NRC PUBLISHES NIRS’ Y2K PETITIONS FOR COMMENT
AGENCY’S DRAFT CONTINGENCY PLAN CONTAINS CHALLENGE TO ATOMIC ENERGY ACT
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has published NIRS’ three emergency petitions for rulemaking related to the Y2K computer issue for public comment (see Nuclear Monitor, November-December 1998). In accordance with NIRS’ request, the agency has handled the petitions in an expedited fashion, and has allowed only a 30-day comment period. The public comment period ends February 25, 1999.
Meanwhile, the NRC also is accepting public comment on its Year 2000 Draft Contingency Plan, which details the agency’s plans to cope with potential emergencies resulting from the Y2K issue. That comment period ends February 15, 1999.
And that plan contains a section that poses perhaps the greatest threat to the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) ever instigated by the NRC.
The AEA makes clear that the NRC’s mission is to protect the public health and safety with regard to nuclear power. That means that the NRC can close reactors it deems unsafe or that cannot meet the agency’s regulations. While the NRC clearly tries to ensure that reactors can operate and provide electric power, that is not part of its mission—protection of public health and safety always has meant that the NRC, when evaluating a given reactor’s safety issues, would not consider whether or not the reactor could provide electric power. In other words, if a reactor can’t meet the regulations, it has to close. The NRC’s record at meeting that mission has been spotty at best, but never has the agency directly confronted its basic mission.
For the first time, the NRC is attempting to place public health and safety requirements and power production, on an equal footing. In fact, the NRC is going so far as to argue that nuclear power production is a public health and safety issue.
The agency is playing upon Y2K fears by arguing that it is essential to keep every possible reactor operating on January 1, 2000 in order to avoid potential blackouts.
The agency uses several arguments for this reasoning. It states that it is concerned that if enough reactors are not operating, and blackouts occur, then the potential exists for loss-of-offsite-power scenarios that could cause meltdowns. Of course, if the NRC is concerned about loss-of-offsite-power, then the best thing to do is close every reactor, since it is virtually impossible to shutdown a reactor without offsite power—the reactor is much more likely to meltdown.
The NRC, strangely enough, argues that a 1995 heat wave in Chicago/Milwaukee area, which caused many deaths due to lack of air conditioning is evidence that reactors much operate on January 1, 2000. The NRC’s argument is that if electric power hadn’t been available, more people would have been without air conditioning, and thus more people would have died.
That’s probably true, but entirely irrelevant. No one, that NIRS is aware of, is predicting a major heat wave for January 1, 2000. Moreover, January 1 is always a time of low electrical demand—usually 40-50% of normal. Even severe winter storms on that date have historically brought demand up to only about 75% of normal. Considering that nuclear power, nationwide, provides slightly less than 20% of the nation’s electricity, even 75% of normal demand could be met in most states without a single reactor turned on.
But the real kicker is that the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), the industry association charged with ensuring adequate electrical supplies, has identified not undercapacity, but overcapacity, as the second most serious Y2K threat to the electrical grid (the first is interrelations between the utilities and the telecommunications systems).
According to NERC, electrical demand on January 1, 2000 is likely to be far below normal, as it is not only a weekend, but many 24/hour day, 7/day week businesses will close at the turn of the century simply to attempt to avoid potential Y2K rollover problems. Having too many plants online, NERC says in its January report to the Department of Energy, could cause too much voltage available throughout the grid. Too much voltage leads to grid instability and eventual blackout—the very scenario the NRC says it is trying to avoid.
To ensure that as many reactors as possible are operating, the NRC wants to to short-circuit its normal processes and provide on-the-spot license exemptions to reactors to allow them to continue operating despite Y2K (or other) deficiencies.
The NIRS petitions take a more prudent approach to public health and safety. They would require that the NRC close non-compliant reactors by December 1, 1999 (the NRC so far has refused to say it will close any reactors for non-compliance, and indeed seems intent on ensuring reactor operation); would require each utility to undergo full-scale emergency response exercises during 1999 that include a Y2K-related component; and would require steps to ensure adequate supplies of back-up power for reactors in the event of a loss-of-offsite-power, or blackout, reality.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Make your voice heard. Write comments on both the NIRS petitions and the NRC’s draft contingency plan—the NRC’s scheme to derail its basic mission cannot stand. If the agency can make this argument for January 1, 2000—when electrical demand is expected to be very low—it can make this argument on any day. This is a clear attempt to use Y2K fears as a cover to subvert the agency’s basic mission.
Many communities have Y2K groups actively examining related issues; encourage them to learn about and comment on these issues. There isn’t a lot of time (the NRC’s draft contingency plan comment period ends February 15, the NIRS’ petitions comment period ends February 24) and that’s because there isn’t a lot of time left for Y2K, period.
All of the relevant information, including copies of NIRS’ petitions and supporting documents, the NRC’s draft contingency plan, NIRS’ comments, etc. are available in the Y2K section of NIRS’ website (www.nirs.org).