House members question effective use of NRC resources

GOP leaders of a key House energy committee questioned Dec. 12 whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is making effective use of its resources.

Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said that, over the last decade, the number of licensing actions and tasks have decreased by 40% while the nuclear safety budget has increased by 48%.

“There seems to be an apparent disconnect between the growth in the NRC’s resources and what appears as a declining workload,” Whitfield told NRC commissioners during a hearing. “We believe these concerns warrant more scrutiny and I expect to delve deeper into these issues going forward,” said Whitfield.

“The NRC seems to be losing its schedule discipline,” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said. Shimkus also said the NRC has not sought a supplemental appropriation to restart the Yucca Mountain review.

Chairman Allison Macfarlane appeared before Congress alongside NRC Commissioners Kristine Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William Magwood, and William Ostendorff at a joint hearing hosted by House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Environment and the Economy and Energy and Power.

Macfarlane said the NRC budget “in constant dollars” is at about the same level now as it was in 2007. Since 2007 the NRC has also had to deal with issues such as regulatory rules in reaction to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

While Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has questioned if NRC officials are doing too much foreign travel, Whitfield said he considers it important that NRC commissioners travel and share NRC expertise across the world.

Macfarlane cites license renewals, new construction

During her presentation, Macfarlane said the NRC has approved license renewals for 74 reactors, most of which have already replaced, or plan to replace, major components such as reactor pressure vessel heads or steam generators.

License renewals impacted by the NRC’s effort to comply with a federal court’s “waste confidence” ruling, will remain pending, Macfarlane said.

Groups led by utility subsidiaries of Southern (NYSE:SO) and SCANA (NYSE:SCG) are building new units at the Vogtle station in Georgia and the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina. Safety-related construction at both facilities has been underway for about 20 months, Macfarlane said.

The NRC also continues to provide construction oversight at Watts Bar Unit 2. The NRC staff review of Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) submittals related to the operating license application of Watts Bar 2, while mostly complete, is still in progress.

The hearing focused on the NRC’s management and commission actions to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process. The subcommittees also discussed legislation authored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), H.R. 3132, the NRC Reorganization Plan Codification and Complements Act.

The bill was proposed in September.

The bill revises provisions of existing standards relating to: (1) the appointment and replacement of NRC officers and employees, (2) the role of the NRC Chairman, (3) the scope of the emergency authority of the NRC Chairman, and (4) NRC reporting procedures.

The Terry legislation is evidently similar to the one proposed in the Senate by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

In an opening statement, Terry indicated that the tenure of the prior NRC chairman, Greg Jaczko, created “turmoil” and H.R. 3132 would check the power of future NRC chairmen.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y) said he was skeptical of the need for legislation. If there are future problems with an NRC chairman’s stewardship of NRC’s there are remedies available short of a major reorganization, Tonko said.

Likewise, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called H.R. 3132 “a really bad idea.” Major revisions of the NRC reorganization of 1980 would be undone by the Terry bill, Waxman said.

“The United States needs a single decision maker during a nuclear emergency,” Waxman said. Waxman said that the Terry bill could largely tie the hands of the NRC chairman during an emergency.

Waxman is concerned about one current NRC trend toward being more restrictive about sharing certain documents with members of Congress. “If Mr. Terry wants information about For Calhoun he should get it.” The long-idle Fort Calhoun plant is moving closer to restart.

The plant has been shut down since experiencing the severe flooding in May 2011, Macfarlane said.

“The NRC continues to assess and inspect the licensee’s progress and will only authorize restart if the licensee has shown that it can operate the plant in a manner that provides for adequate protection of public health and safety,” Macfarlane said.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.