Following the afternoon session of the public meeting about the Lee nuclear power station draft environmental impact statement, I had an interesting conversation with a man from the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). He had spoken during the meeting about the large amount of taxpayer money that had been wasted on building and then not using Yucca Mountain. He also complained about the insurance subsidies provided under the Price-Anderson Act. His comments indicated that he had read some inaccurate sources of information. (In other words, he was dead wrong on the facts.)
He had introduced himself as a retired project manager, so I thought that he might be willing to listen to more accurate information. As luck would have it, Dan, a USNA classmate who had heard me speak, came up to say hi as the two of us were starting to talk. Dan has been working for a company specializing in providing insurance to the nuclear power industry for most of his career; I invited him into the conversation as a backup source of information.
We started with a discussion about transportation safety. The project manager from PSR expressed concern about the effect on a community if a truck carrying highly radioactive material was involved in an accident. Dan and I described the rigorous tests required in order to obtain a license for transportation casks. I promised to send him links to information about the transportation cask testing.
He then asked why the industry did not handle its own waste products and why it was dependent on government funding. That question provided me the opportunity to describe the Nuclear Waste Fund and the 1 mil per kilowatt hour fee that is assessed on all nuclear generated electricity in the US. I told him how that tiny per unit fee still added up to more than $750 million per year from the industry and how the accumulated fund is listed as a $24 billion asset on the US books.
He was surprised and wondered aloud why he had never heard that explained before.
We then talked about the used fuel plan now that Yucca Mountain had been cancelled. He asked if I was comfortable with leaving the material on site for decades. I told him that plan was fine with me. The material is not hurting anyone; it does not take up much space; and it does not cost much compared to the value of the electricity it produces. I also told him that future generations would thank us for our foresight in saving that valuable material and putting it into such easily accessed locations.
I shared my long held position that the Yucca Mountain project was misdirected and was, at best, the right answer to the wrong question. Dan and I described how the industry’s initial plan was to recycle and reuse fuel. We explained how that option had been made fiscally risky by the Carter Executive Order that outlawed recycling just as the first real commercial facility was getting ready to start operating.
Aside: Yes, I know that Reagan changed the law, but what investor in their right mind would be willing to risk billions on an industry that could be made illegal with the stroke of a pen following a close election decided on unrelated issues? Before they would be willing to invest in used fuel recycling, the industry needs some legal protections that such an action will not happen again. End Aside.
He asked why the government had to be so involved with the decision in the first place; I tried to help him recognize that it is our elected government’s choice to maintain control over the used nuclear fuel because of an ill-advised assumption that a company that actually owned its fuel (with all rights that ownership implies) might decide to sell it to a customer who would attempt to use it to produce a weapon.
The final topic of our conversation was a discussion about the profitable insurance pools that the nuclear industry uses to meet its liability obligations. He was a little skeptical about my assertion that the US federal government had never had to pay a dime for coverage or in any claims. Dan told him that a dirty little secret is that even the companies who write the insurance policies have never had to pay out any claims for liability; they simply keep on collecting the premiums.
I walked away from that conversation feeling like there was a possibility that I had planted some seeds of doubt in a man who just might follow through with some additional reading. A terrific outcome would be if he started asking hard questions at PSR gatherings.
Now I guess it is time to explain the title I selected for this post. All of the objections that my new friend from the Physicians for Social Responsibility raised were related to a fundamental question about the perceived need for continued government support for the nuclear industry.
The phrase “Failure to Launch” is an allusion to a 2006 movie staring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker in which a talented man in his thirties is still living at home. It is not because he is socially or financially inept, it is because living with his parents seems less risky and more comfortable than going out on his own.
Maturely declaring independence is not easy, especially for an industry that is heavily regulated by the government. However, the industry would do itself and its advocates a favor if it accepted more responsibility and declared its ability to handle its own challenges without direction and financial support from the government. It would also be nice if the industry took the lead in explaining – repetitively – that it is already paying its own way in nearly every respect.
PS: Paying our own way includes paying $4.7 million per reactor per year for operating licenses from the NRC and paying $273 per regulator hour for the cost of any “services” associated with applying for a new reactor design certification or construction and operating license.
The recently announced $67 million for SMR licensing assistance is aimed at defraying some of those license application costs. It is being appropriated for the DOE to pay the NRC costs associated with the new development under the reasonable assumption that it is not fair to ask applicants using advanced technology to pay the federal government $273 per hour for regulators to travel and attend classroom sessions to learn how to understand and regulate that newer technology.
Not only is $67 million decimal dust in the DOE budget, but it is less a subsidy for SMR vendors than a small effort to reduce the barriers to entry that have been erected by such decisions as the Reagan era regulatory “user fee” that has to be paid long before a new project has any hope of generating revenues.
Disclosure: I am speaking strictly for myself and not for my employer, who happens to be a company that is one of the US’s leading SMR designers.