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Safety chief says nuclear power growth depends on Congress

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that the Browns Ferry nuclear plant is in Tennessee. In fact, it is in Alabama and is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The growth of nuclear energy in the United States depends on if or how Congress will regulate carbon emissions, said Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory B. Jaczko in a talk to energy students at Stanford on Tuesday.

The commission, of which Jaczko was named chair by President Obama last year, is charged with regulating the civilian use of nuclear material. Jaczko was speaking as part of the Stanford Energy Seminar series.

Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory B. Jaczko drew parallels between commercial nuclear energy oversight and oil drilling regulations on Tuesday. “If we don’t ensure that the current fleet of operating reactors is safe...then there will be no nuclear expansion in this country,” he said. (JIN ZHU/The Stanford Daily)

“The future of nuclear power in this country will probably hinge more than anything else on what Congress decides to do about climate change and about regulating carbon,” Jaczko said.

With the construction cost of one new reactor ranging from $6 billion to $10 billion (the U.S. Department of Energy has $18 billion in loan guarantees set aside for all construction), few now are willing to finance nuclear projects, Jaczko said.

“It’s not the kind of money that anybody on Wall Street is willing to lend to a utility, and it’s not the kind of money that a lot of utilities right now are willing to put up on their own,” he said. But Congress, to whom the commission reports, could change that.

“If climate legislation happens, there’ll be a price for carbon,” Jaczko said. “It will probably make nuclear more cost-competitive and that $6 to $10 billion may seem more palatable to some utility executives relative to the cost of other types of generating sources. So fundamentally, that’s what this debate is going to come down to.”

Jaczko described today’s nuclear power landscape as “a far cry from where we were 10 years ago” and earlier, when accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and abroad at Chernobyl in 1986 shook the public’s trust in the safety of nuclear power. Those events, and the subsequent tightening of safety regulations for U.S. plants, brought the construction of new plants to a trickle.

“This high level of safety and security is not cheap,” Jaczko said.

But today something of a resurgence is underway in the United States, where the commission is reviewing 22 applications for new plants to add to the 104 already operating, he said.

“There’s been a lot of work done by the NRC over the last several decades to put in place a system that I firmly believe makes nuclear power plants safer than they’ve ever been,” Jaczko said.

He also outlined the history of the commission, which he said did not always know how strictly to regulate civilian nuclear activity. It began as the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, tasked with both promoting and regulating nuclear energy. It was in that year that the commission’s chairman, Lewis Strauss, famously predicted that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

After coming under public attack for insufficiently rigorous safety guidelines, Congress in 1974 split the commission into two parts: the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and another agency that would eventually become the U.S. Department of Energy.

The commission spent the next several decades gaining what Jaczko called “operational experience” — sometimes painfully, including during the 1975 accidental fire at the Browns Ferry, Ala., plant, where an employee using a candle to search for air leaks set fire to a cable seal.

The commission also began evaluating public health risks posed by nuclear reactors. Jaczko projected one guideline on the wall of the auditorium on Tuesday: “The risk to the population in the area of a nuclear power plant of cancer fatalities that might result from nuclear power plant operations should not exceed one-tenth of the percent of the sum of cancer fatality risks resulting from other causes.”

Forming such guidelines, he said, marked the “beginnings of risk-informed regulation.” Making principles like redundancy, diversity and “defense in-depth” central to the commission’s problem-solving expectations of nuclear license applications was also key, he said.

Jaczko drew parallels to U.S. oil drilling oversight, which has drawn scrutiny in the wake of the Gulf oil spill that began last month. He pointed to the U.S. Mineral Management Service, which both regulates and promotes oil drilling, similar to the Atomic Energy Commission’s role in the nuclear industry 50 years ago.

“One of the things you’ve heard people say immediately after the Gulf spill was, ‘We need to split those functions,'” he said.

“A member of Congress said to me just last week, ‘We need to do a Three Mile Island-type commission to study what went wrong in the Gulf,'” Jaczko added. “Those were things that we did 30 years ago.”

Returning to the prospect of more nuclear reactor construction on the horizon for the United States, Jaczko said again that politics would largely determine the industry’s direction, but that his commission’s role would remain central.

“If we don’t ensure that the current fleet of operating reactors is safe…then there will be no nuclear expansion in this country,” he said.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Global Climate and Energy Project.

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