Electricity Supply:

What Can Be Done to Revive the Nuclear Option?

RCED-89-67: Published: Mar 23, 1989. Publicly Released: Apr 27, 1989.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO studied the future of nuclear power, focusing on: (1) problems preventing new initiatives in commercial nuclear power; (2) actions which could revive nuclear power; and (3) the status of government and industry efforts to revitalize the use of nuclear power.

GAO found that: (1) public and utility concerns about the feasibility of using nuclear power have risen due to oil embargoes, recession, inflation, decreased electricity demand, industrial accidents, and poor utility management; (2) although public opinion largely supported nuclear power's critical role in the nation's energy future, worst-case industrial accidents and environmental, health, and safety problems strengthened public opposition to nuclear power; (3) utility representatives believed that power plants generally had strong safety records; (4) utility representatives believed that they faced increased financial risk in building new power plants due to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) two-step licensing process, states disallowing the recovery of construction costs, and the Department of Energy's (DOE) slow progress toward building a nuclear waste repository; (5) utilities' increasing reliance on such alternatives as imported electricity and oil- and gas-powered generators raised serious energy security concerns; (6) utility representatives believed that continued safe, efficient plant operations and a strong federal nuclear energy policy would increase public acceptance of nuclear power; and (7) NRC and DOE attempts to reform the licensing process, standardize plant designs, improve reactors and testing models, and select a repository site lacked the necessary support and funding.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Energy Policy Act of 1992 reforms the nuclear plant licensing process by allowing NRC to issue a combined construction and operating license if the applicant meets certain standards. To date, no utilities have applied for a new plant license.

    Matter: Congress should review the nuclear option within the broad context of the nation's energy security concerns and the changing nature of the electric utility industry. As it reviews the nation's nuclear energy policy, Congress should consider enacting legislation to reform the licensing process into a more predictable procedure and promoting utilities' use of NRC-preapproved standardized designs. It could also reevaluate the goals and objectives of existing federal nuclear research and development efforts.


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