America's Aging Nuclear Reactors

Article excerpt

Critics decry lack of scrutiny by regulatory commission

There's a quiet war underway in this city over the future of aging U.S. nuclear power plants -- and the nuclear power industry is winning it.

Winning, say proponents like the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry lobby with a $25-million-a-year budget, because in an age fearful of global warming from carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear energy is clean. Winning, say nuclear power opponents and public interest groups, because of what the public doesn't know, such as: "Are aging commercial nuclear reactors safe at 40 years, let alone 60?"

It's a crucial question. The first half-dozen nuclear power plants are lining up to have their 40-year licenses extended.

The nuclear industry, subjected to long and tedious public examination when it wanted to build the original power plants, now gets fasttrack approval to extend the reactor's life, while the public's leverage has been diminished. Almost extinguished, critics contend.

The actual regulatory situation is worse than it might appear. The nation's commercial nuclear reactor watchdog agency, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which, like Caesar's wife, ought to be beyond reproach, is more like a kept woman. The problem is built into the agency's structure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is funded not out of taxpayer moneys, but from fees levied against the nuclear licensees it is supposed to regulate.

Beyond the lack of general public scrutiny and what critics describe as a pro-industry regulatory environment -- lies the other industry motivation for keeping what some call nuclear dinosaurs alive. These reactors are cash cows for a new breed of nuclear entrepreneurs. The relicensing of the nation's aging nuclear plants is a money-spinning offshoot of the proposed but currently stalled-in-Congress deregulation of the U.S. electricity industry.

Nothing better illustrates the latter point than the purchase last year by Philadelphia-based entrepreneur AmerGen Inc. of the $4 billion Clinton, Ill., nuclear power site for $20 million. At the time, Forbes Magazine noted that AmerGen Inc. (a 50/50 joint venture between PECO, the former Philadelphia Electric Co., and British Energy, the United Kingdom's largest nuclear generating company) had effectively bought "27 years of capacity for $20 million -- a steal."

Project those multimillion dollars across the 40 nuclear sites that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's high-powered lobby, says will seek re-licensing by 2015 and the nuclear power industry can be plucked for billions -- all at the ratepayers' expense.

There are more millions to be garnered from "goldmining" the reactors. That's the phrase the public interest groups use to describe what's likely to happen to the decommissioning funds utilities set aside to finally dismantle each reactor at the end of its working life.

Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service explains. "AmerGen, which bought [GPU Nuclear Corp.'s] Oyster Creek reactor [in Tom's River, N.J.] basically in a garage sale atmosphere, paid $10 million and intends to inherit over $400 million in decommissioning trust funds." GPU didn't keep Oyster Creek because under deregulation, utilities have to choose between deregulated electricity production or regulated electricity transmission (delivery). GPU decided to stay with transmission.

"Clearly," said Gunter, "the strategy [for the new owners] is to operate the reactors as long as they can through secure power contracts with a utility desperately looking to dump its liability. Then AmerGen goldmines the decommissioning funds. That's our concern."

Gunter means that if AmerGen decommissions the reactors for less than the amount in the trust funds, it -- not the original ratepayers -gets to keep the leftover millions. He's further concerned that AmerGen is a limited liability company with "only $110 million in their coffers. …