On November 3, 2011, Thalia Assuras of EnergyNow conducted an extended interview with NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko regarding Yucca Mountain, used fuel storage, the lengthening process of getting a license from the NRC, the reasons why nuclear license applicants are getting discouraged, and the possibility that the courts might direct the NRC and the DOE to complete the process of licensing the Yucca Mountain facility.
There are a few comments worth noting. First of all, the process of obtaining a license to build and operate a nuclear plant in the United States costs a lot more than the $100 million that the Chairman mentioned. That is a reasonable estimate for the amount of money that an applicant may have to pay the NRC in mandatory fees to review its application, but the real cost of an application is probably five times that amount when you factor in the cost of doing the engineering design work and preparing the license application for submission.

Another huge factor in the economic calculations that utilities have to make is the amount of time that it takes to obtain approvals. The longer the lead time, the more uncertainty they have to include in terms of electrical power demand, interest rates, inflation, and the risk that the estimates of task duration are incorrect. When the uncertainty of a new nuclear project is placed against the certainty of building a new gas fired power plant, there is a need for a resounding victory for the nuclear plant before the board of directors will decide to choose the less certain course of action.

One more thing that really irks me about this interview was the fact that the Chairman refuses to admit that ordering an evacuation of people beyond the area where there are plans for that evacuation is a terribly risky decision. If there was any justification for a 50 mile evacuation, I would be the first one to advocate including that in the planning requirements. It is criminal to think that you might need to undertake such a complex evolution and still decide that you do not need to do any planning for the eventuality.

However, I think that evacuating people from areas where the measured doses are within the range of variation of normal background radiation is downright stupid. There is no need to impose the risk of relocation on people who will not be harmed if they simply remain in place and take a few simple precautions like avoiding locally produced milk for a few weeks, taking some air samples and wearing a simple paper mask if they need to go outside during the first few days when exposures might be elevated.

The protective action guides (warning – 13.7 MB, slow PDF download required) produced twenty years ago were far more correct than whatever feeling made the Chairman decide that a 50 mile evacuation was justified, especially since there were no facts or measurements that should have stimulated such a response.