Nuclear regulation offers a model for oil controls

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has led the interior secretary to propose separating oil regulation and leasing in his department. His proposal does not go nearly far enough.

This situation is eerily similar to that of nuclear energy in the 1970s, which led to the creation of an independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Back then, the Atomic Energy Commission's regulation of nuclear power plants had come under such strong criticism that Congress decided to sever the promotion and regulation function so that the AEC could have no influence over what the regulators would require. The NRC began operation in 1975.

The Three Mile Island reactor accident happened in 1979. Fortunately, because of the design of our reactors, with their containment building, external damage and radiation were very small, but it was clear that operator training was inadequate to handle such an emergency. The NRC began strengthening its safety requirements. While industry protested that stringent regulation would cripple it, something very different happened. U.S. nuclear reactors went from a typical 60 percent capacity factor to more than 90 percent today, the world's best. U.S. licensing and training requirements are today regarded worldwide as the gold standard. The industry also became more profitable in the years after regulation.

Congress should do the same with oil. Sever the connection between leasing and regulation, including taking regulation out of the Interior Department. This is easy to do because the NRC exists as a model of how to do it.

Burton Richter, Palo Alto, Calif.

The writer, a 1976 Nobel Prize winner for physics, is a member of the Department of Energy's Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company