Institutional Change Versus Institutional Persistence? The Transformation Of The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Since Three Mile Island

Baldi, Brunetta
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Disaster Research Center
This paper attempts to show that while environmental shocks can lead to major institutional change, typically this change is not radical. Even in situations of institutional breakdown, due to violent and disruptive events such as disasters, it is possible to find institutional persistence which constraints and shapes the process of change. In this sense, the paper portrays institutional change and institutional persistence more as coexisting than as contrasting. Focusing on the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (1979), which "ended the first nuclear era in the U.S. ( Weinberg, 1985: 1) "divided nuclear power history in two parts--before and after Three Mile Island (Rees, 1994: l), the paper examines forms of major institutional change that originated from it, but have also revealed themselves as consistent with institutional persistence. A new path in nuclear safety regulation developed near the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). Yet, this new path has been consistent with an old path in nuclear safety regulation that TMI did not break down, and to a certain extent strengthened. Emphasizing institutional persistence, the paper takes a historical perspective, paying attention both to the long-term institutional implications of the nuclear plant accident at TMI, and to its historical roots. History represents a basic framework for understanding the kind of institutional transformation developed in nuclear safety regulation after TMI. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the main institution we investigate in this paper. The NRC is a case of institutional continuity in itself. It was established in 1974, but it inherited its structure, staff and regulatory system from its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established in 1946. The paper looks at the process of the NRC's transformation that developed because of TMI. That transformation has been constrained and mediated by the AEC's institutional legacy. A second institution we focus on is nuclear safety regulation. The whole concept of nuclear safety, its culture and approach have changed because of TMI. The main institutional breakdown that TMI produced was precisely in the body of assumptions, values, rules and procedures which had guided nuclear safety regulation until then. The paper then describes and analyzes the main changes which took place in the institutional environment of the NRC as a result of TMI. More specifically, the paper focuses on the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the private regulatory agency set up by the nuclear industry in the afermath of TMI, and on its partnership with the NRC. The INPO itself, and especially the partnership between INPO and NRC, represent a major institutional change in nuclear safety regulation. This change also built upon persistent institutional arrangements which originated in the early days of nuclear power development.
Three Mile Island , U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission