Written by Diane M. Grassi
The nuclear energy industry has become a global proposition given the changing geographic demands of energy needs in newly industrialized nations such as India and China. And it would be foolish for the U.S. to assume that it operates in a vacuum and that its future energy needs and demands will not be impacted by such changes in a global economy; one in which the U.S. is now primarily at the receiving end of offshore manufactured goods, including more and more of America's food supply.
But the global economy has but given the U.S. government and in particular in this case, the U.S. Department of Energy, (DOE) an excuse to take the proverbial lid off of sound national security policy which has necessarily dictated U.S. energy policy for decades, until now, for the safety of the American people and the integrity of its critical infrastructure.
Although the first large scale civilian nuclear plant started providing electricity in 1957, it was basically between that time and the late 1970's when all of the current operating nuclear reactor facilities were constructed. And with an average lifespan up to 60 years for each, most of the currently operating 104 U.S. nuclear plants are either in or have applied for their 2nd 20-year licensing period extensions.
Since the last U.S. nuclear reactor was ordered in 1973, those handful that were completed, after 1978 and post-3 Mile Island, were ordered prior to 1973. To wit, in 1996, the last U.S. plant constructed, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 1 reactor in Tennessee, was the result of a revived dormant license from 1970. And there are plans to build the Watts Bar 2 from another previous license from dating back to1973.
Since U.S. nuclear energy policy has nearly come full circle today, it is important to take stock of its history. The Atomic Energy Commission, (AEC) was formed through the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, originally to specifically oversee the military's and civic atomic energy programs. And it was given the expanded responsibility, for the first time, to assume dual oversight and regulation of atomic energy both militarily as well as commercially through the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
But it was through the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, that created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the present U.S. nuclear regulatory agency, to assume the oversight authority from the AEC. It now regulates most U.S. commercial nuclear activities, including nuclear power reactors and the use of radioactive materials in industry, medicine, agriculture and scientific research as well as fuel cycle facilities and nuclear waste management.
The 1974 law was seen as an opportunity to put trust back into the oversight agency which took on the dual task of both promoting nuclear power while safeguarding the American people, initially in 1954. And it was after that point in time that the American people had already begun to lose trust in the agency's ability to do so. Apparently, the U.S. government thought that changing the acronym of the agency would calm the public's displeasures.
But it was during the late 1960's and early 1970's when the nuclear plant construction boom was in full gear and simultaneous reassurances from the federal government to keep safeguards in place fell on the deaf ears of energy consumers. Most importantly, the agency was designated to walk a fine line of both promoting commercially viable nuclear energy as well as handling all of the required licensing for new construction of nuclear power plants.
And in this global economy, at a time when the U.S. is seeing extraordinary growth in the foreign direct investment and acquisition in U.S. critical infrastructure, it appears reaped with conflict for the licensing agency to also be able to independently assess potential security risks both civilly and criminally.
Unfortunately, the notorious Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant fire in 1975 in Decatur, AL could have been avoided and was the result of human error rather than an unexpected meltdown. A mechanical technician foolishly was looking for reported air leaks within the reactor with a lighted candle which ultimately started the fire. But Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979, was the most serious nuclear plant fiasco in U.S. history. The reactor sustained the melting of half its core, which was later found to be a combination of technical and human error and allowed for released radioactive gases into the atmosphere and putting its employees immediately at risk.
The 3 Mile failure was followed in 1986 by the misfortune of Unit 4 of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine in the former USSR. It emitted radioactive material, far more deadly an accident that 3 Mile Island, affecting 52,000 people in the vicinity, immediately killing 30 people and possibly impacting up to 5 million others. Nevertheless, it was 3 Mile Island that provided the final nail in the coffin for skittish investors in U.S. nuclear technology, although nuclear facilities throughout the U.S. still provide 20% of electrical power generation. It remains very low in greenhouse emissions and is considered a form of clean energy.
In spite of the NRC's own damage control to restore safety measures in nuclear plant facilities over the past 30 years, its ill-repute remains along with remnants of trepidation in reinvesting in nuclear energy. Therefore, the apparent overnight reverse course by the DOE in lining up investors to submit license construction applications for nuclear energy plants, with some 20 expected by mid-2009, has set off alarm bells of another sort.
And that brings us back to the EPAct of 2005 which provides for a vast assortment of givebacks, subsidies and federally subsidized loan guarantees including risk insurance packages to the brokers and investors who come a-callin', totaling billions of dollars worth of incentives. And once again, foreign owned holding companies, foreign government-owned entities and foreign-U.S. joint ventures, acquisitions and mergers will be the recipients of these U.S. taxpayer provided benefits.
The nuclear energy industry not only remains a hot-button issue because of its sullied past, but because of a heightened internal as well as public awareness of its ever-present national security risks it now poses in a post-9/11 world. In addition, there is the issue of the failing power grid infrastructure, which has not been improved in decades, and minimally maintained, along with a continued U.S. deregulation policy from which the American economy may never recover.
All of the aforementioned but creates for a perfect storm, all the while U.S. foreign policy dictates to other nations and regions on the ways in which they may engage or use nuclear material, whether for weaponry or for electrical power distribution.
The first step in trying to comprehend this multi-faceted and current energy policy, based upon both its history as well as current law, is to understand the revised NRC application process. Although the regulation revisions date back to 1989, the most recent and final rules were not certified and published in the Federal Register by the NRC until August 2007 (10 CFR Part 52).
The revisions have changed the entire regulatory review process and framework for the construction of new nuclear reactors and facilities. And over the next 18 months, such changes in the regulation process, with ink barely dry, will be tested in a paint-by-numbers fashion.
The EPAct 2005 while not intrinsic to the actual changes in NRC rule making, has played a consequential role in incentives for investors and ultimately the NRC's seeming rush to finalize regulation revisions over a matter of months, after many years they were held in virtual abeyance.
And now the one time 2-step licensing process created for its thoroughness and for compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as providing enough time to have the appropriate number of public hearings, has been whittled down to a 1-step process; one that appears less investigative in scope and more equivalent to drive-through governance.
In order to supposedly bring an improved regulatory model for U.S. nuclear energy construction, which the NRC believes to be more efficient, the COL, early site permits (ESP), and standard design certifications pushes the process along more quickly. However, also cut in the process will be preoperational hearings on plant construction qualification that would be limited and not required by the NRC, and minimizing public input.
The ESP procedure includes site safety issues and emergency plans apart from the plant design. The NRC's and nuclear industry's reasoning is that the new process will cut down on delays, cost overruns and reduce the application process down to 42 months. In that regard, there is some speculation that the next nuclear plant could break ground in the U.S. by the end of 2010 and perhaps be completed by 2015.
In the final part of this series, the actual players or investors in new U.S. nuclear plants construction will be addressed as well as who and from where from these entities hale. And the mechanisms mandated in the EPAct 2005 for lucrative financial rewards to these corporations will be discussed. Whether or not such investors will be even remotely close to ensuring the fiscal as well as environmental health of the American people is an important question which will be asked.
And finally, that which is most crucial in this entire changing energy landscape, that being the national security of the U.S, was etched into law in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 in 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2011 (1954) as follows: "Aliens and entities owned, controlled or dominated by aliens or foreign governments may not engage in operations involving the utilization of energy. This restriction applies primarily to nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants extracting plutonium."
Yet, as will be analyzed in Part 4 of this series, we will see that through the use of joint ventures, foreign holding companies, license transfers and majority subsidiary investment mergers, rubber-stamped by virtually all branches of the U.S. government, historically held energy law no longer remains the watchdog it was once meant to be. Therefore, the best interests of the American people are now marginalized and the future national security interests of the U.S. may be forever compromised.
Diane M. Grassi is an independent investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the public interests of average Americans.
Ms. Grassi sticks to the facts on myriad issues, often given short shrift by the mainstream press and broadcast media. With a passion for holding U.S. lawmakers and government officials accountable for their legislative and policy decisions, Ms. Grassi has an undying resolve to awaken others to these facts in order to promote an educated electorate.