Getting Past "The Bend in the Road": How the U.S. Nuclear Energy Industry Navigated Its Recovery
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Thursday, October 9, 2003
Throughout its relatively brief history, nuclear energy has been marked by contrasts and, sometimes, controversy. The widespread humanitarian benefits of nuclear energy applications — in agriculture, healthcare, and electricity production — often have been overshadowed by the destructive power associated with nuclear weapons. Nuclear power, as an energy source relatively free of greenhouse gas emissions, has received less attention than the steady accumulation of spent fuel and radioactive waste. The nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are registered so prominently in the public consciousness that they have all but obscured the vast strides made since then in nuclear and radiation safety performance. These imbalances have been compounded by a general lack of understanding among members of the public and political leaders on the basic rudiments of radiation and nuclear science. And, the nuclear community — both operators and regulators — have not always been effective at "marketing" their strengths.
But despite these handicaps, the nuclear community, both in the United States and internationally, has learned a number of lessons over the past five decades. Quietly but effectively, slowly but surely, the U.S. nuclear power industry has managed to negotiate a "U-turn", with telling results: reliable safety performance, record levels of power plant reliability, and a budding confidence among decision-makers and the American public that nuclear power should be given another chance.
Today, I will try to trace for you some of the events that have been pivotal for the U.S. nuclear power industry, and to outline key lessons we have learned in each case.
Great Expectations: The Early Years of Nuclear Technology
In August 1945, the early year of nuclear technology, American politicians, journalists, and scientists were eager to predict that the peaceful uses of the atom could be dramatic. In the New York Herald Tribune , an assertion by journalist John O'Neill was typical in its over-enthusiasm:
"Atomic energy unquestionably will be made extremely cheap — like 'free air' at the service stations. Industrial projects will be able to turn out a mass production of goods unparalleled by anything we have done heretofore. Our automobiles eventually will have atomic energy units built into them at the factory so that we will never have to refuel them. Steamships and locomotives operated by atomic energy will be practical in a short time. So will very large airplanes. [Soon] we will cease to mine coal."
Nuclear Power: the servant of humankind
The glowing predictions of the "promise" of nuclear energy remained untested for a number of years, because the initial inclination of the U.S. government was to keep all nuclear research under tight control. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 emphasized the military aspects of nuclear energy, underlined the need for secrecy, and maintained a government monopoly on the technology. Only under the subsequent Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) permitted to encourage commercial participation and investment in nuclear energy projects. In 1956, Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and another member of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy introduced legislation instructing the AEC to construct six nuclear power plants, each of a different design, to "advance the art of generation of electrical energy from nuclear energy."
It is instructive to review the publications of this time, and to understand the strength of early public support for peaceful nuclear energy applications. Despite the secrecy surrounding nuclear endeavours, the American public of that era was eager to learn — and for their children to learn — the underlying science that would pave the way of the future. Books like You and Atomic Energy, published by Childrens [sic] Press in 1949, or the popular story, Our Friend the Atom, published by Walt Disney in 1956, characterized nuclear science as a powerful but benevolent servant of humankind. Electric utilities adopted mascots like "Reddy Kilowatt: the Mighty Atom," with marketing slogans predicting that the electricity produced from nuclear fission would be "too cheap to meter." U.S. engineering firms like Stone & Webster were eager to advertise their involvement in and contributions to the race to develop atomic power.
By the mid- to late-1960s, spurred by apparent investment confidence and concerns about air pollution from coal-fired plants, the "glory years" of rapid expansion in U.S. nuclear power plant construction had begun. Between 1963, when the Oyster Creek plant was ordered in New Jersey, and 1969, when it began operation, U.S. nuclear vendors accepted orders for more than 70 nuclear reactor units. And, the size of the plants being ordered increased sharply; during the same period, the AEC issued 38 construction permits for units that were larger than the 515 megawatt Oyster Creek facility — 28 of them in the range of 800 to 1100 megawatts — even though operating experience was still limited to units in the range of 200 megawatts or less.
An Emerging Conflict of Interest: the transition from the AEC to the NRC and ERDA (DOE)
But the pace of those early years could not be sustained; neither the degree of operating experience nor the regulatory structure was adequate for such a rapid expansion. The flood of applications for ever larger plants placed enormous burdens on the regulatory staff of the AEC; between 1965 and 1970, the size of the staff increased by about 50 percent, but the licensing and inspection case load increased by nearly 600 percent. The resulting backlog caused grumbling among utility executives, who accused the AEC engineers of having no "economic discipline".
Two other developments provided warning signs. The first was a growing uneasiness in public attitudes toward the potential dangers of nuclear power. Even in the early 1960s, the public began to voice concern about the hazards of radiation — but these concerns at first were linked largely to the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing. Scientists disagreed sharply about the risks posed by fallout, but the controversy rapidly made its way into magazine stories, political campaigns, and Congressional hearings. The lack of expert agreement made clear that no definitive scientific knowledge existed about the effects of low-level radiation. Public speculation and anxiety began to build, and the scientific community was not able to provide satisfactory answers. Citizens began to protest the dumping of low-level radioactive wastes in ocean waters — a practice that the AEC had authorized under prescribed conditions for over a decade. In 1963, the first large-scale public protests against the construction of a nuclear plant — in this case, the Ravenswood plant in the heart of New York City — played a key role in its abandonment.
The second warning sign was a growing realization that a problem existed with the AEC itself — that its dual responsibility for promoting nuclear power and regulating the safety of operation represented a conflict of interest. One example will illustrate:
Reactor safety experts had repeatedly considered a hypothetical nuclear accident in which a loss of coolant might lead to a melting of the reactor core, and the molten fuel might then penetrate not only the steel bottom of the reactor vessel but also the concrete foundation of the containment building, continuing downward into the ground. This scenario, called the "China Syndrome" (because the melted core would presumably be heading through the earth in the general direction of China), was considered implausible — primarily because of the presence of the "emergency core cooling system" (ECCS), to rapidly and automatically flood the core with water from another source.
In 1971, simulation experiments run at a test site in Idaho suggested that, during a loss-of-coolant accident, the flow of emergency cooling water might be blocked by high-pressure steam in the leaking reactor vessel, and never reach the core. The timing of this discovery was awkward for the AEC. Utilities were facing power shortages and pressing for a streamlined licensing process to eliminate long delays. The Chairman of the AEC, Glenn Seaborg, was appealing to President Nixon to support a new breeder reactor project. The AEC was worried that a new public debate, focused on reactor safety, might create additional roadblocks for the expansion of the industry.
As a result, the AEC attempted to resolve the ECCS issue as quietly and quickly as possible, while trying to keep the results of the Idaho experiments from getting to the public — even withholding information about them from the AEC Congressional oversight committee. A set of "interim acceptance criteria" was issued for utilities to follow — ostensibly designed to reduce the potential burden on ECCS performance during an accident — but were prepared hastily and with little engineering basis, before the AEC had even completed its own study of the problem.
The controversy that followed damaged the credibility of the AEC, and gave increased weight to its critics. The AEC had acted to minimize the issue and cover up the embarrassment it posed. By early 1972, when the agency began to hold hearings on the ECCS issue, a public storm was raging; the hearings filled 135 days over a period of 1½ years, and generated more than 22,000 pages of transcripts.
Unfortunately, the handling of the ECCS issue was not unique. The AEC displayed similar behaviour in other cases: in its reluctance to address public concerns that thermal pollution was harming aquatic wildlife near nuclear plants; in its tepid response to implementing the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act; and in its hasty announcement, in 1970, that it would develop a repository for high-level radioactive wastes in an abandoned Kansas salt mine — a site that rapidly was shown to be geologically unsuitable. While each of these AEC actions seemed intended to support and streamline the progress of the nuclear power industry, they had exactly the opposite effect, by undermining public confidence that nuclear activities were being conducted under strong safety oversight. Each such controversy strengthened the anti-nuclear lobby, which focused increasingly on the inherent conflict of interest that was turning the AEC into a "reluctant regulator."
Faced with the dwindling credibility of the AEC, on the one hand, and the Arab oil embargo and energy crisis of 1973-74, on the other, President Nixon asked the Congress to split the agency in two. The result was the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, a new law that abolished the Atomic Energy Commission and created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as the safety regulator of civilian nuclear power and other facilities. Promotional activities, nuclear weapons programs, and the chain of national research laboratories became the province of the Energy Research and Development Administration, which evolved three years later into the Department of Energy.
The first chapter of nuclear power had come to a close. The combined excitement and "growing pains" of these early decades had delivered two crucial lessons to the nuclear power community: the need for an independent, credible safety regulator, and the importance of earning and maintaining the public trust.
But the worst was still to come.
The One-Two Punch: the accidents at TMI and, subsequently, Chernobyl
In March 1975, at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama, a technician using a lighted candle to check for air leaks accidentally set off a fire that raged for more than seven hours. The fire started in the insulation around electrical cables that operated key systems for plant safety and control, and almost resulted in disabling the safety equipment in one of the two affected reactor units. The unprecedented nature and significance of this event drew fresh attention to the possibility of "common mode failures," scenarios in which a single problem, such as a fire, electrical transient, or system failure, could set off a cascade of additional breakdowns that could render safety equipment — and even redundant back-up systems — ineffective.
The possibility of severe reactor accidents had been debated for decades, but the old AEC had never found the likelihood of such accidents very high. Shortly after the Browns Ferry fire, the NRC was presented with the results of a study, led by Professor Norman Rassmussen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which applied the latest "fault-tree" analysis to project the risks of a severe nuclear accident. While the methodologies Rassmussen had applied were clearly more sophisticated than any previous approach, opinions were more mixed on the accuracy of his conclusions. The value and validity of the Rassmussen approach rapidly became a focus of debate.
But in March 1979, the accident at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear station in Pennsylvania ended speculation as to how a severe accident might occur. A series of mechanical failures, beginning with a single stuck-open valve, led to a loss of reactor coolant. Operators compounded the problem, misreading the condition of the reactor core and obstructing the operation of the emergency cooling systems. The reactor core was uncovered, and about half of it melted, causing irreparable damage.
The statements and actions by government and industry experts, in the days that followed, made matters even worse. Open uncertainty about the cause of the problem, lack of agreement about how to handle it, and contradictory assessments regarding the level of danger for nearby residents made all players appear equally inept — or, even worse, deceptive. Walter Cronkite, the most prominent news anchor of the day, articulated public fears in his assessment of the accident: "The danger faced by man for tampering with natural forces (a theme from the myths of Prometheus to the story of Frankenstein) moved closer to fact from fancy."
The socio-psychological effects of the TMI accident were extraordinary — both within the U.S. and internationally — and they were to remain long after any technical or radiological danger had subsided. The NRC, still a relatively young agency, began to work with the nuclear power industry to analyze and correct the problems uncovered by TMI.
Seven years later, with the memory of TMI still fresh, and the wounds of the nuclear power industry still far from being healed, an even more severe accident shook the international community to its roots. In April 1986, Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station experienced an explosion so violent that it blew the top off the reactor, discharging a massive plume of radiation into the environment. Once again, operator blunders had rendered the safety features of a facility incapable of delivering their intended protection. Areas in the vicinity of the Chernobyl plant were made unsafe to inhabit, and the radioactive plume spread significant levels of contamination into other portions of the Soviet Union and Europe. In fact, so intense was the release of radioactivity that levels of iodine-131 around TMI in Pennsylvania were three times higher after Chernobyl than after the TMI accident.
The combined shock of these two major accidents reverberates to this day, but the lessons of TMI and Chernobyl had an enormously positive effect on the subsequent safety performance of the nuclear industry. These accidents showed that the concept of "defense in depth", which traditionally had focused on increasing plant reliability through the installation of back-up equipment — safety systems, structures, and components — must also be applied to the human aspects of nuclear safety. Factors such as operator attentiveness, training, and procedures for routine and emergency operations were re-evaluated and strengthened, to ensure that human intervention would be an asset, rather than a hindrance, in the face of future emergencies. "Emergency preparedness" — the multifaceted plans for controlling and managing the offsite consequences of an accident — also was given heightened attention as part of "defense in depth."
The NRC and nuclear facility operators recognized another deficiency: the lack of a system for routinely gathering and analysing operational data. Equipment malfunctions similar to those at TMI had occurred previously at other plants, but the information had not been widely shared. The Chernobyl accident made the point even stronger, as noted by Hans Blix, then the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (when he declared that "an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere!"). The globalization of safety cooperation took on a new urgency — the importance of sharing operational expertise, using international peer reviews to identify "best practices," helping all countries to raise their operational safety standards, and disseminating candidly the lessons learned when problems were discovered.
A significant long-term outcome of the accidents at TMI and Chernobyl was the awareness, throughout the nuclear industry, that a new approach was needed for evaluating the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants to severe accidents. Risk assessment, and risk management, was to become a valuable tool for both regulation and operation.
Slow Road to Maturity: the quiet recovery of the U.S. nuclear industry
The combined effects of TMI and Chernobyl could well have driven the U.S. nuclear power industry into an early retirement. The economic impacts of the accidents were extensive: mandatory system upgrades, sweeping revisions to procedures and training practices, detailed reviews of the vulnerabilities of each plant to various accidents, and a substantial increase in the level of regulatory oversight. Getting past the effects of the accidents has taken well over a decade of steady perseverance, but it has been successful, and it is worth understanding how it was accomplished.
The Fitness for Duty Rule: a step toward the establishment of a safety conscious work environment
A common factor in the TMI and Chernobyl accidents was that human intervention, rather than solving an equipment problem, had compounded it. In their exhaustive analysis of the accident, regulatory and industry experts sought for the first time to systematically identify the vulnerabilities in human behavior that could increase the likelihood of an accident. In the years that followed, the study of "human factors" became important. Control room configurations were altered; procedures were revised for clarity; and the full range of nuclear training courses received a rigorous overhaul.
As part of this campaign (to reduce the vulnerability of nuclear power to human factors), the "Fitness for Duty" concept was born. The vital nature of the role played by control room operators, maintenance technicians, radiation safety experts, security guards, quality assurance monitors, and many other plant personnel made it clear that any impairment of their ability to function — particularly if caused by alcohol or drugs — constituted a safety liability. In 1989, a new rule was published (10 CFR Part 26), requiring that each nuclear power plant licensee establish a Fitness For Duty program.
The rule required random urinalysis testing of all personnel having unescorted access to protected areas of nuclear power facilities. Any person confirmed to be under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs during the performance of nuclear duties was required to be removed from those duties. While the Commission acknowledged that such testing was commonly perceived as an unwarranted invasion of privacy, it considered the importance of protecting against human behavior that could lead to a reactor accident to outweigh the privacy considerations.
The new rule was criticized by some operators for being too burdensome and invasive. However, critics and supporters alike recognized that the rule represented a new awareness, within the nuclear power community, of the potential impact of human behavior on plant safety. The Fitness For Duty rule represented an early step toward the establishment of a strong safety culture in nuclear operations.
Risk-Informed, Results-Based Regulation and Operation
By the time that President Bill Clinton appointed me as the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, beginning in July 1995, the safety performance at operating U.S. reactors had begun to make some positive strides. The numbers of unplanned shutdowns and reactor scrams were down, indicating improvements in maintaining plant equipment, as well as more careful operational practices. Nuclear workers were receiving less radiation exposure than they had in previous decades, and the volume of radioactive waste generated was decreasing.
But the mood of the nuclear industry was not optimistic. Nuclear power was not considered economically competitive. The last U.S. permit for a new nuclear power plant had been issued in 1979, and plans for more than 120 plants had been cancelled. A number of utilities were closing down their nuclear power plants — despite the fact that the facilities still had barely operated for half of their licensed lifetimes, because utility executives had found it the "least cost option" to shut down and decommission their nuclear facilities in favor of building and operating gas turbine facilities or other plants for electricity generation. The cumulative effect of a host of new, prescriptive regulations and requirements — each designed to improve safety, but some involving only moderate enhancements — had begun to take its toll. Utility executives regularly complained to the U.S. Congress that the NRC programs for inspection and enforcement had become unduly burdensome. The license renewal rule, on which the NRC had been working for some time, was a relatively low priority, because few members of the nuclear community believed that utilities would actually want to extend their facility licenses. And, while many NRC licensees had completed their "probabilistic risk assessments," there was little consensus on how these risk assessments should be used.
One of my first initiatives as NRC Chairman was to push for greater and more programmatic use of risk information to "inform" NRC regulatory activities, to ensure that our prioritization of regulatory processes — rulemaking, licensing, inspection, and enforcement — would be consistent with the actual risk importance of the issues involved. This approach, I hoped, would provide a more predictable and defensible basis for our program of regulatory oversight, and would eventually translate to having nuclear power plant operators place the most demanding requirements and the highest resource commitments in those areas of greatest safety importance.
While this approach seemed almost revolutionary at the time, the logic was quite simple. "Risk-informed, performance-based" regulation, as I began to call it, involved three steps:
1. An exhaustive qualitative and quantitative analysis of the risks, and the scenarios that could give rise to those risks;
2. A "big picture" evaluation that integrated risk analysis with other factors, such as public concerns, Congressional mandates, economic limitations, and a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities; and
3. A resulting definition of "bottom line" parameters which, if met, would acceptably limit the risks, thus forming the basis for one or more "performance-based" regulations.
A "risk-informed, performance-based" approach is based on the understanding that we cannot protect against every eventuality, and that it is therefore vital to direct our efforts where they will do the most good. While most of the experience gained regarding probabilistic risk analysis and the regulation of risk has been in the nuclear safety arena, the general model can be applied to almost any technical pursuit.
The shift in regulatory focus took years. The existing volumes of regulations and regulatory guidance could not simply be set aside — nor did we have the freedom to encourage, in any sense, "selective" enforcement of those rules we found most important. But the concept began to take hold. "Risk-informed, performance-based" regulation became a mantra, from NRC policy makers to inspectors to enforcement specialists. It influenced the Commission's review of the new "Maintenance Rule." It led us to a complete overhaul of our ranking of licensee violations subject to enforcement, and the associated system of issuing fines. In short, it began to take root in our regulatory "culture," and kept our focus on the "big picture."
But the most telling result, in my view, was that the "risk-informed, performance-based" approach made sense to our nuclear power licensees; it was consistent with the best licensee management practices — which focused on safety as the highest priority, and made "smart" expenditures geared toward investing the most where it counted most, and where meaningful, measurable safety improvements would result. These managers had discovered that a "risk-informed" focus on safety, when combined with other principles of effective management, achieved greater productivity as well. In other words, it was possible to improve safety while simultaneously increasing competitiveness.
Let me give you a practical example. Every nuclear power plant has its "down time" — periods of extensive maintenance in which major components have to be taken out of service, usually associated with refueling. The costs of each day of such an outage are enormous — not only because of all the extra workers and replacement parts involved, but simply because the plant is offline, and not supplying electricity to the grid. Traditionally, in the 1970s and '80s, refueling outages simply were accepted as huge, inefficient drains on the output of a utility.
With the advent of probabilistic risk analysis, all that changed. The operators of each plant evaluated its entire range of operations, including outage periods, for the safety risks involved — with detailed reviews of which scenarios created the greatest vulnerability to causing a core meltdown or a radiological release accident, which components reasonably could be out of service for how long, and so on.
Far more focus was placed on what could be done simultaneously, which measures would avoid re-work, and how to learn from other plants to achieve the shortest, safest outages. And over a period of years, refueling outages, which had been accepted as 3-6 month events, were reduced to a matter of weeks. Safety consciousness was higher than ever, and the economic benefits were huge.
In 1980, the average "unit capability" in the U.S. (that is, the percentage of time that U.S. nuclear power plants were online and producing electricity) hovered at about 62.7 percent. In 1990, the figure was 71.7 percent. Last year, unit capability reached an all-time high of 91.2 percent. In other words, last year roughly 100 U.S. nuclear power plants produced 778 million megawatt-hours of electricity, compared with about 557 million megawatt-hours in 1990. That is the effective equivalent of commissioning approximately twenty-five 1000-megawatt plants at near zero cost.
Moreover, these strides in economic competitiveness occurred at the same time as safety performance was improving, radiation exposure and waste volumes were decreasing, and the number of industrial accidents were declining — all factors that contributed secondary economic benefits.
The adoption of the "risk-informed, performance based" approach was a key ingredient in achieving the turnaround in the U.S. nuclear industry. Not only did it ensure a focus on the most important aspects of safety in regulation and operation, it also gave a basis for communication — within the nuclear community, with Congressional oversight groups, and with the public — that was credible and made sense. And it formed the foundation for achieving the ultimate regulatory goal: a culture of safety within the licensed nuclear community.
Millstone: a lesson in safety culture, transparency, and regulatory credibility
Let me now turn briefly to an event that occurred early in my four-year term as NRC Chairman, a difficult challenge that taught me very important but also very tough lessons, related to (1) the importance of transparency and (2) the characteristics of a nuclear safety culture.
On March 4, 1996, the cover of Time Magazine featured George Galatis, a senior engineer at the Millstone nuclear power station in Connecticut. The caption read, "Blowing the Whistle on Nuclear Safety: how a showdown at a power plant exposed the federal government's failure to enforce its own rules."
As you might imagine, that was not a happy day for me, or for my colleagues at the NRC. The Time article was not news; the Commission had recently become aware of problems at Millstone, and two months before, in January 1996, had placed the Millstone facility on the NRC "Watch List," thus designating it as a plant requiring increased oversight. While our investigation was far from over, it was clear that both the licensee and the regulator were at fault. But no organization enjoys having its faults aired in public, much less in bold colors on the cover of a leading national magazine!
Mr. Galatis had raised safety issues concerning the overloading of spent fuel rods into the Millstone Unit 1 storage pools; but the scope of the problem, the more we began to investigate it, proved to be much larger. Millstone management had become lax in ensuring that the operating configuration of its plants — in terms of safety equipment, procedures, and operational practices — were in keeping with the documented design basis of the facility. Dozens of non-conformances were discovered — most of them having relatively small safety significance, but revealing a disturbing pattern.
Other problems pointed even more sharply to a poor safety culture at Millstone. A large backlog of uncorrected problems existed, and both workers and supervisors appeared to accept these non-conformances and degraded plant conditions as routine. Some Millstone workers had frequently contacted the NRC — at a rate three times the industry average — to allege that they had been harassed for raising safety concerns. And worst of all, from my perspective as Chairman, the NRC had a poor track record of following up — either on identified design and operational discrepancies or on the allegations of worker harassment. In other words, we had become part of the problem.
I had been the NRC Chairman for a mere 8 months, and the problems stemmed back for more than a 10-year period — clearly originating well before my time. Yet it was clear that the Agency's credibility was on the line. I knew it would be vital — as the spokesperson and principal executive officer of the agency — that I shoulder responsibility for what we had discovered, without making excuses, and resolve that the problems would be corrected.
In August 1996 I held a public meeting near the Millstone facilities, to acknowledge, simply and candidly, what we knew about what had gone wrong, to describe our plans for correcting the situation, and to answer questions raised directly by members of the public. Using plain, straightforward language, I tried to communicate our intentions, honestly and without ego. To quote what I told my audience:
"[For the NRC], the customer is the public. It is important that we do not make regulation any more burdensome or costly for the regulated industry than it needs to be, but the bottom line has to be that an NRC licensee operates a safe plant, and lives within regulatory requirements, or it does not operate. As I ask myself what went wrong in this case — why the regulatory culture did not always function as it should have — I frankly do not have all the answers — not yet, anyway. But, in this case, not one of these plants should be allowed to go back on line until it is clear they can do so safely."
In the weeks and months that followed, the NRC took a series of actions to ensure that the problems discovered at Millstone would be corrected and would not recur elsewhere. Thousands of hours of inspection took place, first to be sure that we clearly understood the problems, and then to monitor the correction of those problems by the Millstone staff and management. At the same time, the NRC Inspector General was investigating the conduct of the NRC in failing to respond earlier to reports of non-compliance at Millstone.
At some point during this challenging period, I began to realize that the Millstone crisis, with all its negative aspects, was also an opportunity — an opportunity to demonstrate that the NRC was prepared to exercise strong but fair regulatory oversight, and an opportunity to help the licensee restore a safety conscious work environment, in which workers were respected for raising safety concerns, and corrective actions were taken promptly and responsibly. Most of all, it was an opportunity to restore public confidence through patient, candid interaction, admitting where we had failed, communicating clearly our intentions on how to correct our errors, and following up faithfully to show members of the public that we were sincere and committed to safe nuclear operation. I even invited the Connecticut Senator, Joseph Lieberman — presently a Democratic Presidential candidate — to tour the Millstone facility with me, to be sure that he, too, understood and was satisfied with our commitment to correct the problems we had found.
The Millstone experience did not end quickly, and it was immensely costly. All three Millstone units had been shut down, and the same patterns of complacency, inadequate management, poor safety culture, and employee harassment were found in all three facilities. In fact, all NRC power reactor licensees were required to review aspects of their own operational practices, to be sure the Millstone problems were not replicated elsewhere. In the end, for economic reasons, Millstone Unit 1 was never restarted. Unit 3 did not reopen until two years later, in July 1998, and Unit 2 the following year. And, not until March 1999 did the Commission rescind an order requiring an independent consulting firm to be located at the plant to monitor the work environment.
Throughout the Millstone affair, the NRC was criticized by some for being too harsh, and by others for being too soft. But grudgingly, even our strongest critics began to give us credit, and by the end it is safe to say that the credibility of the NRC was stronger than ever. The lesson was grueling, but through the experience I learned how hard it was — and how absolutely vital for the nuclear power industry — to build and to maintain a strong, healthy safety culture, both in the operating work environment and within the regulatory oversight body.
The experience also taught me the value of transparency. From the time that Time Magazine headlined the issue, there was no escaping the spotlight. Every action the Commission took related to Millstone, every inspection report we issued, every summary of progress, every public statement we made, was scrutinized and over-analyzed by our critics and supporters on both sides of the issue. But I learned that the spotlight, too, can be an opportunity — even if the issue lies in one's apparent failure. Initial judgments may be harsh, but transparency, candor, sincerity, and a bold, clearly communicated commitment to correct mistakes will, with time, nearly always provide an opportunity for redemption in the public view. By contrast, few behaviors are more likely to arouse public suspicion than the tendency to say everything is okay (when it clearly is not), to gloss over evident failures, or to convey an attitude of arrogant secrecy.
Political Recovery: the active engagement of "stakeholders"
The focus on transparency led, quite naturally, to a more aggressive stance on communication: the active engagement of NRC "stakeholders" in the regulatory process. While many members of the public take no notice of nuclear power whatsoever, it became apparent early in my stint as NRC chairman that a great many people and organizations were interested in one aspect or another of nuclear energy. Some, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, were skeptical of both nuclear power and NRC effectiveness. Others were supportive of nuclear science and technology, and concerned that the U.S. was losing its leadership edge in the nuclear community. These individuals came from all walks of life — academicians, Congressmen, activists, investigative journalists, government employees, researchers, or simply concerned citizens. It was to our advantage to engage them in dialogue and allow them to see how we reached our conclusions.
The involvement of these "stakeholders" became a key feature of how the NRC performed its work — through involvement at Commission briefings, staff workshops, Congressional hearings, Internet websites, educational outreach activities, review of published papers, and even drop-in visits with relevant NRC personnel. Not only did our willingness to engage in dialogue increase our credibility, we also gained valuable insights on policy and technical matters, such as adopting radiological criteria for decommissioning, anticipating the potential impacts of economic deregulation, and ensuring appropriate dry cask storage methods for spent fuel. We learned to treat each stakeholder fairly, without dwelling on their motives or perceived prejudices, using their opinions to enrich our understanding of an issue, but not to dictate decisions.
Despite this effort to engage stakeholders, and despite the success of the NRC at introducing a "risk-informed, performance-based" approach to regulation, I must confess that it came as something of a surprise, in the latter years of my tenure, when Congressional leaders and other prominent figures began to speak out in support of nuclear power.
The first signs of a new trend became apparent to me during meetings with NRC Congressional oversight committees. Senator Pete Domenici congratulated the NRC on its certification of a number of advanced reactor designs, spoke strongly in favor of streamlining the license renewal process, and urged the NRC to find ways to ease the regulatory burden on the operators of nuclear power plants — while strongly upholding the importance of safety oversight. Other senators and congressmen soon began to follow suit. During a U.S. Senate hearing, in June 1998, I was most gratified when Senator Joe Lieberman indicated his support of nuclear energy.
And, I found myself believing, more than ever, in the value of building strong communication ties among "stakeholders" in the nuclear community — including political leaders and decision-makers.
In the past several years, the trend has continued and expanded.
Lester Thurow, a leading economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in USA Today:
"This ugly choice is going to confront the green movement with a moment of truth. What does it like less: global warming or nuclear power?"
And, in November 2001, Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, said in a speech in Houston:
"Given the steps that have been taken over the years to make nuclear energy safer, and the obvious environmental advantages it has in terms of reducing emissions, the time may have come to consider whether we can overcome the impediments to tapping its potential more fully."
Current Status in the United States: a climate favorable to nuclear power
In view of these and other recent trends, the possibility of a U.S. nuclear revival — including the construction of new, more advanced nuclear power plants — is more likely now than at any time since the mid-1960s.
Construction and Innovation: still a work in progress
The May 2001 report of the National Energy Policy Development Group recommended that the President support the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S., encourage license renewal, urge the NRC to up-rate existing nuclear plants, and use the best science to move forward on the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository. The U.S. Congress is currently working on comprehensive energy policy legislation that will include financial incentives for constructing new nuclear power plants. As articulated by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the vision of the U.S. nuclear industry is to add 50,000 megawatts of nuclear generating capacity to the grid by 2020 — through new construction and restarts of previously shutdown reactors — and an additional 10,000 megawatts through expanding the capacity of currently operating facilities. Several U.S. utilities are working to apply to the NRC for early site permits for sites on which to build new reactors. No construction has taken place yet.
In a global context, the U.S. is far from being a leader in nuclear power plant construction. The last new U.S. plant went online in 1996. Of the six new plants connected to the grid in 2002, one was in Eastern Europe (the Czech Republic), and the other five in Asia (China and the Republic of Korea). Asia also dominates the mix of countries actively expanding their nuclear generating capacity; out of 33 plants currently under construction, 20 are in Asian countries.
That is not to say, however, that there is no concrete basis for the stated commitments of the U.S. government and industry to building new nuclear power plants. Over the past two decades, U.S. vendors managed to develop three "advanced" or "evolutionary" reactor designs — the "Advanced Boiling Water Reactor" by General Electric, the "System 80+" reactor by ABB-Combustion Engineering, and the Westinghouse AP600 reactor — each of which, after thorough review, received a certification of design from the NRC.
More recently, the U.S.-led Generation IV International Nuclear Forum — a collegial effort by 10 countries, including Japan — has published a roadmap for research and development on six innovative reactor concepts, such as the "Molten Salt Reactor" and the "Supercritical Water Cooled Reactor." Innovation must be more than technical. The accompanying regulatory policies and safety standards must reflect a maturity of insight and a willingness to evolve. This will be key if prospective investors are to achieve a high level of confidence in the reliability of nuclear power plant construction schedules, licensing reviews, and other factors that affect the cost of design, construction, start-up, operation, and maintenance.
License Renewal: a U.S. success story
In fact, it is innovation in regulatory policy that has played a major role in the emerging success of reactor license renewal in the U.S. — a principal factor in the current and near-term picture. U.S. nuclear power plants are initially licensed by the NRC for a period of 40 years, and can choose to renew their licenses for an additional 20 years. But as I have noted, expectations for license renewal were relatively dismal in the early and mid-1990s, due to the cumbersome nature of the application process and the widespread anticipation of regulatory inefficiency. To alleviate this anticipated regulatory burden, we set to work to amend the relevant regulation, 10 CFR Part 54, to make the process more efficient, more predictable in cost and schedule, and more clearly focused on its primary safety objective — in short, more "risk-informed" and "performance based" — managing the adverse effects of aging on key plant structures, systems and components.
The result has been successful. The first license renewal application, filed in April 1998, was processed on schedule and on budget, with thorough examinations of aging considerations and other issues. Lessons learned were fed back into the system, and the process was standardized for greater efficiency. To date, the licenses of 16 nuclear power plants have been renewed, the applications of an additional 16 are under review, and the owners of 26 more have expressed the intention to file. Virtually all U.S. nuclear plants are expected to file eventually.
Extending the life of an existing plant is economically attractive because it requires relatively little capital expenditure and off-sets the short-term need for new generating capacity. Moreover, it will provide time to begin demonstrating the efficacy of solutions for high-level waste disposal; it will allow further research and development into innovative reactor technologies with enhanced safety and security features; and, because of the positive economic aspects of life extension, it will increase greatly the cost attractiveness of nuclear plants to potential investors.
The New America: fears of nuclear and radiological terrorism
In the past two years, there has been a strong upsurge in the focus on nuclear security — both in the U.S. and around the globe. The events of September 11, 2001 dramatically changed the way we evaluate nearly every aspect of life in the U.S. — and certainly added a new factor when evaluating risk in any industrial sector. The potential threats of nuclear and radiological terrorism have undergone rigorous re-evaluation. At U.S. nuclear plants, security perimeters have been extended, additional security forces have been hired, and the industry has worked closely with Federal and local regulators on assessing new threats and taking protective measures. The NRC has issued no less than 60 advisories to describe changes in the threat environment and to provide guidance on ways to enhance security.
But it is important to understand that the physical protection of nuclear power plants was extremely robust well before September 2001. No other U.S. industry has had to satisfy the tough security requirements that the NRC had been imposing for a quarter of a century. Nuclear plants are surrounded by multiple fences, with continuously monitored perimeter detection and surveillance systems. They are guarded by well-armed, well-trained security forces. The power plants themselves are constructed to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, making them among the most formidable man-made structures in existence. They are designed with multiple redundant and diverse safety systems. And operators are rigorously trained to respond to emergencies of all types — including sabotage and other forms of attack.
Last October, a two-day national security exercise called "Silent Vector" was conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in partnership with the ANSER Institute and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The exercise was designed to uncover vulnerabilities that might arise if the U.S. were faced with a large-scale terrorist attack on some element of the its critical energy infrastructure — with potential targets that included refineries, pipelines, chemical operations, dams, and nuclear power plants. Not surprisingly, the simulation found that nuclear plants were, the nation's "best defended targets."
Future Prospects: looking into the crystal ball
I am frequently asked to predict what the future will hold for nuclear power. A number of critical factors could still change the outcome of the equation.
Key Trends: global demand and climate change
Economic development is essential if we are to solve urgent issues of poverty, hunger, lack of safe drinking water, and inadequate health care that plague the global community — and economic development is predicated on the availability of electricity and other forms of energy. By mid-century, global energy consumption is expected to double, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries. To use another comparison: over the next 50 years, the human community will use more energy than the total consumed in all of previous history.
A second trend is the possibility of widespread climate change, resulting from an increase of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants are virtually free of greenhouse gas emissions. Substituting a single 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant for a coal fired plant of equivalent capacity would avoid about 1.7 million tons of carbon emissions per year. Existing nuclear power facilities are often the most cost-effective way to reduce the carbon emissions from electricity generation. While some environmentalists voice concerns about nuclear safety or the disposal of solid nuclear waste, they readily agree that no aspect of sustainable development is more fundamental or more urgent than a worldwide shift toward the clean production of energy.
The MIT Study: four factors that will impact the future of nuclear power
Global energy demand and climate change clearly set the stage for a resurgence in nuclear power plant construction, but other factors also will have a strong influence. A study recently released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cited four basic hurdles that must be overcome in order for nuclear power to make a true comeback — or even to maintain its current share of world electricity generation (about 16%), as energy use expands:
1. Costs: the costs of operating and maintaining nuclear power facilities have been reduced dramatically over the past decade. However, as the study showed, the nuclear industry will need to build between 1000 and 1500 new reactors, each in the range of 1000 megawatts, in order to maintain its current share of world electricity in the expanding market. Construction and licensing costs, therefore, will figure strongly in the economic viability of new nuclear plants.
2. Safety: despite the sustained strong safety performance in nuclear facilities around the globe, incidents continue to occur that raise concerns related to safety culture and safety management. Modern reactor designs can achieve a very low risk of serious accidents, but a single significant breakdown in safety can send reverberations through the entire industry — particularly in terms of public perceptions of the potential for adverse safety, environmental and health effects. Strong standards of safety performance must therefore be maintained, with vigilance, throughout the international nuclear community.
3. Waste: the geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste is technically feasible, but has yet to be demonstrated, and the volume of accumulated waste continues to build. The U.S. government has spent approximately $7 billion to date in scientific studies on deep geological waste repositories. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada has been selected, and the U.S. Department of Energy is now preparing a license application to present to the NRC. The site could be open by the end of the decade. However, until the facility is operating, and the technology has been demonstrated, this issue will remain a thorn in the side of the nuclear industry.
4. Proliferation: in the past year, the spotlight on situations in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have made clear the level of global anxiety associated with additional countries acquiring nuclear weapons capability. The current international safeguards regime would have to expand considerably to accommodate significant growth in the number of reactors. However, the designers of new reactors and fuel cycles will gain a huge advantage over the competition if they manage to incorporate features that would inhibit the possibility of diverting nuclear material — or modifying nuclear technology — for use in nuclear weapons production.
"Succession Planning" For the Nuclear Workforce
In addition to these factors named in the MIT study, the perceptions of young people — and especially of students — will play an important role in the future of nuclear power. The nuclear workforce is aging; that is, more and more nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians of many disciplines are approaching retirement age, without a corresponding influx of appropriately qualified younger people to replace them. Fewer young people are studying nuclear related fields at the university level, and a growing number of universities are giving up their nuclear education programs altogether. U.S. statistics show a decrease of more than 60% from 1979 levels of enrollment in nuclear engineering programs.
This constitutes a major "succession planning" problem for the nuclear workforce, regardless of whether or not a future expansion occurs in nuclear energy usage. Last year, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I convened a meeting of governmental, industrial, and academic leaders to evaluate this current shortfall in nuclear succession planning, to understand what is currently being done to address this issue, and to determine concrete steps that each sector of society can take, alone or in collaboration, to maintain and renew the "reservoir" of nuclear expertise.
Public Opinion: the final factor
I would like to close by addressing directly a theme that has appeared throughout my presentation: the importance of public opinion. I have emphasized the early public enthusiasm for and confidence in the peaceful applications of nuclear energy — and how this enthusiasm and confidence was dashed: by the failure to address concerns regarding the hazards of radiation; by an apparent conflict of interest in regulatory oversight; and by a lack of transparency in dealing with problems. The accidents at TMI and Chernobyl unquestionably have impacted enormously on public perceptions of the safety and environmental effects of nuclear power — but those perceptions were compounded by the apparent lack of trustworthiness in the human beings who operated and regulated the facilities.
The improvements in public opinion of nuclear power in the U.S. are due, quite simply, to reversing those behaviors and the associated perceptions. Transparency, a willingness to engage members of the public as valuable "stakeholders," and candor when owning up to mistakes have been key factors in reclaiming the public trust. The most recent polls in the U.S. show that a full two-thirds of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy. Fifty percent of U.S. adults believe that new power plants should be built, and 80% believe the licenses of existing plants should be renewed.
Whatever the future holds, I believe it is vital to continue to engage the public in an objective evaluation of the relative merits of available energy options. Improving public understanding of radioactivity and nuclear issues is essential — to create a more balanced awareness of the associated risks, the nature and effects of radiation, and the considerable range of societal benefits provided through nuclear applications.
I would leave you with a challenge. Given the strong record of past Japanese innovation and investment in nuclear power technologies, and given the Asian predominance in current nuclear construction projects, it is worth considering the inherent opportunities for leadership — in helping to develop and advance the latest nuclear power technologies, in setting the standard for a healthy nuclear safety culture, and in dealing candidly and intelligently with the need to operate and regulate nuclear facilities in a manner that inspires trust in nuclear energy — as well as a more robust awareness of its benefits — among decision makers and the general public.
Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.