Maintaining Nuclear Energy Options: Focus on Safety

Thomas W. Ortciger, Director
Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety


For those of you not familiar with the nuclear power industry in the state of Illinois, the industry generates approximately half of the electricity in the state. In Illinois, there are 11 operating reactors at 6 stations as well as a spent fuel storage facility and the nation's only uranium hexaflouride conversion facility (step number 3 in the fuel cycle process). In addition, there are 3 reactors permanently shut down.

This morning I would like to address four main issues related to the continued safe operation of nuclear power. They are the effect of deregulation on the nuclear power industry, the role of national security, the management of spent nuclear fuel, and the potential for expansion of the nuclear power industry.

The effect of deregulation on the nuclear power industry

Deregulation of the electric industry has had a dramatic effect on nuclear power. Under the previous rate-regulated monopoly structure, cost efficiency wasn't absolutely necessary. For example, nuclear generating companies could withstand long regulatory shutdowns and still survive. Not so today. An extended shutdown of any generating asset today could be financially fatal.

So even before states began formulating deregulation legislation, electric utilities began to prepare for it. They took steps to make design changes to allow them to increase the power output of their plants. They made plans to extend the operational life of their plants by twenty years. They consolidated. They cut back on staff. They looked for ways to cut costs and to streamline their operations. Some even over-reacted by eliminating staff in key operational and technical positions, and soon ended up in regulatory trouble. They lobbied to eliminate or modify Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations to give themselves more flexibility. Most importantly, deregulation resulted in a new competitive operational philosophy that resulted in increased management efficiency and accountability. This did not happen without some organizational pain.

But, some very positive benefits came from the shift to deregulation. The efficiencies gained would make a good case study for a market-based industry versus a regulated industry. Where nuclear generating plants were operating at capacity factors as low as 60% not so many years ago, today the capacity factors are routinely over 95%. Where refueling outages used to take months, today they routinely are less than a month. Much more maintenance and testing now is being safely performed with the plants on-line. Probability risk analyses are being used to identify not only accident risks for safety purposes, but also vulnerabilities to plant trips. Previously numerous plant trips occurred each year. The industry average is now less than one trip per plant per year. Where we used to note with surprise that the best performing plants were also the safest, we now understand why. Economic risks spill over into the safety arena as well, and managing those risks make the plants safer as well as better performing.

Another positive result was within the regulatory structure. Recognizing that they could not tolerate long shutdowns in the new business environment, the industry flexed its muscles and lobbied congress and the NRC in an effort to reduce their regulatory risk. The result is a modified set of regulations and a different approach to nuclear plant regulation. This new approach is risk-informed and performance-based. Where the NRC used to regulate and assess safety performance in a largely subjective manner, the industry and the regulators have worked together to make the regulatory process more objective and risk informed. Where opinion used to be a large part of regulatory business, more objective performance indicators and risk-informed inspections now are the norm. Plants are evaluated on how effective they are in identifying and correcting problems before they grow into large ones. This change process is still evolving.

As you can imagine, this has been a challenge, not only for the NRC, but also for the state regulatory agencies. IDNS has spent many resources in just trying to keep up with the myriad of changes taking place and assessing their potential impact on safety. The state inspectors resident at the nuclear power stations have had to understand, test and adopt the new regulatory regime. IDNS safety programs are being evaluated to make sure they are current with the new approach.

Are there downsides to this new approach? We anticipate some to emerge over time. Softer issues like human performance, which caused many of the previous long regulatory shutdowns, are not easily measured and evaluated objectively. Cutting operating costs implies that something is eliminated. It is the regulator's job to make sure that cost-cutting actions do not have a negative affect on safety. It is too soon to tell if the actions taken to shorten refuel outages, cutback staff, and increase capacity factors will ultimately have a negative effect on a nuclear plant's work force.

The role of national security and the nuclear power industry

National security has always been a concern in the nuclear fuel cycle. The once through fuel cycle was predicated on limiting the proliferation of plutonium production. Until recently, the nation's capability to enrich uranium rested solely with the federal government. Fuel supplied to foreign nations under the "Atoms for Peace" program is returned to the United States for final disposal. The disposal of spent nuclear fuel is federal responsibility.

The United States negotiated the Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement with Russia. Originally begun during the first Bush administration, the Agreement was signed by President Clinton in 1993. This agreement provides for the US purchase of 500 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium (>90% U-235) resulting from the dismantlement of 20,000 nuclear warheads. This uranium will be blended down to low-enriched uranium (<5% U-235) in Russia over a 20-year period that began in 1995. The cost for this agreement is $12 billion over the 20-year period. The payments to Russia will compensate for the uranium content and the enrichment services as well as provide funds for the increased security of fissile material in Russia. Overall, the net effect was to provide for a budget neutral agreement, that is no profit, no subsidies. The value of the low-enriched uranium on the commercial market should equal the payment to Russia.

The implementation of the Agreement has not been without it difficulties. The United State Enrichment Corporation was named as the US "executive agent". Making a private corporation responsible for implementing a security agreement created a potential conflict of interest. The USEC is responsible for maximizing shareholder value, which they accomplish by purchasing the Russian low-enriched uranium at the lowest price possible. USEC closed one of the nation's two enrichment facilities and has filed unfair trade practice complaints against two foreign enrichment companies. This has drastically limited the supply of enriched uranium. This has resulted in the Russian low-enriched uranium supply representing approximately 50% of the uranium supply for the nuclear power industry in the United States.

Excelon Corporation has formed a joint venture with two other companies to compete with USEC. This joint venture, the Nuclear and Energy Security Partnership is currently seeking authority to negotiate with the Russians for the purchase of uranium recovered from Soviet-era weapons.

To date, the Agreement has succeeded in converting in excess of 111 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium (enough for 5,000 nuclear weapons) for use as in nuclear fuel.

The disposition of spent nuclear fuel

The environmental advantage of nuclear power is its avoidance of air pollutants. Since there is no combustion of fossil fuel there are no atmospheric releases of potential greenhouse gases. In a typical year, the use of nuclear power in Illinois avoids the release of approximately 445,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions, 208,000 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 18.8 million metric tons of carbon emissions in comparison to fossil fuel. Additionally, the operation of the nuclear power stations contributes no significant amount of radioactivity to the environment. Because of naturally occurring radioactive isotopes in fossil fuels, more radioactivity is released to the environment from a coal-fired power plant than from a nuclear power plant during normal operations.

From an environmental perspective, the disposition of the spent nuclear fuel represents the main challenge for the nuclear power industry. The framework for its management has been subject to changing political philosophies. The current situation regarding the disposition of spent nuclear fuel is a result of decisions made over several decades. In 1975, President Ford decided on a once through fuel cycle rather than reprocess spent fuel. President Carter, in 1977, also decided to defer indefinitely the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in order to address concerns about global nuclear proliferation. As part of this policy President Carter proposed an away from reactor storage facility. In 1981, President Reagan withdrew the ban on reprocessing and the storage proposal. Since 1993 the United States has supported a policy of nonproliferation and export control that discourages the reprocessing of commercial spent nuclear fuel and the commercial trade in plutonium as an energy source.

These policy decisions have prevented the development of a commercial spent nuclear fuel reprocessing industry in this nation. This has resulted in the need to develop a permanent disposal facility for this commercial spent nuclear fuel; the progress of which will be discussed later.

Absent an operating disposal facility, spent nuclear fuel generated at the nation's nuclear power stations must be safely stored. This is accommodated either in "wet" or "dry" storage.

Wet Storage

As part of the initial construction of the nuclear power station, storage pools were constructed to store a limited amount of spent nuclear fuel. Since it was anticipated that a spent fuel repository would be constructed in a timely manner, these pools were not designed nor constructed to contain all of the fuel used during the life of the plant. In addition, a portion of the storage pool must remain open and available to accommodate the entire fuel content of the reactor vessel in case an emergency would require the removal of the fuel from the reactor.

Most nuclear power stations have been able to re-rack their spent fuel thereby resulting in additional storage space. Re-racking involves placing the assemblies closer together. This can be accomplished when the fuel has "thermally" cooled and undergone an initial period of radioactive decay.

Dry storage

As an alternative to wet storage, the older fuel assemblies can be placed in dry storage casks. These casks are made of either metal or concrete and can be placed horizontally in a reinforced concrete bunker or stand vertically on a concrete slab. Spent fuel must have been stored in the fuel pool for at least 5 years prior to being placed in a storage cask. The casks are designed to withstand most anticipated weather conditions such as floods, tornado missiles and temperature extremes.

The storage casks provide flexibility in that they can be purchased on an as needed basis. In addition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has pre-approved several vendors' cask designs. This allows the nuclear power station a selection to choose from based on the site-specific design considerations of the plant. Currently, spent fuel is being stored in dry storage casks at the Dresden Unit 1 power station.

Offsite storage:

At this time, there are no offsite storage options available. The one facility in Illinois that provides wet storage away from the point of generation reached full capacity nearly a decade ago. This facility, located in Morris, was originally intended as a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Construction was started but cancelled due to the prohibition on spent fuel reprocessing. Since the storage pools were already constructed, they were converted into a commercial spent fuel storage facility.

Efforts are also underway by a consortium of nuclear power utilities to site and construct a commercial dry storage facility in Utah. This facility would be located on the reservation of the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian nation. The plan would be to store 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel in dry storage casks.

This part of Utah was selected for two reasons - a willing host and it meets the safety requirements. The licensing process is underway with a decision to be issued in early 2002. The basic plan of the facility is to construct the necessary infrastructure to receive and inspect the spent fuel canisters and place them into the concrete storage casks. Approximately 4,000 of these storage casks would be placed on a reinforced concrete pad at the 100-acre site. The spent fuel containers would be free of external contamination when arriving at the facility and would not be opened thereby preventing the release of contamination. This philosophy of "start clean and stay clean" should help minimize any environmental impacts at the site.

Since the September 11th terrorist attack, the opponents of this facility have insisted that the NRC consider the safety of the facility should an airplane be deliberately crashed into the spent fuel storage casks. The NRC has not responded yet as to the merit of this concern.

Permanent disposal

The federal government has been addressing the management of commercial spent nuclear fuel since the 1950's. The National Academy of Science concluded in 1957 that radioactive waste could be disposed safely in a variety of geologic media. In the decades since, the Department of Energy has evaluated several different host geologic formations. These formations include bedded salt, salt dome, tuff and basalt flow. In 1986, the Department of Energy nominated three sites for characterization. The President approved these sites. The following year, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act that directed the Department of Energy to focus its site characterization activities only at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The repository-siting program has been redirected many times. The Department of Energy has missed most of the project milestones including the 1998 requirement to begin taking possession of spent fuel. The current schedule anticipates that following approval of the Secretary of Energy's site recommendation by the Congress and President, the Department of Energy will submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year. If the Commission grants the license, it is anticipated that construction of the repository would commence in 2005 with the facility opening in 2010.

Potential for future expansion of the nuclear power industry

The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 severely impacted the nuclear industry. Some plants under construction were cancelled, others completed were prohibitively expensive, and no new plants were ordered. However, early in the last decade, some visionaries foresaw the potential for a renewed interest in nuclear power. At a time when no one could imagine ever building a new plant, they were hard at work on new reactor designs.

The nuclear industry petitioned the NRC to modify their regulations to make it easier to construct and operate a new plant. The revisions were intended to simplify the licensing process and eliminate many of the public hearings that caused long delays. The focus of the modified regulations was threefold.

First, NRC initiated a process whereby a reactor manufacturer could submit a standard design for a next generation reactor and have it pre-approved. Once approved, a utility wishing to construct a new plant could use it. This would save time. Three new designs presently are approved and "on the shelf" for future use. They are all light water reactors, and are purportedly more passive, simpler in design, and safer, with fewer systems, pumps, and valves. In addition, there is current interest by Exelon Corporation to submit a pebble bed modular gas cooled reactor designed in South Africa for pre-approval.

Secondly, the modified regulations allow a utility to select a site, and have it pre-approved for use. Much of the licensing work would already be done, and this "banked" site could be used to construct one of the new designs. This too would save time. The major task then would be to ensure the site could adequately support the new design.

Finally, a utility could apply for a single license that would apply to both construction and operation of the plant. This is called a "combined operating license". The idea was that a future licensee could use a standard pre-approved design, put it on a pre-approved site, and build and operate the plant under a single license. NRC would ensure that all requisite inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria were met during construction and startup. This was intended to streamline the licensing process and eliminate the potential for delays.


As I have described, the nuclear power industry has experienced its share of challenges. Through these challenges ranging from the national politics of spent fuel management and the specter of international arms control agreements, to the challenges of deregulation, nuclear power in Illinois has operated safely and cleanly. Currently, public opinion about the use of nuclear power is becoming more positive in the light of supply shortages. The fact that nuclear power doesn't emit greenhouse gases is causing some long time opponents to look at nuclear power more positively. The new administration's energy policy looks favorably on nuclear power. Construction costs and construction time estimates are falling. The major remaining challenge for the industry now is what to ultimately do with the radioactive waste.