Limited staffing at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission may slow the agency in renewing licenses for existing nuclear power plants, the agency’s chairman said.
“There are resource limitations,” Gregory Jaczko said today at a meeting with reporters at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. It may take a bit longer to get through the license renewal reviews, he said.
Reactor owners such as Entergy Corp. (ETR) of New Orleans are seeking operating-license extensions for some of the 104 U.S. commercial nuclear generating units. Entergy’s Indian Point plant, about 24 miles (39 kilometers) north of New York City, has two units with licenses expiring in 2013 and 2015.
Jaczko didn’t say that licenses are in danger of expiring as the commission reviews their applications. The agency has renewal applications pending for 14 reactors, according to the NRC website.
The NRC chairman met with reporters to discuss the agency’s performance this year, including its response to Japan’s nuclear disaster in March and the completion of its review of a proposed nuclear-waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The agency also is weighing applications from Atlanta-based Southern Co. (SO) and Scana Corp. (SCG) of Cayce, South Carolina, for the first licenses in more than 30 years to build new U.S. reactors.
‘Precursors of Declines’
A priority for the NRC next year will be managing “precursors of declines in performance” at U.S. nuclear plants, Jaczko said. Workers at FirstEnergy Corp. (FE)’s Perry plant near Cleveland and Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper plant 64 miles south of Omaha were almost exposed to “significant doses” of radiation due to ‘human-performance-type’’ errors, he said.
Three nuclear plants regulated by the NRC also had extended closures in 2011, according to Jaczko. “That was something we haven’t seen in a long time,” he said.
Reactors at Dominion Resources Inc.’s North Anna facility near Mineral, Virginia were shut down for more than two months while the agency inspected the plant following an Aug. 23 earthquake.
Progress Energy Inc. (PGN)’s Crystal River reactor, located about 80 miles north of Tampa, Florida, has been out of service since workers discovered a crack in a containment-building wall in October 2009, according to the NRC. Omaha Public Power District’s Fort Calhoun reactor, about 19 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, has been shut down since April, first for refueling, then because of flooding near the plant in June, agency spokesman Victor Dricks said in an interview.
“We’re not seeing really true declines in performance, but we’ll keep an eye out for it,” Jaczko said.
Jaczko said he is “very comfortable with the steps that we took” responding to the crisis in Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501)’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex. The agency on Oct. 20 directed its staff to immediately implement seven safety recommendations of a task force, including reviews of seismic and flooding hazards at U.S. plants and operators’ ability to cope with extended blackouts.
Republicans have accused Jaczko of directing the NRC to stop work on its review of the Yucca Mountain project for political reasons, a charge he has denied. Jaczko is a former science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and a longtime opponent of the proposed waste dump.
Managing nuclear waste is currently “not an issue that I think poses significant safety or security challenges,” Jaczko said. The options for storing nuclear waste, which is kept in cooling pools and protective steel containers, present “manageable issues for at least the next 100 years.”
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