Nuclear Plant Construction Delay and Cost 7

by Will Davis

We are quite aware today that a major force in delaying nuclear plant licensing has been the action of “intervenors” – persons, or more often groups pretending to act as concerned individuals, who attend open meetings, file motions, and start all sorts of legal proceedings intended to delay nuclear plants long enough that the owners decide to quit.  How did this all start?

The best answer we can find today in terms of clarity and brevity comes from the US Atomic Energy Commission itself.  The AEC developed and published a brief history of the anti-nuclear movement’s rise in the United States as an appendix to its abortive WASH-1250, “The Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors and Related Facilities.”  This document only reached a final draft form, issued in July 1973 for final review and comment.  This document was considered incomplete and the much more alarming and slightly less comprehensible WASH-1400 complete with fault tree analysis was the result.  (Find a copy of NUREG-0492 to explain fault tree analysis, if you need it.)

Regardless of the ultimate rejection of WASH-1250 as a final, published or adopted document the work contains much value – particularly, here, the appendix relating to the development of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States.  I present it now, word for word, in this and the next installment of this series.



Any discussion of public attitudes toward nuclear power must proceed from an imprecise base since it is difficult to first define what “public” we are talking about. Is it conservation and environmental organizations? Intervenors in contested licensing hearings? Authors of books and letters-to-the-editor? Persons living near nuclear plants?

Little nationwide sampling of public opinion has been done on the subject of nuclear power. Utilities have commissioned private polls which generally show that a great many persons in their service areas do not oppose nuclear plants. On the other hand, the number of contested licensing hearings is increasing. These hearings, which used to be sparsely attended, if at all, now draw large attendance and news media interest is at an all-time high.

Public awakening to the environmental issues which confront our society coincided with the initial period of rapid growth of nuclear power. Land usage, energy growth, the economy, and distrust of government, science and industry are other issues which have come to the forefront during this period and, as one scientist has put it, “nuclear power has by historical accident become the arena in which these questions are being discussed.”

Although the nuclear power program in the United States has developed with unprecedented public scrutiny, there is ample evidence that many members of the public still have concerns about the safety aspects of nuclear power generation, ranging from the release of small amounts of radioactive material to the environment during normal operation, to the possibility of serious accidents which could harm the public, and to the handling of the highly radioactive wastes which result from chemical reprocessing of the used fuel. Other concerns are expressed about the effects of discharging condenser cooling water into nearby rivers, lakes, or oceans; about the transportation of spent fuel from the power plant to the reprocessing site; and about the disposal of radioactive waste materials.

Basic to an understanding of the controversies which have surrounded some nuclear plants is the realization that from the inception of the nuclear power program, the Commission (the AEC) has been concerned with safety. For many years that was practically the only issue considered at the public hearings held in local communities on individual plants. Many persons within the nuclear industry have commented that the AEC talked about safety so much and is supporting so much safety-related work that it is not surprising that the average citizen may have some apprehensions.

The jargon of the nuclear industry has not offered much comfort. Terms such as “design basis accident,” “maximum credible accident” and “reasonable assurance” may be perfectly acceptable to the scientist and engineer, but are not reassuring to the public. On the other hand, some persons who willingly accept everyday risks such as highway traffic, walking across streets, using electricity and fire, often use another yardstick with respect to nuclear power, insisting on absolutes which will never be attainable. Public attitudes about nuclear power have gone through a number of phases, ranging from little interest to very high interest – the situation that prevails today.

Early nuclear power plants, such as the Shippingport facility (Duquesne Light Company), Dresden Unit 1 (Commonwealth Edison Company of Chicago), and Yankee Rowe (Rowe, Mass.), experienced little public apprehension. The Enrico Fermi breeder reactor (Monroe, Michigan) ran into opposition in a case which challenged the Commission’s (AEC’s) licensing regulations — a matter finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that the strongly worded dissent by two justices in this case has received more attention than the majority opinion, and even today is used by some opponents of nuclear power. It was during this early period of nuclear power that the first fatal accident in the history of U.S. reactor operations occurred in the SL-1 — a small military reactor — at the AEC’s National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

Organized resistance to nuclear power plants first emerged in the period beginning about 1962. Although regionalized in the New York City and California areas, it was the first serious challenge to the safety of nuclear power. The controversies surrounded the application of Consolidated Edison Company to build a 1000 megawatt nuclear plant at its Ravenswood station in New York City; and application for two proposed plants in California, the Bodega Bay plant of Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the Malibu plant of Department of Water and Power of the City of Los Angeles.

The opposition to Ravenswood included a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, David Lilienthal, who was quoted as saying he would not dream of living in Queens if the Ravenswood plant was built. Mr. Lilienthal also raised questions about the handling of high-level radioactive wastes. Groups such as “CANPOP” –Committee Against Nuclear Power Plants — were formed and persons attending public meetings were greeted with literature headlined “No Hiroshima in New York.”

The Ravenswood application presented the Commission with a major policy issue — whether to permit the construction of nuclear power plants in large cities. This case never completed the AEC regulatory process, since Consolidated Edison withdrew its application for a construction permit.

While all this was going on in New York City, another controversial case was taking shape on the West Coast. That involved the application of Pacific Gas and Electric Company for a permit to build a nuclear plant at Bodega Head, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Opponents to this plan began with a plea to preserve this ocean site for parkland, but when this argument failed at the local level they turned to the AEC and the issue of earthquakes and reactor safety. The Bodega Head plant was never built because the AEC Regulatory Staff reported it could not make the required safety findings for the facility at that site, and the utility withdrew its application.

Also in California, the application of the Department of Water and Power of the City of Los Angeles to build a nuclear plant near Malibu Beach ran into strong opposition. Here too the initial controversy involved industrial encroachment of the area, although intervenors ultimately raised the earthquake safety issues in AEC hearings. The Malibu plant wasn’t built either. After lengthy public hearings, the Commission decided it didn’t have enough information to support approval of the plant at that site.

Despite these scattered controversies, the public’s opinion of nuclear power seemed receptive during this period. For example, the San Onofre nuclear plant (located between Los Angeles and San Diego) and the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant (New York State) did not encounter serious opposition. Subsequently, there were other favorable examples, enough to that possibly the nuclear industry was lulled into believing that its public information efforts had been enough, and that the new industry could now undergo a rapid expansion without facing serious public reaction on each proposed facility.

If a period of complacence existed, it was short-lived. In 1969 the AEC and the nuclear industry found themselves in the midst of a nationwide controversy concerning the environmental aspects of nuclear power, principally radiation effects from the low levels of liquid and gaseous radioactive effluents released during normal operation, and the thermal effects on lakes, rivers and oceans of the discharge of condenser cooling water.

For some years, the AEC had taken the position that it should not debate the opponents of nuclear power. It believed that its proper role was to provide the facts (technology) and to do a conscientious job of regulating nuclear plants. The reason behind this view was that the Commission did not want to undermine the integrity of its regulatory process by engaging in debates, which, while cast as an overall discussion of nuclear power, could be interpreted as an endorsement of a particular plant.

But the period of greatest growth of nuclear power came at a time when the environmental conscience of many Americans was becoming troubled. As the Washington Post noted, “In many ways atomic power is growing at a difficult time. The public, sensitive about dangerous pollution from its present power plants, is becoming aware that atomic plants may have dangerous pollution of their own.”

During the period beginning in early 1969 a large number of books and articles began to appear on news stands and bookshelves; most challenged the atom on environmental grounds, although safety was also an issue. The partial meltdown of fuel at the Enrico Fermi plant in 1966 was often cited, thereafter, sometimes in the vein that the City of Detroit narrowly escaped a catastrophe, and always raising the question “But what if…?” Accidents unrelated to the nuclear power program, such as the costly May 11, 1969 fire at the AEC’s weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, were also cited as evidence of the lack of care being exercised by the AEC for assuring the protection of public health and safety.

The State of Minnesota adopted standards for limiting the releases of radioactive materials which were far more stringent than concurrent Federal standards, setting off a debate which involved States’ rights, the conservatism of existing standards and the question of whether the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 pre-empted to the Federal Government the authority to regulate effluents from nuclear power plants. That issue was not finally decided until 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit which held that the Congress had given the Federal Government sole authority over radiation safety matters.

The subject of radiation standards was widely debated during this period. Charges included increased infant mortality in areas near nuclear plants — charges promptly refuted by State Health Departments and other authorities — and widely disputed estimates concerning the number of cancer deaths which would result from exposure of the whole U.S. population to 170 millirem per year — the recommended upper limit for large groups of people from sources of radiation other than background radiation and medical uses. Responsible scientists pointed out that it would be virtually impossible for the general public to receive such an exposure from routine nuclear plant effluents, but these supportable statements did not receive the attention given to the more frightening allegations which evoked the response.

The AEC’s position with respect to thermal effects — that it did not have jurisdiction since this was a matter common to all thermal power plants — also drew sharp criticism in many quarters from persons who felt the AEC was ignoring an important environmental matter.

Early in 1969 there was a shift in thinking at the AEC. The Commission decided that it no longer could view the nuclear controversy from afar. There was, the AEC decided, a need to counter the frightening material being distributed. This decision led to a period of confrontation with the accusers of nuclear power, beginning at a school auditorium in New Jersey and stretching from there to New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Oregon and elsewhere.

The AEC continued to refuse to debate specific projects — that was and still is the individual utility’s responsibility. But Commission representatives did discuss overall safety precautions, the basis for radiation standards, thermal effects, and the need for nuclear power in the total U.S. energy picture.

The conference on “Nuclear Power and the Environment” in Burlington, Vermont, in September of 1969 brought out the deep concerns being expressed by some members of the public. Arranged under the auspices of Senator George Aiken and Governor Deane Davis, the conference brought together three members of the Atomic Energy Commission and key persons on its staff, and a number of the critics of nuclear power. The critics repeatedly emphasized two areas of concern, i.e., the effects of low levels of radiation and thermal effects on the biosphere. Similar interests were reflected in questions from members of the public. One observer calculated that of 130 questions form the audience during an afternoon question-and-answer session, 42 were on the subject of radiation effects and standards; 24 dealt with thermal effects, and 17 were concerned with the organization and procedures of the AEC. Such issues as fuel supply, energy demand, plutonium, the breeder, and economics drew only a few questions each.

The proceedings of the Vermont meeting were published by the AEC, and they provide a valuable insight into the dimensions of the controversy as it existed in late 1969.

In their self-analysis of the Vermont meeting, AEC participants generally agreed that their presentations tended to be too technical, their answers a bit too scholarly for a lay audience. In striving for precise answers to questions, the impression often left was that the AEC was beating around the bush.

The Vermont meeting was followed by a conference sponsored in Minneapolis by the University of Minnesota. It brought together representatives of the Congress, the AEC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the nuclear industry and nuclear critics. Most observers agreed that the AEC had profited by its mistakes in Vermont and its answers to the questions of concerned Minnesotans were more straight-forward and understandable.

Public hearings in late 1969 and early 1970 before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy concerning the “Environmental Effects of Producing Electric Power” amassed information on all aspects of the subject. The Committee heard from Government, industry and from scientists and engineers representing a wide spectrum of disciplines. The record of these hearings may well be the most comprehensive source document available on electricity and the environment.

By early 1970 it became clear that the controversy over nuclear power and the environment was not abating; if anything, it was intensifying. On April 22, the first “Earth Day” programs on the environment were aired across the nation. Although nuclear energy wasn’t singled out in many of these programs, the AEC cooperated by providing speakers for many of the observances.

Earth Day was a turning point, according to one news reporter. “It was a turning point not because this day produced any new evidence, but because it suddenly changed the environmentalist cause from something that was confined to the cranks and fringe groups to something that was completely respectable,” he observed.

NEXT TIME:  The conclusion of WASH-1250 Appendix III.

The previous installment of this series can be found here.

Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He has been a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he used to write his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.

One thought on “Nuclear Plant Construction Delay and Cost 7

  1. A

    But what is crank-ish about asking questions regarding the environment? I would say that earth day brought into the public’s consciousness the realization that there are in fact consequences to seemingly unlimited growth.

    It’s quite unfortunate that some particularly loud voices overrode the public’s ability to listen to the genuine facts from both sides in debating nuclear power.

    I personally value us being careful and clear about both positives and negatives of nuclear power, especially because a poor decision can have very, very long-lasting consequences. That said, there is a place for it, though just in the short term.

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