Demystifying Nuclear Power: Air Quotes

Written by Maggie Gundersen and Sue Prent

The US originally had 104 operating nuclear power plants. As these atomic reactors have declined with age, only 99 nukes remain operating, of which three more are now scheduled for shut down. Ten more atomic power reactors are on life-support as they await the infusion of taxpayer dollars necessary to continue operation, or shut down at or near the end of their design and material life. 

In preparation for a slew of sudden reactor decommissionings, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade and lobbyist arm of the atomic power industry, is advocating for weaker decommissioning regulations.

Every time I read their propaganda, I am overcome by an irresistible urge to insert a flock of air quotes wherever the NEI has indulged in revisionist language.

For those less familiar with American popular culture, ‘air quotes’ are an ironic hand gesture indicating that the words being spoken probably mean something more or other than what you are intended to understand from them.   Air quotes function as the jargon of persuasion.

The NEI like many organs of the atomic power industry makes a lot of statements that beg for air quotes, so we thought it might be instructive to do a regular ‘Air Quotes’ feature on the Fairewinds website: sort of a cross between an instructional public service and a head-slap-in-disbelief moment of humor.   

Convenient translations to real-speak will be provided by the Fairewinds Crew.

Case in point is contained in an article from Nuclear Energy Insider, London, UKJuly 13, 2016:

US reactor closures raise urgency of new decommissioning rules… A recent spate of early U.S. plant closures has increased the need for a swift implementation of new decommissioning regulations which match post-operation risk profiles, industry experts said.

Nuclear operators want new regulations which recognize lower risk profiles after a plant is permanently stopped.

Air QuoteUrgency? Need for ‘swift implementation’? These plants have been operating for 40 years, and the NRC allows the industry to have 60 more years to dismantle them. Why all of a sudden is there a rush to push the public under a bus as nuclear safety is thrown out the window.

“Post-operation risk profiles.”  The suggestion is that the risks associated with a plant in the decommissioning phase are negligible and operators of the plant should not be held to the same standards as when the plant was producing marketable energy.  That of course belies the fact that some risks actually increase in this phase.

Examples include risk associated with fuel handling, deterioration of infrastructure, undetected material failures in novel fuel storage systems, invasion by destructive vermin, a lesser skillset shared by a skeletal staff, and the ever-increasing risk of targeting by terrorists, and of course, acts of God.


Rod McCullum, Senior Director Used Fuel and Decommissioning Program Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), recommended the NRC pursue a limited-scope rulemaking to ensure swift implementation and make operable by rule what you’ve already done in numerous exemption requests.

Air Quote: Hundreds of comments were sent to the NRC asking for stronger decommissioning regulations for the nuclear power industry. Fairewinds alone sent a 40-page report highlighting the dangers during decommissioning. What NEI wants is for the NRC to accept all the weakened regulations submitted by the nuclear power industry while ignoring all the public comments that would strengthen decommissioning regulations.


Speaking to Nuclear Energy Insider June 24, McCullum said that by prioritizing the licensing actions, the NRC could address the transition issues by the end of the year.
“We would like the Commission to move more quickly, but they have not moved quickly and the NEI is thinking about how to inspire them to move quickly,” he said.

Air Quote: This is a not-so veiled threat by the atomic power industry to the NRC – if the nuke industry does not get what it wants, it will go to its friends in Congress and have Congress apply political pressure to the NRC. Who is regulating whom? That’s a WHOLE lot of hurry! One is tempted to ask where the fire is; but that’s an uncomfortable question when it comes to reactors.


Nuclear operators are optimizing spending in response to difficult market conditions and the industry has called for improvements to regulations for post-shutdown operations in order to reduce costs.

Air Quote: “Optimizing spending” simply means that they are spending as little as possible.   “Improvements to regulations” means a relaxing of rules that are costly to maintain.


According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), existing regulations do not adequately recognize lower risk profiles during the period when a power reactor permanently ceases operation, defuels, and decommissions. 

Air Quote: “Lower risk profiles” is once again an unsubstantiated claim, encouraging the assumption that a reactor facility is at no risk, once it’s been shut-down.


To improve the efficiency of the regulatory process, the NRC launched in December 2015 the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), a consultation on the current system of applying for license amendments and exemptions. 

Air Quote: “Improve the efficiency of the regulatory process.”  This is a pitch that hits a government agency where it lives: right in the budget.  If they further relax the already weakened rules, the NRC will spend less money and need to invest fewer man-hours in the regulatory process. Of course, the old adage: “You get what you pay for,” is more than a little true when it comes to issues of nuclear safety.


NRC and industry representatives have highlighted the significant expenditure needed to meet the current regulation by exemption used for decommissioning. 

Air Quote:  Decommissioning is going to cost us a lot more than we figured so we need to have the safety rules relaxed in order to make it more “cost effective” for us.


Meena Khanna, Branch Chief Plant Licensing Branch at the NRC, said the reactor shutdowns had put pressure on the time needed by staff to plan and schedule license reviews.

Air Quote: Pretty much as in the previous quote, only the costs are now being expressed in man hours. The solution they are obviously seeking is to be relieved of much of the essential labor and cost that is involved in executing their current responsibilities with regard to decommissioning.  Don’t hire more staff to handle the necessary work, simply deny that the work even exists.


There has, however, been a declining trend in the number of NRC staff hours per review

Air Quote: We aren’t actually doing the reviews as stringently as we are required under the current rule to do them; so we may as well drop the requirements.


As market pressures continue to impact operators' profits, an efficient implementation of new decommissioning rules is required to help limit the cost to industry and the regulatory authority.

Air Quote: The nuclear industry is losing money, lots of it, so they have to make the decommissioning process cheaper.