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Small reactors receive first nod, critics worry approval process


Shared from the 12/29/2019 The Denver Post eEdition The Associated Press

WASHINGTON» Nuclear industry hopes of one day bringing small, factory-built nuclear power plants to communities and industrial sites have cleared a first regulatory hurdle with the Trump administration, over objections from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others that regulators are cutting corners on safety and disaster planning.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a preliminary site permit this month sought by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, for a so-called small modular reactor near Oak Ridge, Tenn. It’s the first such permit in the country. Moving ahead on any such project would require a string of other regulator sign-offs, putting installation and opening of one of the less-chunky nuclear plants years away at the earliest.

The country’s nuclear industry, struggling as cheaper natural gas and renewable energy outguns power from big, aging nuclear plants, says a new generation of smaller, modular reactors using the latest technology could serve as a carbon-free alternative for climate-damaging coal and natural gas plants, with less cash outlay up front for operators.

“If you’re serious about climate, you have to be serious about existing and new nuclear,” said Matthew Wald, a spokesman for the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute trade group.

Opponents say regulators already are cutting corners for the small modular plants still under development, and moving toward allowing emerging nuclear technology, nuclear waste and risks from radiation and terrorism into communities not equipped to deal with the threats.

Edwin Lyman, a scientist and nuclear expert with the Union for Concerned Scientists nonprofit, called this month’s regulation-easing moves “deeply flawed and reckless.’‘

The nuclear industry argues that the proposed lower-megawatt, up-to-date reactors will be “so safe and small you can put them anywhere,” Lyman said. Cutting the safety rules accordingly — and dangerously so, Lyman says — makes “it easier to put one of those reactors in a city.’‘

The main item of controversy in this week’s approval was the NRC’s agreement with the utility to consider waiving a mandate that nuclear plant operators have evacuation routes and other emergency response plans in place for a 10-mile zone around nuclear plants.

Regulators have now agreed that full-on emergency planning by plant operators could stop at a two-mile zone, or even at a nuclear power plant fence line, if it was deemed the radiation risks from a small modular reactor were reduced enough.

FEMA has objected. The federal disaster agency said in letters and comment to the NRC that any consideration of narrowing or eliminating the emergency zone for the small modular reactors had to take into account the possibility of inside attacks, cyber threats, a national-security emergency, and other threats, not just calculations of radiation releases.

Reduced emergency planning by plant operators would shift more of that burden to government, FEMA said.

NRC commissioner Jeff Baran also raised concerns, and objected to exempting nuclear plants of all but a boundary-line emergency planning zone.

Another NRC commissioner, Annie Caputo,’ said the panel’s decision was ‘‘responsive to congressional direction and is protective of public health and safety in accordance with the inherent safety embodied in these designs.’‘



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