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Nuclear power: NRC approves first new reactors since 1978

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Moreover, the license-condition approach is "unnecessary, given the myriad of regulatory tools available to the NRC to implement Fukushima-related requirements as they emerge," the commissioners added.

Nuclear-watchdog groups took issue with that line of thinking. They argue that by not requiring in the construction license that the new reactors meet post-Fukushima safety standards, the NRC made it far less likely that new standards would be incorporated at all.

It's not at all clear if post-Fukushima standards – which could require costly retrofits – meet an NRC rule that requires companies to implement safety conditions only if they meet a cost-benefit analysis standard. 

"The commission should have said: 'We're not going to leave the door open for you to say 10 years later, 'It's not worth it,' " says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear physicist and reactor-safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based nuclear-safety advocacy group. "It's actually a wise strategy that no new reactors be allowed to operate unless they can show they are in full compliance with post-Fukushima safety measures."

Other nuclear power critics noted that after the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979, the NRC refused to approve new licenses for 18 months pending completion of its safety review.

"The subsequent licenses were all contingent on adopting the TMI action plan" for safety upgrades, says Peter Bradford, who served on the commission beginning in 1977 and during the TMI crisis.

But nuclear-power advocates proclaimed today's vote "historic" and a stamp of approval for the new Westinghouse AP1000 plant design Vogtle will use. New nuclear plants would be a big boost for the nation's energy posture, they argued.

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