NRC plans to simplify nuclear licensing. Critics say the proposal would lead to more unsafe nuclear power plants

The federal government has proposed new rules to simplify licensing of commercial nuclear power plants. But critics charge the plan sells safety short. According to nuclear industry representatives, the proposed regulations would streamline an outdated and cumbersome regulatory scheme without sacrificing safety considerations.

Nuclear watchdog groups say the proposed system, while appearing to promote the development of safer commercial nuclear reactors, would actually pave the way for more of the current generation of reactors, which they claim are unsafe.

The licensing system being proposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would be akin to ``giving a college freshman a diploma based on his course outline'' for four years of study, says Ken Bossong of the Critical Mass Energy Project. Dean Tousley, a lawyer representing the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says it ``would lock in the present level of safety and make improvements impossible.''

The modifications in the licensing rules proposed by the NRC would:

Create a so-called ``one step'' process where utilities would apply for both a construction permit and an operating license at the same time. The current two-step process requires a utility to win a construction permit before applying for an operating license.

Allow for the pre-approval of standardized reactor designs. Once approved, a design would be certified for 10 years. Under current rules, the NRC authorizes each proposed reactor design separately.

Allow for early site permits. A utility could apply for a site permit without any plans for building a nuclear power plant.

Most nuclear watchdogs applaud the idea of moving toward standardized reactor designs - a system that promises to simplify regulation and increase safety by creating virtually identical facilities in many locations. But they express concern that the proposed regulations might enable utilities to lock in standard designs that are only marginally better than those developed in the 1970s. New regulations should limit the standardized designs to those which are clearly more advanced, and more safe, than the current generation of reactors, they say.

``Standardization only makes sense if you have a proven design,'' says Robert Pollard, formerly on the NRC staff and now a nuclear energy analyst with the UCS. ``For the current design of plants, there is a national consensus that they are a failure, though no consensus as to why.''

Industry representatives dispute the notion of failure, however. They say the current generation of nuclear designs should not be discarded wholesale, because it has required improvements over the years. ``NASA didn't go off and throw away its space shuttle because its O-rings leaked,'' says Tom Price of the Nuclear Management and Resources Council (NMRC), an industry trade group. ``They had confidence in their space shuttle. They made several and many improvements,'' and won the confidence of the space community and the general public, Mr. Price says.

Watchdog groups also complain that in the ``one step'' process, the opportunities for local input into the licensing process would be shut off - since tougher legal standards in the regulations would make it harder for citizen groups or state and local officials to request public hearings.

Not so, say industry spokesmen. ``We're not trying to eliminate public hearings, but just the abuse where issues are raised and reraised,'' says Ellen Werther of the US Council for Energy Awareness, a pro-nuclear lobby group. NMRC's Tom Price says the proposed licensing process ``may reduce the number of times that any one issue is argued before the NRC,'' but would provide a more complete hearing of the issues earlier in the licensing process.

So far, state and local governments have raised little objection to the proposed rule. New York has filed comments with the NRC objecting to the early site provision of the proposed regulations, taking no position on other aspects of the proposal. But other states, including Massachusetts - where there is still considerable concern about the Seabrook nuclear reactor in neighboring New Hampshire - have not raised any objection to the proposed regulations.

An official at one association of local governments, who asked not to be identified, said that while her organization had taken a neutral position on the proposed licensing rule, it did so only after being ``kneecapped by the utility industry.''

While it is unclear how widespread industry lobbying is, the nuclear industry has for some time been stalled in its effort to expand the use of atomic energy for generating electricity. All commercial nuclear reactors proposed since 1974 have been canceled; and given the costly regulatory snags encountered by the Seabrook project and others, most utilities shy away from making new nuclear plans.

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