Around election time, members of Congress often introduce bills that have little to no chance of passing. Some of these bills set the stage for the next Congress, while others are symbolic, and often times many are aimed at creating political support back home.
A good example of the latter is “The Nuclear Reactor Safety First Act (HR 6554)” recently introduced by Rep. John Tierney and Rep. Ed Markey. Basically, the Tierney/Markey bill would prevent a nuclear plant from seeking license renewal prior to 10 years before the expiration of its original license.
While this may sound like a good idea in an election year, the fact is, it completely ignores the reality of the nuclear plant licensing and oversight process. As someone who has spent my entire professional life working in environmental protection and nuclear safety, I can say that this bill does nothing to enhance the safety of Seabrook or any other nuclear plant.
In the U.S., nuclear power plants are licensed for 40 years with the option to extend the license up to 20 additional years if they continually meet stringent requirements. These time frames have little to do with the plant safety or equipment reliability but do provide the financial framework to repay initial investments and refurbishment costs.
Having a license to operate a nuclear plant is a “privilege” that the government can remove at any time — regardless of the plant’s age. If an operator like Seabrook fails to maintain the rigorous safety standards set by the federal government, the license will be suspended or revoked, and it makes little difference how many years are left on the license.
Historically, the anti-nuclear community has suggested that when a license extension is granted, oversight essentially stops. In reality, the exact opposite is true. In fact, throughout the life of the plant, the NRC continues to maintain multiple inspectors onsite, conducts frequent independent inspections and continually follows up to ensure that the plant is meeting safety requirements. This includes continually replacing and upgrading equipment and systems to make the plant operate more safely and efficiently.
Deciding on when to apply for a license extension is a business decision, not a safety one. While the Tierney/Markey bill would do nothing to improve plant safety, if enacted it would severely limit the ability of utilities and public utility commissions to do long-range financial planning and invest in proactive plant upgrades — exactly opposite of what happens under the current regulatory framework.
Next January, the new Congress will convene and we are likely to see the Markey/Tierney bill re-introduced. If it is, I hope proponents will refrain from the pretense that it promotes safety.
Paul Dickman heads the Public Policy Committee of the American Nuclear Society and is former chief of staff to the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He is a contributing expert for the Energy Information Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.