During the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on August 2, 2011, Senator Lamar Alexander invested his five minutes of question time wisely by engaging Chairman Jaczko in an important philosophical discussion; does the mission of the NRC to protect public health and safety include a mission to enable the construction of new nuclear power plants?
Chairman Jaczko’s response was extremely disheartening, though not surprising. As is often the case with that man, he has picked only the words that he likes out of the law that established federal regulation of nuclear energy, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. There is no historical doubt that the initial law was designed to enable the development of civilian atomic energy. It was passed within months of President Eisenhower’s inspiring speech in December 1953 to the United Nations that earned the famous short title of “Atoms for Peace.”
Even with all of the amendments over the years, the basic mission for the federal nuclear regulators remains the same; here are the words directly from the NRC’s web site:
To regulate the nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment.
In the less formal “About” section on the same page, the concept of enabling the use of nuclear energy is even more clearly stated:
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974 to enable the nation to safely use radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected.
Nuclear energy is an incredibly useful tool, especially in a world where billions of people do not have reliable or affordable electricity, where the climate is being threatened by the continuous addition of tens of billions of tons of long lived carbon dioxide, where the cleanliness of the air in both densely populated and rural areas is threatened by toxic materials spewing out of tall smokestacks, and where the inventory of chemical fuel sources is measured in decades, not centuries or millennia.
If nuclear energy is not enabled, the only alternative is to burn more fossil fuel. Outside of large hydro and a tiny number of geothermal stations, no other alternative has ever allowed any fossil fuel plants to be shut down or avoided.
At the end of the above video is an important exchange between Senator Boxer and Senator Alexander. For odd and illogical reasons, Senator Boxer has been convinced that there is something uniquely scary about nuclear radiation. (Note: I realize that she is not alone in that mistaken belief.)
She completely misses the point that Senator Alexander makes – Americans tolerate 38,000 traffic deaths every year. Since the Shippingport nuclear power plant started operating in 1957, the total number of deaths associated with radiation from US commercial nuclear power plants is zero, yet we have endured approximately 54 years x 38,000 = 2,052,000 deaths on the nations roads.
Senator Boxer is was wrong when she implied that the Japanese experience is any different; even after Fukushima, Japan can make a similar claim. They experience thousands of traffic deaths every year and still have not experienced any radiation related deaths from commercial nuclear power plants.
Chairman Jaczko is also wrong in his assumption that there is something new and different in a “post Fukushima world”. Having spent nine years working in Washington from 2001-2010, I cringed when I heard him use that phrase. It still haunts me because it sounds an awful lot like the phrase I heard so often from defense contractors trying to explain why they needed another huge increase in their annual budget for some useless developmental system – “it’s a post 9-11 world, Commander.” I resisted that logic every chance I could, but was often overruled by a boss who was more interested in the revolving door or the politics than I was.
There are a number of investments that could be made in road safety that would reduce the annual death toll from car crashes, but we choose not to make them, often due to a limitation on the amount of available money. We also tolerate tens of thousands of early deaths every year caused by breathing in the crap that comes out of fossil fuel exhaust pipes and smokestacks.
There is a program that totals about $4 billion dollars of federal money that is designed to attempt to make burning coal a little cleaner. Even with that huge pot available, some prominent coal burning utilities have decided that the success of the process is too uncertain to encourage them to invest their money.
Fifty four years ago, the United States started operating reliable power plants that do not produce any emissions at all. We know how to do that; we produce 800 billion emission free kilowatt hours every year using aging nuclear fission reactors. Instead of enabling the American nuclear construction industry to back on its feet, the federal government has been erecting obstacles and collecting large fees to review new plant license applications. Apparently, under the leadership of Chairman Jaczko it cannot even prioritize finishing ONE of them.
Jaczko’s responses to Senator Alexander’s line of questioning provides ample reason to prevent a situation that allows him to be in charge of a complete overhaul of the regulatory framework. I agree that the existing regulations are a confusing patchwork that adds a substantial burden to the process of designing, building and operating nuclear power plants. At least it is a process that was not designed by someone who cannot recognize that a mission to promote the common defense and security of the United States and protect its environment includes enabling the construction of new nuclear power plants – WITHOUT DELAY.
Chairman Jaczko cannot be allowed to hold the process of licensing new nuclear power plants hostage to giving him carte blanche to rewrite the carefully constructed patchwork of nuclear regulation. We cannot allow him to make new reactor construction an uncertain and expensive energy option. New reactor licensing and construction must be made a reasonable and enabled energy imperative that can help solve pressing problems.
Soon, I plan to have another clip for you from the hearing that clearly illustrates how Chairman Jaczko selectively reads laws to the great detriment of his office and his agency. Senator Sessions asked him when he filed his required report of the actions taken during the his period of assuming emergency powers. I’ll let the Chairman explain his interpretation of the clear statutory language requiring that report.
The effort to expose him as a danger to the nation’s prosperity must not be portrayed as a partisan battle. Darn it, I voted for President Obama. I respect what he is doing in many areas (and strongly disagree in many others, particularly related to my interpretation that he has violated international law preventing aggression). In this case, I really wish he would pay attention to the damage one of his appointees is doing to the nation, its economy, its security and its environment.