Fukushima Aftermath: Whither the Indian Point Nuke?/Nuclear policy in the United States
The Nuclear policy of the United States can be divided into two main periods, 1954–1992 and from 2005–present. Throughout these two periods, numerous pieces of legislation have become law and countless policies implemented which have guided the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy in the regulation and growth of nuclear energy companies. This includes, but is not limited to regulations of nuclear facilities, waste storage, decommissioning of weapons grade materials, uranium mining, and funding for companies. Political legislation and bureaucratic regulations of nuclear energy in the United States have been shaped by scientific research, private industries wishes, and the public opinion which has shifted over time and following different nuclear disasters.
In the United States, the Fukushima Aftermath: Diablo Nuclear Redux?/Nuclear Regulatory Commission|Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the nuclear energy industry more strictly than most other industries. The NRC and the Fukushima Aftermath: Diablo Nuclear Redux?/United States Department of Energy|Department of Energy (DOE), work together to insure plant safety, building and operational permits, movement and storage of nuclear waste, management of weapons grade byproducts of plants, radiation protection, and loan guarantees.
The United States has the most active nuclear power plants than any other country in the world with 104 plants out of the total 441 active sites and another 62 under construction worldwide with nearly twice as many sites as the next two countries France (58) and Japan (55) combined. Construction of U.S. nuclear facilities peaked between the 1970s to the 1980s, during which time these facilities were granted 20-40 year operational permits.
Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954
In the early days of nuclear energy, the United States government did not allow for any private sector use of nuclear technology. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 into law, which prohibited the dissemination of nuclear technology or information to other entities both domestic and abroad. This act represented the fear that foreign nations, including allies, would gain the technology and use it against the U.S. However, as time went on, this fear subsided and interest from the public sector emerged in the hope that nuclear power could provide a viable energy alternative to coal.
Finally, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was amended under the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, thus ushering in the First Nuclear Age in America. This amendment allowed the private sectors to use certain government information about nuclear technology and establish private energy facilities. However, these facilities would have to abide by government rules and regulations and work closely with the government regarding the plant safety, mining, storage, transportation, and the use of weapons grade byproducts of nuclear facilities.
First nuclear age
There were two phases in U.S. nuclear policy. The first phase lasted from approximately 1949 to 1992. By the end of the 1980s new plants were being built and after 1992, there was a period of 13 years without any substantial nuclear legislation. The United States was not the first nation to create a nuclear power plant. Both Russia and England managed to establish small, limited power plants before the U.S. Although developments were taking place in the private sectors before the 1954 act, it was not until mid-1956 that the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania came online. This facility, which generated 50 Watt#Megawatt|MW of power per year and later up to 200 MW, was the first full-scale nuclear power plant in the U.S. and the world. In the coming years more and more plants were built by regulated utility companies, often state-based. These companies would "put the capital cost into their rate base and Amortization|amortized it against power sales. Their consumers bore the risk and paid the capital cost."
Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 and NRC governing laws
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was established under the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a single agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, had responsibility for the development and production of nuclear weapons and for both the development and the safety regulation of the civilian uses of nuclear materials. The Act of 1974 split these functions, assigning to one agency, now the Department of Energy, the responsibility for the development and production of nuclear weapons, promotion of nuclear power, and other energy-related work, and assigning to the NRC the regulatory work, which does not include regulation of defense nuclear facilities. The Act of 1974 gave the NRC its collegial structure and established its major offices. The later amendment to the Act also provided protections for employees who raise nuclear safety concerns. Applications for new plants are filed with the (NRC) and usually take between three and five years to be approved. They require detailed reports on all reactor operations, transportation of fuels, enrichment, mining, waste storage, mining of yellow cake, and much more. Moreover, the Government often "promises to provide incentives for building new plants through loan guarantees and tax credits," backs loans or even direct funding for building, and conducts atomic research to further the field.
Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970 established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and gave it a role in establishing "generally applicable environmental standards for the protection of the general environment from radioactive material." Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1980 strengthened the executive and administrative roles of the NRC Chairman, particularly in emergencies, transferring to the Chairman "all the functions vested in the Commission pertaining to an emergency concerning a particular facility or materials ... regulated by the Commission." This Reorganization Plan also provided that all policy formulation, policy-related rulemaking, and orders and adjudications would remain vested with the full Commission.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Act of 1978 seeks to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by, among other things, establishing criteria governing U.S. nuclear exports licensed by the NRC and taking steps to strengthen the international safeguards system. This helped ensure the security of the United States. Countries that signed the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) committed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in return for U.S. knowledge and materials in the form of nuclear reactors and fuel.
In addition to supplying countries with nuclear technology, the U.S. would aid countries in their effort to identify domestic sources of alternative energy, consistent with economic and material resources, and in compliance with environmental standards within that country. In this way, the U.S. could ensure control over all information, technology, and materials relevant to nuclear activities.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 by establishing new criteria governing U.S. nuclear exports licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to initiate and plan the design, construction, and operation activities for expansion of uranium enrichment capacity, sufficient for domestic and foreign needs. The Act specified that the nuclear non-proliferation controls would not expire annually, eliminating the need for extensions.
Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978
The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 was designed to establish programs for the stabilization and control of mill tailings of uranium or thorium mill sites, both active and inactive, in order to prevent or minimize, among other things, the diffusion of radon into the environment. Title II of the Act gives the NRC regulatory and licensing authority over mill tailing at sites under NRC license on or after January 1, 1978.
This also gave the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) the responsibility of stabilizing, disposing, and controlling uranium mill tailings and other contaminated material at twenty-four uranium mill processing sites located across ten states and at approximately 5,200 associated properties.
In the 1950s and 1960s, private firms processed most uranium ore mined in the United States. After uranium mining came under federal control, companies abandoned their mill operations, leaving behind materials with potential long-term health hazards. These mills contained low-level radioactive wastes and other hazardous substances that eventually migrated to surrounding soil, groundwater, surface water, and emitted radon gas.
Under the Act, the DOE established the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project to monitor the cleanup of uranium mill tailings. The UMTRCA gave the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulatory authority over the cleanup and licensing of mill tailing facilities at sites under NRC license. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had the task of developing cleanup strategies and recording standards for mills. The UMTRA used on-site disposal methods for eleven of the mills, while excavating and disposing of the wastes found at the remaining thirteen sites to remote off-site disposal locations owned by the DOE.
Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended
This Act establishes both the Federal government’s responsibility to provide a place for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, and the generators’ responsibility to bear the costs of permanent disposal. Amendments to the Act have focused the Federal government's efforts, through the Department of Energy, on studying a possible site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. If the Department and the President recommend to the Congress that a permanent repository be built there, and if the recommendation survives the special procedures that the Act establishes for Congressional review of the recommendation, the Department will apply to the NRC for authorization to construct the repository. The Act provides for extensive State, Tribal, and public participation in the planning and development of permanent repositories.
Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985
This Act gives States the responsibility to dispose of low-level radioactive waste generated within their borders and allows them to form compacts to locate facilities to serve a group of States. The Act provides that the facilities will be regulated by the NRC or by States that have entered into Agreements with the NRC under section 274 of the Atomic Energy Act. The Act also requires the NRC to establish standards for determining when radionuclides are present in waste streams in sufficiently low concentrations or quantities as to be "below regulatory concern."
Energy Policy Act of 1992
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 had a provisions under Section 801, which directs the United States Environmental Protection Agency to promulgate radiation protection standards for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The Yucca Mountain site was then designated by the Federal government to serve as the permanent disposal site for used nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials from commercial nuclear power plants and U.S. Department of Defense activities. The costs for this project have reached $13.5 Billion for this expected 25 year program. However, in 2009, President Barack Obama fulfilled his campaign to end the shipping of nuclear waste to the site site. This decision was made because Yucca Mountain is located over a large fault line and if the facility was damaged in an earthquake, then it would have contaminated a large water reservoir below the facility. Soon after this, the Senate and House passed legislation to back Obama's decision. Although the site is still active and being funded by Obama ($196.8 million in presidential budget), and over $33 Billion was appropriated by Congress for various other water projects at the Yucca facility. Although Obama has set the NRC to devise another long term solution to waste storage of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors, none as of yet have been proposed, and all radioactive waste is still being stored onsite at nuclear power plants.
Second nuclear age
The second phase began of Nuclear energy and policy changes started in 2005–present with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This act helped encourage utility companies to install more reactors and build more nuclear plants to meet the demands of America's growing energy needs.
Energy Policy Act of 2005
August 8, 2005, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 into law shortly after it passed in the Senate by 74-26 margin and in the house by 275-156 margin. Its focus was to provide funding and tax breaks to producers and consumers alike. Although it provided many incentives to individual consumers and green energy technology, Nuclear was the clear winner. As part of the incentives:
- Production tax credit of 2.1 ¢/kWh from the first 6,000 MWe of new nuclear capacity in their first eight years of operation (the same rate as available to wind power on an unlimited basis).
- Federal risk insurance of $2 billion to cover regulatory delays in full-power operation of the first six advanced new plants.
- Rationalized tax on decommissioning funds (some reduced).
- Federal loan guarantees for advanced nuclear reactors or other emission-free technologies up to 80% of the project cost.
- Extension for 20 years of the Price Anderson Act for nuclear liability protection.
- Support for advanced nuclear technology.
- Also $1.25 billion was authorized for an advanced high-temperature reactor (Next-Generation Nuclear Plant) at the Idaho National Laboratory, capable of co-generating hydrogen. Overall more than $2 billion was provided for hydrogen demonstration projects. Called the 2010 Program.
In total, over almost 5 billion dollars, as well as extensive tax breaks, were originally designated for nuclear funding, but far more would be put forth to back the loan guarantees Within the actual legislation, it is stated that the Secretary of the Interior is charged with carrying out the legislation. In the matter of new funding for next-generation reactors, the Secretary’s decision should be in line with the recommendations of the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee of the Department in the report entitled "A Roadmap to Deploy New Nuclear Power Plants in the United States by 2010." In other sections the Secretary was required to work with the Director of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology in the Department of Energy. This legislation jump-started the Nuclear Industry again by firmly establishing it as the alternate energy source that politicians wanted. Moreover, it provided financial backing for building, tax incentives, risk insurance, and repealed of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 which allowed utility companies to merge.
Soon after it passage, the Washington Post critically analyzed the legislation and found that the nuclear industry received serious concessions from the government in the Environmental Policy Act of 2005. According to the Washington Post:
"The bill's biggest winner was probably the nuclear industry, which received billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks covering almost every facet of operations. There were subsidies for research into new reactor designs, "fusion energy," small-particle accelerators and reprocessing nuclear waste, which would reverse current U.S. policy. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.) even inserted a $250,000 provision for research into using radiation to refine oil...The bill also included $2 billion for "risk insurance" in case new nuclear plants run into construction and licensing delays. And nuclear utilities will be eligible for taxpayer-backed loan guarantees of as much as 80 percent the cost of their plants."
Implementation of the energy and of 2005
The implementation of funding, loan guarantees, and more advanced research is left in the hands of the Department of Energy (DOE). In mid-2008 the DOE began accepting applications from utility companies for the funding of construction promised in the 2005 legislation. In total funding, the DOE provided $18.5 billion for nuclear power plants and another $2 billion for uranium enriched plants pending the approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's. Currently, there are 19 known applications from 17 different utility companies, 17 of which have been approved or will shortly be approved by the NRC. Of these NRC approvals, there are 14 newly proposed nuclear power plants, and 21 new reactors cores to be installed in existing facilities using five different designs (as of 2010). Furthermore, the DOE also received two applications for uranium enriched power plants. In total all these plants combined would add 28,800 MWe per year to the power grid if/when all the sites come online. These companies requested loan guarantees totaling far more than the budgeted $18.5 billion. In total they requested $122 billion for the overall projected cost for production at $188 billion. The uranium enriched power plants only requested a total of $4 billion which was later accepted. These loan guarantees are encouraging lenders to fund these companies. In essence, the government is promising to protect lenders against loss (up to 80% in this case), and also legitimates the investment by requiring that it be scrutinized by the DOE. Moreover, because these are only guarantees, they are NOT considered government appropriations, and thus easier to pass through Congress. This is because baring a failed investment, no tax payers dollars are being spent unless the loans fall through.
Because of the enormous costs involved, the nuclear industry requested more loan guarantees from the government, totaling $100 billion. In February 2010 President Obama, who ran on a pro-nuclear platform, negotiated with the companies down and added $36 billion to the budgeted $18.5 billion, bringing the total of $54.5 billion to the Presidential 2011 Budget for the DOE loans. The DOE also sought another $9 billion though other legislation for the utility company, Southern & Oglethorpe in Vogtle GA, as well as three other plants for the installation of five reactors cores.
State response to nuclear expansion legislation
Most states have been complicit with the utility companies installation of nuclear plants, but some states have not. Although the Federal Government has the foremost control over nuclear energy regulations, safety and funding, each state government have some say about whether or not to implement nuclear energy in their states. In 1976, California passed legislation which prevented new nuclear power plants from being built until an approved means of disposing of fuel-rod waste was approved. This legislation, which was also renewed in 2005, effectively put a moratorium on nuclear power plants in California, since no fuel-rod waste measure was ever approved. Soon afterwards, many states passed similar laws limiting nuclear energy influence in their state. This California legislation was also reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1983 when they ruled that, "it did not conflict with federal authority because it addressed legitimate state issues of economic and electricity reliability concerns, and not safety." Moreover, individual states also are allowed to have a public service commission that regulates electricity sales to consumers, and can either grant or deny any federal funds/loans appropriated for nuclear companies’ construction in the state. They also have veto power over where nuclear waste is stored (unless overridden by the Congress), such as in the case of Yucca Mountain Waste Storage Facility. Finally states are allowed to levy taxes on nuclear companies which gives them power in both preventing facilities from operating or encourage new growth though tax breaks.
Public response to nuclear incidents
Over the years, public perception of the nuclear industry both in the United States and worldwide came under heavy fire due to various nuclear related incidents. According to Benjamin K. Sovacool, writer and professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a leading environmental researcher in Nuclear Energy Policy, in the United States alone, there have been over 52 different incidents from 1959-2010 ranging from leaks, cooling rod malfunctions, explosions, cracks in the core, electrocutions, core overheating, etc. These types of incidents have lead to the deaths of seven individuals and damages/costs estimated $8.56 billion dollars (inflation adjusted to 2006).
Three Mile Island
One of the largest accidents was the Three Mile Island in Middleton, Pennsylvania in 1979. Believed today to be caused mostly by human error, a partial-meltdown occurred when a valve was left open letting out substantial amounts of reactor coolant which caused the partial meltdown. Although some debate remains, it was generally believed by most people that “Several health studies found there were no long-term adverse effects on the health of the population living around Three Mile Island." Even though there was a release of radiation, the "radiation dose to people living within 10 miles of the plant was eight millirem, and no more than 100 millirem to any single individual. Eight millirem is about equal to a chest X-ray, and 100 millirem is about a third of the average background level of radiation received by U.S. residents in a year. It took twelve years to finally compile the total costs for repairs and cleanup, which were $937 million dollars in 1979 or almost 2.7 billion in today’s inflation adjusted dollars. After returning to fully functional status in 1985, Three Mile Island became one of the safest plants in the United States. Moreover, "In 1990-91, Three Mile Island-1 operated 479 consecutive days, the longest operating run at that point in the history of US commercial nuclear power. It was named by the NRC as one of the four safest plants in the country during this period." Their tract record was so flawless since the 1979 incident that, "In 2009, the TMI-1 operating license was renewed, extending its life by 20 years to 2034" by the NRC.
Chernobyl is generally considered to be the worst nuclear disaster to day. On 25 April, prior to a routine shutdown, the reactor crew at Chernobyl 4 began preparing for a test to determine how long turbines would spin and supply power to the main circulating pumps following a loss of main electrical power supply. This test had been carried out at Chernobyl the previous year, but the power from the turbine ran down too rapidly, so new voltage regulator designs were to be tested.
A series of operator actions, including the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms, preceded the attempted test early on 26 April. By the time that the operator moved to shut down the reactor, the reactor was in an extremely unstable condition. A peculiarity of the design of the control rods caused a dramatic power surge as they were inserted into the reactor.
The interaction of very hot fuel with the cooling water led to fuel fragmentation along with rapid steam production and an increase in pressure. The design characteristics of the reactor were such that substantial damage to even three or four fuel assemblies can – and did – result in the destruction of the reactor. The overpressure caused the cover plate of the reactor to become partially detached, rupturing the fuel channels and jamming all the control rods, which by that time were only halfway down. Intense steam generation then spread throughout the whole core (fed by water dumped into the core due to the rupture of the emergency cooling circuit) causing a steam explosion and releasing fission products to the atmosphere. About two to three seconds later, a second explosion threw out fragments from the fuel channels and hot graphite. There is some dispute among experts about the character of this second explosion, but it is likely to have been caused by the production of hydrogen from zirconium-steam reactions.
Two workers died as a result of these explosions. The graphite (about a quarter of the 1200 tonnes of it was estimated to have been ejected) and fuel became incandescent and started a number of fires, causing the main release of radioactivity into the environment. A total of about 14 EBq (14 x 1018 Bq) of radioactivity was released, over half of it being from biologically-inert noble gases.
About 200-300 tonnes of water per hour was injected into the intact half of the reactor using the auxiliary feedwater pumps but this was stopped after half a day owing to the danger of it flowing into and flooding units 1 and 2. From the second to tenth day after the accident, some 5000 tonnes of boron, dolomite, sand, clay and lead were dropped on to the burning core by helicopter in an effort to extinguish the blaze and limit the release of radioactive particles.
Aside from the two initial deaths, officially, Deaths due to the Chernobyl disaster | 28 more died in the following weeks. Soon after, 336,000 people were evacuated soon after the explosion and fire, eradiated ashes, dust, and smoke traveled across the country. There is a heated debate over the official number of deaths and subsequent birth defects caused by the plant's meltdown. The Estimated number of deaths potentially resulting from the accident vary enormously; the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest it could reach 4,000 while a Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. According to WHO, mid-2005 about only 50 deaths could be directly associated with the Chernobyl disaster. Because is it widely believed that Russia lied about the actual death totals, the actual death tolls from thyroid cancer and other forms of cancer from the Chernobyl Disaster may never truly be known.
Public opinion after Chernobyl
As the West began to learn about the horrors of Chernobyl, fear and paranoia about nuclear energy emerged in the citizen base of America. Even as early as 1975, anti-nuclear coalitions were making strides in reducing the power of the nuclear industry. The coalitions were able to instill fear in America over the many errors in the daily operations of nuclear energy plants causing them to be constantly shut down, and exposing the ineffectiveness in their energy production. By this point in the late 1980’s, most US plants were already completed or were nearly there, so the Chernobyl incident did not prevent plants from coming online. However, after 1986, the media assisted the anti-nuclear by plastering the news with pictures of deformed babies and other atrocities from the fallout in the Soviet Union after Chernobyl. For the most part, the pressure from U.S. citizens forced the NRC to address many issues of which the public was fearful. This translated in, "Improved reactor safety, reporting abnormal occurrences at power plants, revised radiation standards, protecting nuclear plants from sabotage, safeguarding nuclear materials from theft, licensing the export of nuclear equipment and fuel, authorizing steps to use plutonium as fuel for nuclear power, and other matters." However shortly after the Three Mile Island Incident in 1979, the public opinion (poll from New York Times and CBS) of nuclear power approval for building of new plants dropped from 69% in support vs. 21% oppose, to only 49% in support, and 41% opposed. Similarly, after the Chernobyl incident, a CBS news poll showed that 55% of those questioned believed a similar meltdown was likely to happen in America.
With all of this fear and animosity towards nuclear power and most energy companies preferring coal fired plants, the nuclear industry went underground for many years after Chernobyl. Although these plants were still quite active and even improving production and safety practices, construction of new plants ended in the late 1980’s. This was acceptable to many utility companies, because most of these plants were licensed to operate on 20-40 year contracts regardless of unfavorable political climate. Numerous polls showed a steady increase in public support and decrease in opposition over the years even with a temporary drop in numbers after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to the Gallup Polls in 2009, 59% of the public favored the use nuclear energy, including 27% who strongly favor it, an increase from 49% since 2001. Moreover, in 2009 the Gallop Poll showed 56% people believed nuclear was safe vs. 42% who believed it was unsafe. Other polls showed an even larger gap, Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times found that 61% supported nuclear energy, while 30% opposed in 2010. Bisconti Research Inc./Gfk Roper, an industry association commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute, found that: “A record-high 74 percent of Americans surveyed in a new national poll support nuclear energy and a similar majority of 70 percent says the United States should "definitely build more" nuclear energy facilities [in 2010].” According to Ann Bisconti, PhD, president of Bisconti Research Inc., "This unprecedented support for nuclear energy is being driven largely by people's concerns for meeting future energy demand and environmental goals, but it coincides with statements by President Obama and other national leaders who have voiced strong support for more nuclear power plants."
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