Nuclear Power BACK

ARCHIVED WEBSITE: No new data posted since 1988

Nuclear Energy

Regulation of Nuclear Power

Pro   Con

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission enforces stringent licensing requirements designed to protect public health and safety, and national defense and security. 1

A utility seeking to build a nuclear power plant must secure dozens of permits to comply with various state, regional, and federal regulations.2


In almost every conceivable safety area, the NRC is backing off from effective safety regulation, promoting industry self-regulation, and tacitly placing the financial health of utilities above the enforcement of strict safety standards.3

The NRC routinely labels safety problems "generic," leaving them unresolved for years.4

AMA Commentary

In 1946, the United States Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which transferred control of nuclear technology from military to civilian hands. The act charged the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) with the duty of regulating the use of the atom. In 1954, Congress replaced the Atomic Energy Act to give more attention to the development of nuclear power, and to permit privately owned utilities to run nuclear power plants.5

In the belief that both energy security and national prestige were at stake, the AEC began to promote the nuclear technology it was responsible for regulation. The AEC implemented government assistance programs, and issued periodic reports on the safety and cost-effectiveness of nuclear power.6

From the 1960's on, the AEC's ability to effectively regulate the growing nuclear power industry came under constant criticism. Conflict-of-interest charges were levelled over a variety of issues, many of the AEC's skilled staff members left for higher-paying industry jobs, and there was a serious backlog of license applications. Political opposition to nuclear power also increased during those years.

In an effort to respond to the criticisms and improve regulation, Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. This legislation abolished the AEC and transferred its regulatory duties to the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The AEC's research and development duties were shifted to the Department of Energy (DOE).7

At the same time, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, chairman of the committee that proposed the act, said, "[T]he development of the nuclear power industry has been managed by the same agency responsible for regulating it. While this arrangement may have been necessary in the infancy of the atomic era after World War II, it is clearly not in the public interest to continue this special relationship now that the industry is well on its way to becoming among the largest and most hazardous in the Nation. In fact, it is difficult to determine...where the commission ends and the industry begins..."8

The newly formed NRC eventually came under attack for problems similar to those encountered by the AEC. Nuclear power industry representatives and utilities were unhappy about overly complex regulatory processes, and public interest groups charged that the NRC was not placing enough emphasis on health and safety issues.9

The March 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station tested the NRC's overall performance, and prompted the nation to reevaluate the viability of nuclear power, as well as the adequacy of regulation. To investigate the causes and consequences of the accident, President Carter appointed the Kemeny Commission, while the NRC commissioned a law firm to do the same. Both groups issued reports that were extremely critical to the NRC.10

As a result, President Carter issued an order to reorganize the NRC. The order gave the chairman of the NRC greater power without abolishing its collegial structure, and it established the Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee.11

In the same year, 1979, the NRC staff proposed a "TMI Action Plan" that listed over 200 measures the NRC should take to upgrade reactor safety. The plan also listed "Indicators of Inadequate Attitude." They included:

  • failure to require backfits;

  • delay in implementing backfits;

  • failure to do realistic emergency planning;

  • failure to believe a serious accident can occur;

  • inadequate handling of staff dissent;

  • siege mentality with respect to citizen intervention;

  • allowing perceived resource limitations to thwart safety improvements;

  • preoccupation with licensing schedules; and

  • protecting the industry from costly changes.12

NRC reforms continue to be called for by both industry representatives and independent organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, the suggested reforms have far different implications.

The Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) calls the current licensing process "unwieldy for a variety of technical, political and social reasons." They contend that it is unnecessarily time-consuming, inefficient, unpredictable, and counterproductive to safety. To counteract these problems the AIF favors one-step licensing, early-site approval, pre-approval of design, limits on backfitting requirements, and one public hearing (rather than a series of hearings) to expedite the granting of licenses.13

One very different grounds, the Union of Concerned Scientists detailed a variety of serious NRC deficiencies in its 1985 report called "Safety Second: A Critical Evaluation of the NRC's First Decade." The report stated that the NRC has allowed generic safety problems to persist, along with breakdowns in quality control, and poor management. It recommended that the NRC solve the technical problems and incorporate those solutions into operating plants and new plant designs. It also suggested that the NRC adopt a much tougher attitude toward the standards of performance and behavior it expects of licensees.14

Other suggestions for the reform of the NRC include streamlining its management structure, separating technical issues from social ones, and increasing safety incentives by removing the liability shield provided by the Price-Anderson Act.15

On August 4, 1987, a federal appeals court ordered the NRC to disregard cost when deciding whether existing nuclear power plants should be modified to meet its minimum safety standard. The ruling overturned a 1985 NRC regulation that required a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether and how nuclear power plants should be modified to meet the standard of adequate protection for health and safety.16

1 Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., "Nuclear Reactor Licensing," information sheet, April 1983.
2 Ibid.
3 Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Groundswell, "The Decline of Nuclear Regulation," Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 1986, p. 2.
4 Ibid., pp. 1-2.
5 League of Women Voters, A Nuclear Power Primer, op. cit., pp. 10-11.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., pp. 13-14.
8 Congressional Record - Senate, Remarks by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, August 13, 1974, p. S 28129.
9 League of Women Voters, A Nuclear Power Primer, op. cit., p. 14.
10 Ibid., pp. 14-15.
11 Ibid.
12 "Continuation of Briefing on Action Plan," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting transcript, December 21, 1979, pp. 4 and 73-74, cited in Union of Concerned Scientists, Safety Second: A Critical Evaluation of the NRC's First Decade, op. cit., p. 7.
13 Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., "Nuclear Reactor Licensing," op. cit.
14 Union of Concerned Scientists, Safety Second: A Critical Evaluation of the NRC's First Decade, op. cit., pp. 225-228.
15 Wood, op. cit., pp. 88-89.
16 "Court Tells NRC to Ignore Cost in Making Nuclear Plants Safe," Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1987, 1:4.