Government’s role in shutting down the US nuclear industry

A November 15, 2007 Heritage backgrounder “Competitive Nuclear Energy Investment: Avoiding Past Policy Mistakes” provides a brief history of anti-nuclear activists and regulatory turbulence, counseling that, this time around, we must act to avoid those enormous costs.

Amory Lovins loves to say “there are no private investors interested in nuclear power”. That is manifestly untrue. But the fact that utilities and venture capitalists are investing in nuclear today is a miracle considering the massacre experienced by investors in the period 1970 through 1994 (when Clinton killed the Integral Fast Reactor). Excerpts from the Heritage true history:

(…) Investors hesitate to embrace nuclear power fully, despite significant regulatory relief and economic incentives.

This reluctance is not due to any inherent flaw in the economics of nuclear power or some unavoidable risk. Instead, investors are reacting to the historic role that federal, state, and local governments have played both in encouraging growth in the industry and in bringing on its demise. Investors doubt that federal, state, and local governments will allow nuclear energy to flourish in the long term. They have already lost billions of dollars because of bad public policy.

The United States once led the world in commercial nuclear technology. Indeed, the world's leading nuclear companies continue to rely on American technologies. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, federal, state, and local governments nearly regulated the U.S. commercial nuclear industry out of existence. U.S. companies responded by reallocating their assets, consolidating or selling their commercial nuclear capabilities to foreign companies in pro-nuclear countries.

This paper reviews how overregulation largely destroyed the nuclear industry and why it remains an obstacle to investment in the industry. This dynamic must be understood and mitigated before the true economics of nuclear power can be harnessed for the benefit of the American people.

(…) Investors are right to be wary. Anti-nuclear activists have already exploited the authority of public institutions to strangle the industry. Now these same public institutions must be trusted to craft good public policy that reestablishes the confidence necessary to invite investment back into America's nuclear industry. To be successful, the new policies must create an industry that does not depend on the government. They must mitigate the risks of overregulation but allow for adequate over sight while preventing activists from hijacking the regulatory process.

(…) Activists Gone Wild

Anti-nuclear groups used both legal intervention and civil disobedience to impede construction of new nuclear power plants and hamper the operations of existing units. They legally challenged 73 percent of the nuclear license applications filed between 1970 and 1972 and formed a group called Consolidated National Interveners for the specific purpose of disrupting hearings of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Much of the anti-nuclear litigation of the 1970s was encouraged by factions within the government.[4] Today, activist organizations determined to force the closure of nuclear power plants, such as Mothers for Peace, continue to use the legal process to harass the nuclear energy industry.

Activists went well beyond simply challenging nuclear power in the courts. On numerous occasions, demonstrators occupied construction sites, causing delays. For instance, in May 1977, the Clamshell Alliance led a protest that resulted in the arrest of more than 1,400 people for trespassing at the Seabrook plant site in New Hampshire.[5] In California, the Abalone Alliance adopted similar tactics and frequently blocked the gates of the Diablo Canyon power plant.[6]

A watershed victory for the anti-nuclear movement occurred in 1971 when a federal appeals court ruled that the construction and operating permits for a nuclear power plant violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. As a result, util ities were required to hold public hearings before obtaining a permit to start a project.[7] This decision created a major opening in the process that anti-nuclear activists could exploit.

Changing the Economics of Nuclear Power

(…) In addition, the role of the judiciary cannot be overemphasized. Congress's loss of enthusiasm for nuclear energy led to more aggressive regulation, and because jurisdiction over nuclear issues was divided among multiple committees, there was no unified congressional direction. The result was an expansion of costly and often unnecessary rules.

In June 2006, the NRC listed over 80 sources of regulation,[8] including over 1,300 pages of laws, treaties, statutes, authorizations, executive orders, and other documents.(…) Because the interpretation of NRC regulations was left to the discretion of individual NRC technical reviewers, each license application would often result in its own unique requirements.[9]

(…) This inconsistency increased costs, further sour ing Congress on nuclear power and leading to an endless spiral of legislation, regulation, and still more added costs. Between 1975 and 1983, 430 suits were brought against the NRC, leading to 2,349 proposed rules and regulations–each of which required an industry response.[10] The addi tional and unexpected controls created industry wide uncertainty and raised questions about the long-term economics of nuclear power. They also drove up capital costs.[11]

This was all done by the NRC without adequate information. The NRC recognized as early as 1974 that it was issuing regulations without sufficient risk assessment training or cost considerations. It did not even have a program to train employees in how to conduct a review using NRC guidance.[12] Yet the commission continued to issue regulation after regulation.

(…) The shifting regulatory environment gave rise to additional reviews from numerous public institutions.(…) between 1956 and 1979, the average construction permit review time increased fourfold. The average time required to bring a plant on line from the order date increased from three years to 13 years during a similar time period.[15]

(…) As more inspections and inspectors were required, delays often resulted from inadequate regulatory manpower. Workers had to spend inordinate amounts of time waiting for inspections rather than building the project. The oft-changing construction specifications also led to mistakes, which created further delays.Even after construction was complete, delays often continued. Delaying plant completion could cost up to $1 million per day.[17] Stories of costly and unnecessary delays litter the history of U.S. nuclear power. Plants such as the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island were completely built but never used because extremists succeeded in scaring the public and political leaders.

Overregulation Leads to a Declining Industry

Overall, regulation increased the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant fourfold. [19] Such cost escalation would have been justified if it had been rooted in scientific and technical analysis. Regrettably, it was largely a function of anti-nuclear activism, agenda-driven politicians, activist regulators, and unsubstantiated public fear. A total of $70 billion was added to the cost of nuclear reactors constructed by 1988, and this cost was passed on to the ratepayers. After 1981, the cost of constructing a nuclear power plan rose from two to six times, [20] which means that either consumers paid significantly more or utilities incurred losses if they did not charge market prices. Neither circumstance was sustainable.

(…) In total, $30 billion was spent on nuclear plants that were never completed,[26] which is more than the value of most of the companies that are considering new plant orders.