Nuclear Power and the Courts

For most of the late 1960s and early 1970s, both the AEC and the Joint Committee consistently rebuffed persons or groups seeking to participate in the formulation of nuclear policy. In a textbook case of venue shopping, critics of nuclear power turned to the courts for assistance. One of the most significant consequences of increased oversight by the courts was that the commission, and its staff, devoted greater attention to procedural rights in an attempt to ensure that its procedures were seen as fair and capable of generating a record that could withstand judicial scrutiny. Rather than run the risk of being overturned by a reviewing court, the commission would try to show that it had solicited and considered many points of view.

The consequence of increased judicial oversight was a longer and more detailed review process that led, in turn, to more stringent environmental and safety standards. In an effort to satisfy its overseers, who were demanding more comprehensive and rigorous reviews, the commission upgraded the size and quality of its technical review staff. The larger, better, and more experienced regulatory staff began demanding more detailed information from utility applicants. Moreover, the commission was cognizant of the fact that the courts were more likely to overturn standards if the commission’s decision­making process was procedurally deficient. As a result, the commission standardized its licensing review process in 1972. Specifically, the commission developed standard review plans for both safety and environmental analyses. The standard review plans identified the information needed by the staff in performing their technical review of applications and suggested a format for its presentation.

Another factor contributing to the commission’s increasingly tough regulatory standards was a dra­matic increase in the size of nuclear reactors. At the end of 1966, the largest reactor in operation was under 300 MW, but by the end of the decade, utilities were placing orders for plants two to three times larger. The problem was that larger, more powerful reactors posed more troublesome questions from a safety perspective. The fuel in larger reactors would overheat more quickly in the event of a failure in the plant’s cooling system, and larger reactors contained higher levels of radioactivity. In short, larger reactors seemed to pose a greater risk to the public health and safety, especially because utilities were pressuring the commission to approve reactors closer to population centers.

Updated: September 29, 2015 — 11:57 am