sizable cost savings (in small batches, safety-related concrete is enormously expensive, but this cost should go down as the total quantity is increased).

    Another area that “inherently safe” reactor designs could reduce the construction costs is if they can justify reduce component operational requirements. For example, if it is not possible to have a steam leak, then why have all of the electrical cables rated to survive a steam environment for specified period of time. If they are able to use an item that is more off-the-shelf (and does not have to be completely commercial-grade dedicated), then there is another potentially sizable cost savings.

    On the regulatory side, one cost reduction idea that I think should be considered is revising the definition of “safety-related” in 10 CFR 50 to become more graduated (similar to “important to safety” in 10 CFR 71 / Reg. Guide 7.10). While this introduces much variability (ask 5 nuclear power plants to define “augmented quality” and you will get 5 different, but similar answers), it could reduce the cost and delays associated with enough nuclear work to be justifiable.

    RTK42C

  5. Bill Mullins

    Mr. Hopf,

    What we know in the aftermath of Chernobyl and further reinforced by Fukushima is that the conceptualization of 10 CFR 50, that the principal societal risks of NPP maloperation are latent cancers from radiation exposure is completely false. So long as the entire Global Nuclear Energy Enterprise (with a few conspicuous exceptions) reckons “risk” in a unique way – and one which lacks a valid epidemiological basis at that – there is no foundation upon which to do the “cost benefit analyses” you suggest. In our complex modern energy mix, $/life saved is meaningless.

    Consider the number of lives shortened in Japan (some acute deaths included) from the Evacuation Stress which resulted from needless and hasty evacuation, the shutdown of the entire NP industry for not technically sound reasons but for one entirely understandable political reason – ministerial/industrial deceit and incompetence, and the continuing reliance upon a sacrifice zone impacting 100K or so indefinitely displaced persons, the ion exchange treatment of meaningless quantities of mildly contaminated liquids, and the list goes on…

    Does anyone know the cost of despair after Deepwater Horizon disrupted the Gulf Economy – how do you reckon the future cost of all the unaccounted for oil sitting on the bottom of the gulf?

    The idea that such highly complex econ/ecological impacts can be reduced to spreadsheet calculations and regressions is fanciful. How would you compare the “cost/benefit” of the way the cleanup at the foot of Manhattan after 9/11 (lots of asbestos and silica dust) to the management of civilian cleanup related exposure near Fukushima? Have you seen the statistics on latent lung disease from the rush to do that cleanup?

    Yes there is a lack of consistency in the weights assigned energy production related hazards and their control – but when I look at the current NOPR regarding Blowout Preventer Upgrades, I don’t see the expectations for Nuclear QA becoming “normalized” – quite the opposite, they are on their way to becoming the “Norm.” I don’t consider that to be necessarily an entirely good thing, but QA creep is Nuclear’s gift to the industrial world.

    I’d say that when controlling “decay heat” at 15,000psi and in a 350F flammable gaseous-fluid mixture – with a column of slush – that more than one shutoff valve should have been a no-brainer. Evidently it was not.

    Study the proposed rules here: http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/interior-department-releases-proposed-well-control-regulations-to-ensure-safe-and-responsible-offshore-oil-and-gas-development.cfm – and then ask yourself if the evolution of offshore regulation is in direction of clearcut cost benefit analyses. I can’t see it.

    Until the nuclear industry comes forward with an accountability scheme in which they are the principal (i.e. substantially as has been BP) accountable agent, expecting the NRC to bail out the industry one more time is nonsense.

  6. Jim Hopf

    RTK42C,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful and valuable input (from someone with a significant amount of first hand knowledge)!

    With respect to QA requirements, I think what you’re saying is that the problem I’m seeing is indeed there, but perhaps I’m not identifying it correctly (not calling it by the right name). That is, it is not the QA program itself, but how it’s implemented, by both the industry and NRC.

    I’ve also heard stories of components or services costing several times more if they are provided to the nuclear industry, even if there is no reason (i.e., no tangible difference in the good or service). In one example at my own company, having to do with water cleanup services, I heard them say that they’d like to provide the same service to the gas/oil industry as well, but that it would have to be 10 times lower cost or else they won’t be interested. (Implying that the oil/gas industry can just refuse to do it…?) It’s good to hear someone confirm that that is the case (and give examples of their own).

    All I know is that fabrication and construction simply costs far more, and is much more subject to delay, in the nuclear industry, even for tasks that are essentially the same. It seems to be a difference in the amount of analysis, paperwork, and a general standard of perfection that is simply not applied to other industries, even ones that are making things (dams, bridges, refineries, LNG terminals, buildings, etc.) whose failure would actually result in a larger loss of life. I heard Chicago Bridge and Iron complain about nuclear requirements and procedures being “nothing like anything they’ve seen before”, when they were asked about component fabrication delays.

    In summary, whether it’s the QA program itself or how it’s being implemented, it seems clear that the nuclear industry is not doing things the other heavy construction industries are. That will have to change if nuclear is going to succeed in the future.

    I also appreciate your agreement (I think) that the industry needs to do something about how it does business, and to reduce costs, as opposed to relying on some subsidy or favorable govt. policies that would allow it to continue its current costly practices.

    It also seems clear to me that unless the mindset, and the “way things are done” in the industry, no new technology (e.g., advanced reactor design, etc..) is going to make much difference. So you have an “inherently safe” reactor design? Can you imagine NRC agreeing to classify all (or even most) if the reactor components as NITS? If not, why do you think your reactor will be much cheaper?

  7. RTK42C

    Jim,

    I agree with almost everything you discussed. It is COST, and not public perception, that is the nuclear industry’s biggest problem and impediment to growth. However, I take exception to the discussion regarding the NQA-1 quality programs. I do not believe that the NQA-1 program is necessarily the problem, but the industry’s culture surrounding the NQA-1 requirements that is the problem.

    For some perspective, I work for a heavy construction company that works in the nuclear, commercial power, new building construction, and road infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) industries to name a few. In my role, I get to interact with suppliers and their QA programs as well as Owners (nuclear power plants) and their QA programs. I have come to the conclusion that the non-nuclear construction industry would be we served if they adopted most (but not necessarily all) of an NQA-1 program. This would reduce their costs because it would help to identify issues early, focus the organization on the issues that are occurring (and not simply the schedule), and avoid rework. I believe this because at its core, an NQA-1 program is simply well put together plan for how to manage a business operation (though it might have to be generalized a bit for it to apply to any business operation since it does have a focus on “heavy industry”).

    My issue with the current culture that surrounds the NQA-1 requirements is that it is one that, over time, will cause requirement creep and, as a result, increase cost for no real benefit. It is this mindset that causes nuclear power plants to have ridiculously over complicated procedures that try to accommodate every potential issue, that have too many individuals involved in process (and thus increase the time it takes to do anything), that has, in general, walked away from a Keep It Simple, Stupid philosophy, and one that has completely abandoned a reasonable cost/benefit based approach (cost is should not be a factor in determining what the best solution actually is, but it should remain a factor in determining if that best solution should actually be implemented).

    I also have come to the conclusion that the NQA-1 requirements are simply an excuse for the industry to accept much higher prices for materials and equipment and has fostered a “good ol’ boy” sub-industry that does not want any reductions in the requirements. NQA-1 requirements do cost more, but not necessarily as much as we are paying for them. For example, I personally know of a supplier that produces a component for the heavy construction industry, but the “nuclear” version of that component costs 3 times what the “non-nuclear” component costs, even though all of those components are made to the same requirements, by the same people, on the same machines, with the same base materials (the only difference being what bin the component goes into when it is finished and ready for shipment and that paperwork goes with the “nuclear” version. BTW, that paperwork is available for the “non-nuclear” component, its just not provided.). That is great for that manufacturer (I would do the same thing, if I could) but bad for the industry.
    Our industry needs to collectively do some soul searching if we want to survive past the middle of this century. I believe you are right in that the soul searching must start with the NRC because the rest of the industry cannot do any changing if the NRC stays the same.

    RTK42C

  8. Paul Wick

    Jim, Charles Barton (who of course has/had the excellent blog The Nuclear Green) lives in Tennessee I believe. He is still active posting on his Facebook Page, despite his health difficulties and near-blindness. Perhaps you could get in touch with him for sending your views to Lamar Alexander. As well, William Tucker, the author of great book,Terrestrial Energy, and many articles on the benefits of nuclear energy, was in recent years on Mr. Alexander’s staff, and may still be there. He is a wonderful proponent of nuclear energy and it would probably be very constructive to get in touch with him.

  9. Josep Rey

    It is also important to say that some countries have nuclear moratoriums have been implemented, making it difficult to build further nuclear reactors.

    “Environmentalists” are also a problem with their lies.