NRC shifts leadership amidst lack of 'nuclear renaissance'

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ATLANTA (AP) — U.S. nuclear regulators may need to shuffle staff as fewer nuclear plants are built and financial pressures prompt utilities to shutter existing plants, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Allison Macfarlane said Monday.

Macfarlane said NRC officials are in the early stages of researching how to reposition its roughly 3,800-member workforce as the industry's outlook changes. A recommendation is due in early 2015.

Expectations for the U.S. nuclear power industry have radically shifted. Just six years ago, electric utility companies proposed building 26 reactors at 17 power plants spread across the United States. Instead, natural gas prices hit record lows, making it cheaper to build gas-fired plants than nuclear plants. Around the same time, the U.S. economy fell into a deep recession, which further trimmed the demand for electricity.

Three nuclear plants are under construction in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

"... We are not living the future that we had thought we were going to have a few years ago, right?" Macfarlane said during an interview at an NRC office in Atlanta. "We had, folks had thought that things would be quite different, that there would be quite a few more reactors being constructed right now. So, that's where the agency was sized and arranged, and now we have to rethink that."

The same trends that have discouraged electric utility companies from building new nuclear plants have encouraged them to take existing nuclear plants out of service.

Macfarlane said the agency may need new rules to govern decommissioned nuclear plants that no longer have radioactive fuel in their reactors, decreasing the chances of an accident or mishap. Already, utility companies that are shutting plants have requested loosening emergency preparedness and security rules designed for operating plants. Macfarlane said that plants being decommissioned may not need as much security as an operating plant.

"There's no fuel in the reactor," Macfarlane said. "Do you really need guards around it anymore? No, you don't, probably."

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