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Nuclear power: NRC approves first new reactors since 1978

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To ensure that the new plants carried forward the lessons learned from that accident, Mr. Jaczko had proposed that new licensees' plants meet all post-Fukushima standards the NRC approves. The four other commissioners disagreed and overruled him, arguing that the NRC has enough tools to change standards as needed without needing to write them into licenses. 

"We find ourselves in disagreement with the specific approach he offers in his dissent – namely, an across-the-board license condition requiring implementation of 'all' Fukushima-related requirements prior to operation of the Vogtle plant," the four commissioners wrote. "Such a license condition, in our view, cannot now be framed in meaningful terms."

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."

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