Should NRC spend time and money simplifying transition to decommissioning?
In the past three years, five nuclear reactors in the United States have permanently ceased operations and are in the process of transitioning to a decommissioning status. There is not a well defined process for making that transition and for applying appropriate, risk-informed regulations. As a consequence of that situation, the owner of each plant must submit exemption requests to the NRC to be reviewed and approved before they can implement the cost saving measures of reducing certain staffing requirements or emergency planning commitments.
The owners of the plants that have stopped operating have asked the regulator and apparently their congressional representatives to develop a new rule making that will codify and streamline the process and reduce the number of specific license exemptions that need to be filed, reviewed and approved.
On December 3, 2014 the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade organization that represents the interests of nuclear power plant vendors and plant operators, submitted a letter to the NRC expressing its support and interest in the rule making process. Here is the concluding paragraph of that letter.
In summary, the industry believes that an integrated rulemaking that incorporates the lessons learned from the current decommissioning transition activities and addresses the regulatory requirements associated with the transition from operating to decommissioned status would provide the most efficient and effective regulatory framework. Prior to commencing that rulemaking effort, the NRC should focus on the effective review of current decommissioning transition licensing actions.
January 9, 2015 Platts article titled New US NRC chairman says structure, safety, regulation among priorities for 2015 reported that the Commission approved a staff proposal to initiate the process of “reviewing NRC’s approach to regulation of power reactors undergoing decommissioning.” Stephen Burns, the Chairman of the Commission, indicated that he has heard from both Congress and the industry that they believe it might be the right time to take a hard look at the process.
I disagree. This is the wrong time to spend time and money making it simpler to decommission nuclear power plants. One way to encourage licensees to keep operating is to make sure that they understand that there are complexities and costs associated with shutting down the plant before it has reached the end of its effective operating life.
The NRC commissioners have repeatedly told Congress that their budgets are tight and that they must prioritize their work in order to accomplish the most important tasks in the most efficient manner possible given the staffing constraints under which they are working.
Despite the description of tight budgets, the annual fee for an operating license has increased from $4.5 million in 2010 to $5.2 million in 2014. The hourly rate for professional staff hours has increased from $257 in 2010 to $279 in 2014. I fully expect that those fees will increase again next year, largely as a result of the decrease in the number of plants that are assessed for the fee.
A nuclear plant licensee who has transitioned from an operating license to one that is a “possession-only” license is no longer part of the pool of clients that must pay $5.3 million per year. Instead, their rate is just $224,000, which about half of the price of a single professional staff hour full time equivalent (FTE). Since there are more reactors now being decommissioned and contributing to the pool that pays for regulators that specialize in decommissioning, that fee has decreased from $231,000 per year in 2013.
When plants that are in the decommissioning process file license exemptions as they reach various stages of the transition, there is an identifiable customer that the NRC can bill for the staff hours that must be expended to review those exemption requests. Those individually accountable records can also be used in the NRC’s annual budget submission to justify a corresponding manpower resource request.
In contrast, the resources expended to perform the significant amount of work required for a more generalized rule making — especially one that will attract contentious hearings and most likely at least several different litigation processes — are no longer specific to an individual customer. They cannot be billed; they are charged to the general revenue account with the costs spread across all licensees. Those costs will increase the annual license fee and probably increase the professional staff hour rate.
To make sure that my informed guess on how the accounting would work was correct, I contacted the NRC. Here is the relevant part of an email conversation with David McIntyre, a Public Affairs Officer at the NRC.
McIntyre: The costs of any rulemaking are not “fee recoverable,” as in charged to specific licensees, the way inspections or license amendment reviews might be. They are built into the overall fee structure.
Adams: I need to make sure I understand.
The cost of the rule making is NOT charged to a specific licensee, but it IS charged to all license holders and applicants as part of their annual license fee or hourly staff hour cost fees? It is NOT paid out of the 10% of the NRC budget that is not recovered by license fees.
Please correct if I have it wrong.
McIntyre: Correct. That is my understanding.
That means that companies that continue to operate their nuclear plants would pay an increased annual license fee for work specifically aimed at simplifying the process of shutting down and tearing apart plants. Though they might benefit from simplified processes someday, most operating plants will not be shut down for at least two more decades. No one who understands finance should want to pay now for something that will provide no benefits for the next 20 or more years.
In the case of those nuclear plants that are still operated under the rate regulated, integrated monopoly utility model, the cost associated with producing a new decommissioning rule would be passed directly to ratepayers that will not be benefiting from the extra cost.
The entities that will benefit more immediately from the rule making are companies that have decided to shrink the financial pool from which regulatory costs are provided and have reduced their annual contributions by a factor of 25 to about half of an FTE.
If there is s staff hour rate increase to cover a rule simplifying the process of transitioning from an operating plant to one in decommissioning would be doubly unfair to applicants for new design certifications, construction and operating licenses or early site permits.
Not only would the effort expended to create useful rules for existing plants be inapplicable to plants with substantially different designs that might not decommission for another six or more decades, but the staff resources expended for the effort would be unavailable for high priority reviews like those that have already been requested for smaller or non-light water reactors.
Any available time that NRC staff has should be expended in reviewing ways to make its process of reviewing new applications and operating existing plants more effective, providing for safety at a lower, more predictable cost. It should not be spent making it easier for profit making companies to destroy assets that were initially purchased with ratepayer money to provide reliable, ultra low pollution, fossil-fuel free electricity.
PS – I hope this helps people to understand that I am not a “nuclear industry advocate.” I am a nuclear technology advocate who wants to see the use of nuclear energy grow. The carrying costs for decommissioned plant owners is very low on my priority list. I’d care more about them if their plants were still operating and providing a vital product.
Here is the Federal Register Notice explaining the annual fee computations for FY 2014. It will be interesting to see what it says in FY 2015 about decommissioning rule costs.
Rod, I see your proposal as a Band-Aid solution.
If we take a few steps back and look at the whole situation, we see that (at least part of) the problem is the whole licensing process that makes building and running a nuclear power plant more expensive than it really needs to be. Add on top of this that competing fossil fuel generation gets to dump its waste into the air for free. The result is that what should be the cheapest (and cleanest) form of dispatchable power generation is less profitable than alternative dirty generation. If nuclear power generation were as profitable as it should be, these plants would be generating power instead of being shut down.
When a patient has numerous wounds gushing blood, some large and some small, Band-Aids cannot solve the problem. A few of them on minor cuts might help, as the process of treating the other wounds continues.
“Should NRC spend time and money simplifying transition to decommissioning?”
This is actually a rather interesting question in-and-of itself. My feeling is it actually grew out of discussions on earlier blog posts on the demise of VY, which pointed out that the current regulatory structure has no “in between” status. Plants are either in operation or possession only. There are really no current regs addressing a “maintain the asset but not operate (for now)” status. That alone doesn’t make sense because every technology does it. We all even do that in our personal life as in “put that idea on hold until financial conditions change.” If the need for that condition is real and will exist for awhile, and it appears it is, that’s the condition that should be addressed first. But it must be made both easy and financially attractive or it won’t be used.
On a conceptual level the scope doesn’t seem that difficult. The NRC regs would still obviously apply to the used fuel and all the equipment needed to keep it within the original design basis. Maintaining the rest of the asset is not new technology. But proving you did, for a return to operation, is fair game for the regulator, and it too must be easy and cheap.
A more difficult problem for a small utility is keeping the qualified labor pool available for eventual return to operation. IMO, the NRC track record on “easy and cheap” is a dismal failure. So maybe some organization that has not already reached a state of maximum entropy should be charged with the task.
The other part of the question I don’t understand fully is the idea of NRC “spending” money. I don’t think they really do that (other than the tax payer 10% contribution), rather the person sitting at a desk doing “stuff” must charge (or assign) their time to a budget line item number or they are wasting time, which 90% of the time gets passed on to the utility as a fee. So indirectly the licensee is actually spending the development money. The real solution is to simply eliminate the dysfunctional middle man.
Also if this process is “promoting nuke power” not strictly regulating, which it seems to be, it is not even the NRC’s job to do it.
Excellent points, mjd
I don’t know, but my general impression is that this situation is symptomatic of the whole licensing apparatus currently in place. A lot of people spend a lot of their time dealing with things like bean counting and peripheral issues instead of really focusing on what is useful and helpful. When I was in the research reactor business I spent a great deal of my time trying to convince the powers that be in the NRC and elsewhere that the proposed fee structure would have a disproportionate impact on small, university-based facilities than it would on power plants. They just didn’t seem to grasp that facilities whose budgets were fixed or declining were in a different situation than others, that they could not “raise their rates” to cover the proposed fees. Their response was always something like, well, just go to your Dean and ask for a bigger budget. Well, yeah, you could do that, and he’ll listen and say, you’re not getting a bigger budget, you’re getting a smaller one, so pay your fee from that and don’t pay your staff (which is a back-door way of shutting the reactor down, which sounds awfully familiar).
Somebody needs to do a study to identify the cost of a partial decommission so that the aging plant in question can be replaced by a gen III or gen IV reactor. Such a scenario would be the best outcome for everyone. Assuming if course the plant would not be eligible for refurbishing.
The conversion of a PWR to a High Pressure BWR would seem like a natural transition. Also, a BWR to an AGR-type GCR (perhaps using Zirconium Hydride as the moderator) might be a good fit.
Here’s an actual example of a successful BWR conversion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Zimmer_Power_Station
The actual lesson to be learned is not specifically stated in the wiki article, but is still appropriate to new builds today. As usual the “devil is in the details”, but note this plant was being built during the explosive growth period of the nuclear industry during the late ’70s, and then got caught up in the period of increased regulatory oversight of post TMI2. Note also the specific nature of the “problem”; nothing says the plant had any actual construction flaws (as in it was built badly), rather they “couldn’t prove it.” Never underestimate the power of a failed QA program to derail a nuke plant construction project. QA is the rule we play by. It is the second vital part of “how do you know they are safe”? The first part is they are designed (on paper) to an approved Safety Analysis Report. QA proves they were built that way.
Note they picked an inexperienced contractor, or IMO they deviated from normal good practice. Most likely this was because of a schedule concern, as in the experienced ones were busy during the rapid growth period. But even the experienced ones of that growth period got diluted by the rapid expansion. If you know the history all of the plants cancelled mid construction, after $millions were spent, they all had QA problems.
There is another way experience can get diluted. Not building any plants for 30 years. My comment is getting too long, my message is for anyone building a nuke plant today. Don’t think QA is a “paper” problem, it is a show stopper. And if you are having QA problems, you better go find people for advice that understand the rigors. Stop thinking the newbies can solve their own programmatic problems by reshuffling management positions! Here’s a hint: they will be old.
So — is a never-used RPV just sitting there? If so, why haven’t they sold it? Too hard to move? They got it there in the first place, after all.
I know of a completely unused BWR plant in Austria (completed just in time for a 1978 referendum banning electric power production in Austria using fission).
That plant is right on the Danube — it would be (relatively) easy to move parts downstream to nuke-friendly countries on the river (Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria).
Same with this Zimmer plant — right on the Ohio.
Likely the RPV is for a plant design that is particular to the site and could not receive approval today, even if it was (could be) moved elsewhere.
Unless and until there is a working national spent fuel repository, the concept of decommissioning has no real meaning and carries undefinable costs. Currently there are scores of sites which are potential candidates for an ISFSI, temporary spent fuel storage facility, normally collated next to a nuclear plant. Each is a prime target for a terrorist attack, at some unknowable hour. The active detection systems, coordination and timely human response to this act of war and the division of responsibility between the private and public sectors has never been assessed or assigned.
Yucca Mountain is a testament to DoE’s and the NRC’s failure on a fundamental nuclear safety function, long term secured storage of highly radioactive material. It was scheduled to accept and secure the nation’s inventory of spent fuel “on or before” January 1, 1998. The money was spent, nothing works, and thus decommissioning has no meaning.
Missing from your discussion is effect of the lack of Yucca Mt (any) storage facility. Once all fuel has been offloaded and transferred to the “permanent” storage facility there is no need for operating equipment and “licensed operators.” there will be some radioactive material left, i.e., the irradiated vessel, and other NSSS components that the NRC will still have some regulatory authority over. But this problem is the NRC’s problem (IMHO) as they are the ones who held up Yucca Mt.
Suggested research project for future article – Look at 10 CFR dated 1960 or so and then todays present 10 CFR. How much has “Safety” been increased? How much as cost been increased? Divide the original cost of the first reactors E.g. Nine Mile or Oyster Creek – $600 Million with todays NPPs – $6 billion. Can anyone really say the new ones are 1,000 (factoring in inflation) times safer? Really? What have these new regulations done for us? If the NRC had spent the same time getting Yucca built on these known consequences of not building it, this would be a nob problem,
Just as a side note the IEA/NEC Technology Roadmap ( http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/TechnologyRoadmapNuclearEnergy.pdf ) is recommending, through re-investment and more R&D, reactors be kept operational 60-80+ years. (p. 25, 27).
lol – sorry should be IEA and NEA
Comments are closed.
Recent Comments from our Readers
The Clinton Nuclear Plant also in Illinois was shutdown essentially for almost 2 years before it was taken over by…
Good Podcast – Very informative One thing that was not discussed is how to deal with a particular fear that…
Renewables people are masters in marketing. Unreliable intermittent generators whose output is all over the place, and usually badly correlated…
Looking at their lineup, Westinghouse seems bound and determined to keep Gen IV in its “place” which is apparently the…
So they are developing a scaled down version of the AP1000, which is a scaled up version of the AP600,…