New report reveals energy deregulation will not necessarily cause nuclear danger

Research into the effects of deregulation in a number of industries has concluded that there need not be excessive fear of nuclear accidents from similar restructuring of the energy industry, and that this could even bring about improvements.

Scientists from the US looked at three high-technology, safety-critical deregulated industries – the US aviation and railroad industries, and the UK nuclear power industry, in order to gain an insight into possible sources of risk to the US energy industry, 20% of which is nuclear. The study found no evidence of widespread safety lapses resulting from deregulation, and in the cases of air and rail, the period after deregulation was associated with improved long-term safety records.

However, care needs to be taken with organisational changes, such as management, staff cuts and financial pressures, all of which can adversely affect the safety culture, says the report. “We found that the rate of change with deregulation can create safety problems, especially during a transitional period,” said Vicki Bier of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, one of the researchers. “Those transitions could come from very rapid downsizing, or with mergers and acquisitions – both of which can lead to reorganisation or job functions and responsibilities, and to rapid changes and instability.”

However, in some cases, competitive pressures were found to have prompted industries to increase their investments in maintenance and to seek to achieve higher levels of reliability.

Deregulation will produce a new competitive playing field, says the report, and has already triggered a number of mergers and acquisitions, some plant closings, and a push to increase both the power capacity and life expectancy of plants. However, according to the research, it is too soon to determine what impact these new challenges will have on the safety improvements which have followed in the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

“You can’t afford to have one serious accident in any segment of this industry without it being disastrous [to the industry] as a whole,” said Bier.

The report, entitled Effects of Deregulation on Safety: Implications Drawn from the Aviation, Rail, and United Kingdom Nuclear Power Industries, is available from the NRC.

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