NRC could be smaller, more agile in 2020

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued a report developed by its staff that suggests the watchdog agency might be 10% smaller and more agile in 2020.

Project Aim 2020 report suggests that the NRC could be about 10% smaller in 2020 with a suggested workforce of about 3,400 employees (full-time equivalents), compared to 3,677 projected for fiscal year 2015 and 3,976 employees at the height of the agency’s expansion in FY 2010.

NRC announced the issuance of the report, subtitled “Achieving Exemplary Nuclear Regulation in the 21st Century,” on Feb. 18. The NRC plans to provide a report to congress in May on Project Aim 2020.

Some NRC critics in congress have said that the organization has grown too large given that the onslaught of new nuclear plant license applications expected a decade ago have been abandoned in era of cheap combined-cycle natural gas power plants.

NRC Chairman Stephen Burns welcomed the report, but emphasized its recommendations are merely the beginning of the NRC’s effort to position itself for the future.

“This study gives us a starting point for our Commission discussions about how to position the agency for a different environment and different challenges,” Burns said. “We will start that dialogue, but I want to be clear about one thing – in determining the size of this agency in the future we will not take any step that would compromise our mission of protecting the American people and our environment.”

In the coming weeks, NRC will consider the recommendations of Project Aim and give direction to the staff on its implementation. The report proposes implementing the strategies during the next couple of years.

With NRC Commission support, Project Aim was established last June to develop proposals for repositioning the NRC in a dynamic environment. The effort was supported by Mark Satorius, NRC’s executive director for operations, and Maureen Wylie, the agency’s CFO.

The Project Aim report was developed by a small team of experienced staff experts working with a “guiding coalition” of senior staff and management, NRC said.

The Project Aim team conducted outreach to external parties, other federal agencies, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), and Chapter 208 of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Among other things, the report adopts the concept of “one NRC” in which priorities are established at the agency level and resources are promptly and effectively deployed to accomplish these priorities.

NRC staffing has grown significantly since 2001

“Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, the agency has grown significantly to enhance security and incident response and to prepare for projected growth in the use of nuclear power in the United States,” according to the report.

“That forecast in growth has now been adjusted downward in response to changes in the nuclear industry resulting in fewer new nuclear power plants and earlier decommissioning of some of the existing plants,” according to the report.

The agency will manage potential sequestration cuts through 2020 within the reduced resources, according to the report. The Project Aim 2020 team analyzed the 40-year history of the NRC’s enacted budget levels with particular focus on the resources and workload during the past 10 years.

Based on this analysis, the staff projects the approximate reduction of 10% for planning purposes, with some uncertainty as a likely scenario.

Attrition is expected to remain within 4-5% between 2015 and 2020. in real dollars, the agency’s budget is expected to decline, the staff report said. “The potential reduction is dependent upon policy decisions by the Commission, the President, and Congress.”

By 2020, most indications are that the size of the operating nuclear power plant fleet will be about where it is today, around 100 operating nuclear power plants. At the end of 2014, with the permanent shutdown of Entergy (NYSE:ETR) Vermont Yankee, the number of operating nuclear power plants in the nation reduced to 99 units.

The Exelon (NYSE:EXC) Oyster Creek nuclear power plant is expected to shut down in 2019, reducing the number of operating units to 98. If no additional plants shutdown prematurely and the five units currently licensed and under construction begin operations, there would be 103 nuclear power plants operating in 2020.

Most of the work associated with the licensing and construction of new nuclear power plants will have been completed by 2020, NRC said.

For operating reactors, the NRC will have completed most of the license renewal reviews for the extension of licenses by 20 years, according to the report.

A small number of renewal applications will remain under review. By 2020, the agency may have received several applications for up to an additional 20 year extension. In 2020, the staff will also be reviewing and overseeing the decommissioning of 10 to 20 reactors.

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.