How will the federal government protect nuclear safety in an anti-regulatory climate?

Published 19 April 2017

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have undertaken a wide-ranging effort to shrink the federal government’s regulatory footprint. Much attention has focused on high-profile targets, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. But this trend also has major implications for other agencies.

One example is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees safety across a complex, privately owned network of nuclear power plants, used fuel storage facilities and other sites related to civilian uses of nuclear energy.

As a researcher studying communication in energy and environmental settings, I have followed the NRC’s work with particular interest since 2011. The agency and the system it regulates exemplify what some scholars call a “high reliability organization” – one that cannot be allowed to fail, because the consequences would be grave.

As studies have shown, failures of external oversight were key factors in the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Those examples show that there is good reason to assess how today’s anti-regulatory climate could affect the NRC and nuclear safety in the United States.

An industry in flux
The NRC conducts risk-related research and develops and enforces rules for the design and operation of nuclear facilities nationwide. Today it is grappling with major challenges that will shape the future of nuclear power in the United States.

The U.S. nuclear industry is struggling economically to compete with renewable energy and cheap natural gas. Older plants are nearing the end of their 40-year licensed operating lifetimes, while at least 15 reactor construction projects have been canceled or suspended since 2010. The four still in progress have been delayed, and now face possible cancellation.

In response, the industry is relying on 20-year license renewals for existing reactors, which allow them to operate for up to sixty years. As of December 2016, the NRC had approved 87 renewal applications.

Now the agency is preparing to consider applications for “subsequent license renewals” that would extend reactor lifetimes to eighty years. This prospect poses new challenges. Notably, the NRC needs to analyze the safety implications of operating geriatric plants and develop regulatory rules to manage issues such as structural and operational risks.