Nuclear Plant Construction Delay and Cost 8

by Will Davis

We continue now our look at Appendix III of WASH-1250, the unpublished (except in final draft form) AEC study on reactor safety from 1973.  This appendix describes the rise of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States; the previous installment contains roughly the first half of this important historical record.  We now present the second part, word for word unaltered.

WASH 1250 / Appendix III Continued

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an historic piece of legislation, became law on January 1, 1970, but how profound an effect it would have on the AEC licensing program did not become evident until months later. The AEC published its first policy statement implementing NEPA on April 2, 1970, and a revised policy statement on December 4. In its policy statement, the AEC noted that the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 required an applicant for an AEC facility license to provide, before the license is issued, a certification from the appropriate State or Federal agency that applicable water quality standards would be met. The AEC would thus accept this certification with respect to these efforts. The AEC’s implementation of NEPA was contested in Federal Court in a proceeding involving the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland.

The Circuit Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit issued a decision in the Calvert Cliffs case on July 23, 1971, directing changes in the AEC’s implementation of NEPA. The court charged that the AEC had “made a mockery” of NEPA. On August 27, the Commission’s new Chairman, James R. Schlesinger, issued a statement asserting that the Commission would not appeal the Court decision, and would issue revised regulations to implement that decision.

Chairman Schlesinger said:

“The effect of our revised regulations will be to make the Atomic Energy Commission directly responsible for evaluating the total environmental impact, including thermal effects, of nuclear power plants, and for assessing this impact in terms of available alternatives and the need for electric power.

“We intend to be in a position to be responsive to the concerns of conservation and environmental groups as well as other members of the public. At the same time, we are also examining steps that can be taken to reconcile a proper regard for the environment with the necessity for meeting the nation’s growing requirements for electric power on a timely basis.”

The AEC published its new regulations on September 3, 1971, and they were generally regarded by environmental groups as being fully responsive to the Court of Appeals decision.

Actions in 1970 and 1971 by the Commission with respect to the low-level radioactive effluents which may be discharged from nuclear power plants also served to quiet the debate over radiation effects. On December 3, 1970, the Commission announced steps to implement its policy of keeping releases from light water cooled nuclear power plants to levels which are as low as practicable. This formal implementation of the low as practicable guidance recommended by national and international radiation protection organizations provided qualitative guidance for determining when design objectives and limiting conditions for operation meet the requirements for keeping levels of radioactivity in effluents as low as practicable. The AEC noted that exposures of the public living in the immediate vicinity of operating power reactors have usually been small fractions of the existing radiation protection guides and that it was taking this step toward further reductions to help assure that exposures of the public would continue to be kept very low as the number of nuclear plants continued to grow.

In June of 1971, the AEC followed up on this action by proposing numerical guidelines which would limit radioactivity in effluents to levels that would keep resultant radiation exposures of persons living near the nuclear plants to less than five percent of the average natural background radiation. Such exposures would be about one percent or less of the Federal radiation protection guides for individual members of the public. This numerical guidance to implement the low as practicable concept was the subject of a public rulemaking hearing during 1972 in which general agreement was expressed with the AEC proposal.

The Commission also took steps to make clear to the nuclear industry and to the public what its role is, and what it is not.

In his initial speech as AEC Chairman, Dr. Schlesinger told the nuclear industry as Bal Harbour, Florida, on October 20, 1971:

“It is the responsibility of the Atomic Energy Commission vigorously to develop new technical options and to bring those options to the point of commercial application. It is not the responsibility of the Atomic Energy Commission to solve industry’s problems which may crop up in the course of commercial exploitation. That is industry’s responsibility, to be settled among industry, Congress, and the public. The AEC’s role is a more limited one, primarily to perform as a referee serving the public interest. I might add that it is to industry’s long-run advantage that the public has a high confidence that the AEC will appropriately perform its role in this regard…

“There is a heightened public sensitivity on environmental issues — an insistence by the public that it be consulted. We shall all have to learn to operate under these changed conditions. You will not only have to operate in the glare of publicity, you will have to take your case to the public. Do not expect us to do this for you…”

The environmental movement has moderated its tone over the last year or so, and so has the AEC. Efforts were initiated by the Commission to discuss concerns with leaders of environmental and conservation groups, and these exchanges have been productive for all involved. There are indications that while the AEC — and the nuclear industry, as well — are taking stock of their positions, so too were environmental and conservation organizations.

Fred Evenden, Executive Director of The Wildlife Society, has expressed this thought:

“Some ‘conservation’ groups (and I use that term somewhat with my fingers crossed) have become so outspoken and active against business and industry that a strong backlash is growing that makes it increasingly difficult for even a modicum of reason anc communication to prevail toward solutions to some of our environmental problems. Industry is rebelling strongly in many quarters. This is, or course, a more or less natural conflict…

“Now let me lead you further down the proverbial, but jaundiced, primrose path. One wonders today who is who among conservationist and conservation groups. Self-styled ecologists, conservationists, and environmentalists are coming out of the woodwork everywhere. A big headline of the January 7, 1972 Washington Post read: ‘Conservationists ask Court to split AEC.’ A reading of the article to see which of my sister organizations were involved revealed none of them. All those involved were local or regional groups from portions of a few eastern states such as Long Island’s Lloyd Harbor Study Group. The article revealed the plaintiffs had not even analyzed the steps to be taken if their suit for dividing the AEC were successful. Much of this type of action may not be so much an expression of concern for the environment as it may be an expedient and productive endeavor for today’s crop of young attorneys…”

Although the tone of the controversy has moderated, in most quarters, issues remain, and the debates over them continue.

Although it is difficult to categorize the continuing issues, it can generally be said that they involve reactor safety and related matters such as the transportation of nuclear materials,, the storage of high-level radioactive wastes, the development of the breeder reactor and widespread use of plutonium fuel, safeguarding fissionable materials from diversion and the dual role of the Atomic Energy Commission which is both developer and regulator of nuclear power.

Reactor safety appears to have been an on-again, off-again issue in the eyes of many members of the public. During the period when the Ravenswood, Bodega Head, and Malibu applications were before the AEC in the early 1960’s it was a hotly-debated matter; then it receded into the background as radiation standards and thermal effects became prominent issues. Now reactor safety has come to the forefront again, although from the standpoint of the AEC it has always been a paramount concern in the licensing of nuclear plants.

Part of the reason for the re-emergence of reactor safety as an issue probably lies in a growing distrust of technology. In large part, it also involves the AEC’s on-going rulemaking proceeding concerning acceptance criteria for emergency core cooling systems for nuclear power plants. The AEC’s public hearing, an innovative proceeding which has attracted nation-wide attention from the news media, has allowed persons representing all viewpoints to express their position on this highly complex subject. It is difficult for the average citizen to understand the complexities of emergency core cooling systems. It is equally difficult for him to judge who is right when scientists differ on such a subject.

Also involved in the safety issues are: The long-term storage of high-level radioactive wastes, the opposition to storing them in a salt repository near Lyons, Kansas (despite the fact that the local populace generally was in favor of the proposed project); transportation of high-level waste and used fuel from reactors, as well as plutonium, in increasing quantities; and the development of the fast breeder reactor.

The high-level waste controversy appears to have eased somewhat as a result of the AEC’s announcement that it plans to design and build engineered surface storage facilities which will be capable of handling the wastes for as long as is required to develop additional information which can prove the safety and feasibility of permanent storage in a selected geologic formation.

The public wants more information on the subject of the transportation of nuclear materials such as radioactive wastes, increasing amounts of spent fuel, and plutonium, as the industry grows. This is an area where the Commission expects to concentrate more attention in its public information program. Additional information efforts are also required on the development of the fast breeder reactor. This program has the strong support of the Administration and the Congress, and it is the top priority effort of the AEC in the reactor development area. A solid information base must be presented to the public, both in the Tennessee area where the first developmental plant will be built, and nationwide. Thus far, the public’s attitude on the breeder reactor appears to be one of “tell me more.” The public is entitled to the facts, and the Commission is committed to providing them. The environmental statement already issued by the AEC on the liquid metal breeder demonstration plant offers a wealth of information to the public, and widespread distribution of it has been made.

At the outset we noted that public attitudes are hard to assess. They may differ from one section of the country to another; the concerns are not always the same. But all concerns must be met with responsiveness on the part of the Commission.

The attitude of the public toward nuclear power can be strongly affected by the willingness of both the AEC and the nuclear industry to talk frankly about goals, accomplishments, and, of more importance, problems.

Much progress has been made, but a large task remains. This is illustrated by letters such as the following one from a fifth grade school teacher who wrote:

“I am teaching my class ALL ABOUT nuclear energy. Please send me a picture of an atomic bomb- and some mushroom clouds if you have them.”

— Next time we’ll take a look at some 1970’s information about nuclear plant construction delay and overall project cost escalation from a different source.

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 8

  1. Roland Parsons

    I think I have read all of your articles on the history of Commercial nuclear. I hope before you publish the last chapter you can make note of some of the positive aspects of the GEN II era brought about by the professionals operating the resulting fleet of plants, and the NRC staff regulating the industry.

    The IAEA statistics credit the US with over 4,000 reactor years of operation. During that time, no member of the public has been harmed by nuclear plant operations or fuel management unless you want to cite TMI which created public stress caused in a great part by intense media coverage. No other significant energy source can claim such a safety record.

    The operating success of US nuclear industry and regulators has keep us relevant in the nonproliferation discussions.

    Fleet capacity factors have been around 90% for last couple of decades.

    There are probably many more examples, but the point is that even though the construction era was disappointing to say the least, the operating history is a different story; although the fracking revolution and renewable subsidies are causing a new wave of problems and skewing the economics.

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