Ten months to obtain an AEC construction permit

I’m doing a little history reading today and came across a passage worth sharing. The source is Glenn Seaborg’s “The Atomic Energy Commission Under Nixon” St. Martin’s Press, NY 1993 pg 101-102.

In December 1965, the management of Northern States Power Company (NSP) reached an internal decisions that a new generating unit in the 500-electrical-megawatt range would be required by 1970 to meet anticipated service demands. Having just faced protracted public criticism regarding the predicted environmental effects of a large fossil-fueled plant then being completed, the company reasoned that it could avoid further criticism by making its next major addition a nuclear plant. A nuclear plant would neither produce the soot, smoke and noxious chemicals not be subject to the fuel transportation and fuel storage problems of a fossil-fueled plant. NSP reached the decision to “go nuclear” despite an analysis indicating that a coal-fired plant would be economically superior.

Early in 1996, NSP held discussions with the AEC regulatory staff and with Minnesota state officials regarding they suitability of a site near Monticello, Minnesota (population about 1,500), on the Mississippi River, about 40 miles upstream from the water intakes for the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. No objections having been expressed to the site, the utility contracted in August 1966 with the General Electric Company for installation of a 545-megawatt boiling-water reactor (BWR) nuclear power plant.

Directly after ordering the plant from General Electric, NSP applied to the AEC for a construction permit. The AEC then began its normal review processes. There was, first, an analysis of the proposed plant by the AEC regulatory staff to determine whether, in its opinion, a reactor of the proposed design an power could be operated safely at the selected site. The staff’s finding, contained in a long and comprehensive “safety analysis report,” was affirmative. While the staff was studying the application, a second, parallel study was being undertaken by the congressionally established Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), a group of fifteen recognized experts in the various technical disciplines involved. The ACRS too found, and issued a public report stating, that the application met the AEC’s criterion for issuance of a construction permit, namely, that there was “reasonable assurance that the proposed facility [could] be constructed and operated at the proposed location without undue risk to the health and safety of the public.” After issuance of the favorable staff and ACRS reports, the next step was a public hearing by an independent, three-man Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), where any person had the right to intervene as a party to the proceeding. there was no intervention in the Monticello case at this stage and the ASLB duly approved issuance of a construction permit. The AEC issued the permit on June 19, 1967; construction began the same day.

Take a hard look at that decision time line. The company decided to build a nuclear plant in December 1965. After just 18 months, they had permission from the regulators and started building.

What a time and money saving process that would be if it was still in place today!

Denouement NSP’s Monticello nuclear plant experienced one of the first contested operating license hearings after the antinuclear movement started forming out of the antiwar movement. Even though there was substantial opposition that frustrated the AEC and utility industry leadership (as told by Seaborg), and there was a year long delay in awarding the operating license, Monticello entered commercial service in June 1971, 5.5 years after the company first decided to “go nuclear.” (Seaborg, pg 111)

Why does that timeline seem kind of remarkable today, in an era with such fast computers and instantaneous communication around the world? Manmade decisions have created the currently interminable process; manmade decisions can unwind the tangled web to make the process move more smoothly once again. Let’s get started.

About Rod Adams

11 Responses to “Ten months to obtain an AEC construction permit”

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  1. Brian Mays says:

    Getting nostalgic for the good old days, Rod?

    All of that changed in 1970 with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    These days, just writing the Environmental Impact Statement is going to take two years or more, and that’s only the beginning.

  2. Rod Adams says:

    @Brian

    Yes, I am getting nostalgic. This harkens back to my Kobayashi Maru post a few weeks ago. Why can’t we work to change the rules instead of spending so much time and effort getting wrapped up in the trivial matters that force EIS preparation to take so long?

    The opposition has purposely programmed the system – why can’t we reprogram it?

    I know it will not be easy, but no journey ever happens without taking the first steps.

    • Jeff Walther says:

      How do we reprogram it? We either need a much larger grass roots movement, than this topic is likely to generate, or the money to pay lobbyists. Or a friendly legislator or two who can sneak a rider in under the radar. Other possibilities?

      In any of the three cases above, it seems to me that the first steps are to:

      1) Develop a clear understanding and synopsis of the relevant administrative law requirements and practices in 1965.
      2) Develop a clear understanding and synopsis of the relevant administrative law requirements and practices now.
      3) Develop a concept of the ideal situation, if we could have everything we want, informed by what we learned in (1) and (2).

      4) Based on (3) create a realistic goal consisting of clearly delineates changes to law and administrative law and possibly executive practices, which would achieve that goal.

      5) Create a road map or strategic plan of how to get from (2) to (4) possibly a piece at a time and what influence will be needed/used to get there.

      After performing 1 – 5 or in parallel with it, then we can worry about/work on where the political influence is going to come from.

      I took an administrative law class 22 years ago… If I didn’t have a job, a 10-year-old son, a garden, a house, and two baseball teams a year to coach, I’d love to take a serious hack at (1) and (2). As it is I can only take a sort of desultory glance at it.

      But perhaps breaking the task down like that will get something started. At the least, someone might argue about how to break it down. :-)

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Jeff

        Your plan is WAY too hard and would take WAY too long.

        There are easier ways to disrupt a bureaucracy and cause it to be temporarily effective in spite of itself.

        • Jeff Walther says:

          Hi Rod,

          That’s good to read. Would you care to explain, or are you cautious that the antis will read it and being forwarned become forarmed?

          I much prefer a quick solution. I just don’t know of one that allows one to legally avoid the procedures currently in place.

          Jeff

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Jeff

            I would not claim that my solution is quick. However, compared to following the process that exists today, it has the potential for reducing the overall time required for licensing approvals, both now and in the future.

            The primary element of the strategy is to make a slight change in the law to make it clear to the staff at the agency what Congress intends them to do in carrying out their currently assigned mission:

            “The mission of the NRC is to license and regulate the Nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials in order to protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.”

            As I read it, the mission explicitly requires the NRC to license and regulate in order to “protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.” It implicitly requires that the agency understand that actions that result in preventing the use of byproduct, source and special nuclear materials have the possibility of causing harm because something else will be used instead.

            If the replacement option reduces our security, puts the public at a higher risk, or causes more environmental damage, then the NRC is not carrying out its mission as well as it could.

            Unfortunately, the agency has been led – at times – by people who refuse to consider the alternative actions, even though they are explicitly required to do so in every environmental impact statement they produce.

            With a short paragraph, Congress could explain to the NRC that it must take into account the hazards and environmental damage of the other available options to produce any result that a nuclear facility could produce.

            I trust that nearly everyone at the NRC is technically competent and would make better decisions if explicitly told that they put the public at risk and reduce our common security when they impede or substantially delay nuclear energy projects.

          • Jeff Walther says:

            Hmmm. Sounds good to me. I think I’ve seen you touch on this concept/interpretation in your blog articles.

            So there are two practical questions.

            1) How should this paragraph read. In other words, write the paragraph from congress which informs the NRC of the interpretation they are meant to take. Congress doesn’t seem to write any of their own material any more. Sigh.

            2) What form will the communication take? Must it be a passed bill modifying the NRC’s mission? Or is there another avenue by which congress can convey its intent to the NRC?

    • Brian Mays says:

      Rod – Unfortunately, the sad truth is that you’re going to run up against some rules that you’re not going to be able to change simply by wishing or pining for better times.

      A prime example is Parkinson’s Law, and here I’m not talking about the simple adage from the first sentence in Parknson’s article that is commonly quoted about work expanding to fill available time. Instead, I refer to his mathematical relation describing the growth of a bureaucracy with time, which demonstrates “there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned.”

      All this seems quaintly academic until the staff is charging you $274 per man-hour. ;-)

      I would add, as a corollary, (call it Mays’s Law, if you want) that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the amount of time it will take to be finished, whenever there is a bureaucracy involved. The only relationship that can be established is that the larger the bureaucracy, the longer it will take.

      You can quote me on that.

      Like Parkinson’s Law, Mays’s Law is a purely scientific discovery, inapplicable except in theory to the politics of the day. It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how effectively they strangle the flowers.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Brian Mays

        You wrote:

        Unfortunately, the sad truth is that you’re going to run up against some rules that you’re not going to be able to change simply by wishing or pining for better times.

        Fortunately, you may be underestimating my activities and my understanding of bureaucracies. I am not just wishing or pining and I have about 33 years worth of experience in learning to get things done in a bureaucratic environment.

        Also fortunately, the opposition that has purposely created the bureaucracy to strangle the flowers of nuclear energy also underestimate. They are also victims of groupthink; a mistake generating tendency to believe that everyone thinks like they do.

  3. Daniel says:

    Significant news that will impact the nuclear industry indirectly. Canada, following pressures from the US, blocked the acquisition of Nexen Inc by China’s CNOOC Ltd a while ago.

    Today, the canadian government has given the go ahead to the sale. Let’s remember that we live in a free market economy and that China’s biggest marco economic risk is the amount of US reserve they are sitting on.

    This will pave the way to more chinese investments worldwide. Some of it will go to financing nuclear plants.

    You can’t stop the trend.

  4. Rick Maltese says:

    I agree that there is no simple solution because regulations like laws are like ratchets very hard to reverse. But we need to do something. We touched on how different things would be if a major leader like Obama, Boehner or Reid had a passion to improve the regulatory system.

    We, as individuals can write congress and get others to do the same. And do what some of us do when we have time and blog about it.
    Robert Hargraves was pointing out enormous insurance costs of $375 million per plant here
    https://www.facebook.com/ThoriumEnergyCheaperThanCoal/posts/477932255578823?comment_id=5282390&notif_t=share_reply

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