The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently turned 40-years-old and, like many individuals who attain that landmark birthday, the nuclear regulator realizes that it must slim down.
Newly-appointed Chairman Stephen Burns addressed NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) March 10 in Rockville, Md. He stressed steps that NRC is taking steps to adjust to flat-to-declining budget and staff levels.
“We are trying to maintain the heart and core of our mission, which I think we do very well,” Burns said. “We can’t easily predict the future, but we have to be able to adapt to it as it comes.”
Burns was reacting to a question from the audience of NRC staff and stakeholders that asked if there will come a point where the regulator can only do “less with less?”
“This is not about cuts; this is about doing our job in an effective matter,” Burns said at one point.
Burns noted that the domestic nuclear plant building boom anticipated less than a decade ago has not materialized. NRC, however, has increased its staff size.
“Over the last decade and a half, we have seen the NRC go from an agency with just over 2,700 employees in the year 2000, to one with approximately 4,000 employees in 2010, to just over 3,700 employees currently,” Burn said.
NRC is facing pressure from many in congress who want to ensure that the regulatory organization is “right sized.” NRC must adjust its structure, its workforce to fit “an era of more constrained resources,” Burns said.
At the same time, NRC must do this “smartly,” Burns said. In June 2014, the NRC staff embarked on an effort called Project Aim 2020.
The 2020 report, currently under review by the commission, “represents a serious effort by the agency’s senior management to address transformational and organizational challenges head-on,” Burns said.
“However, this repositioning cannot be characterized merely as an across the board reduction in staffing, resources, or regulations. Although the forecasted wave of new reactor licensing did not happen as anticipated, the NRC’s workload increased in other areas,” Burns said in the presentation.
“For example, we’ve seen the agency’s – and the industry’s — response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the unexpected decommissioning of several reactor units, as well as other areas of workload increases, such as cyber security, preparing and reviewing licensing applications for medical isotope production, and small modular reactors [or SMRs],” Burns said.
In addition, the NRC is preparing to receive and review license renewal applications “that could propose an extension of an existing reactor’s life beyond 60 years.”
The NRC has also initiated an effort to improve the agency’s existing reactor amendment licensing backlog through reallocation of resources from lower priority work and an expanded use of contract support. “Although we do not anticipate complete resolution of the backlog this fiscal year, the agency is making progress,” Burns said.
The chairman said NRC is undergoing less of a “mid-life crisis” than a re-evaluation period. Burns noted nuclear power plants are initially licensed by NRC to operate for 40 years.
Like a nuclear plant, NRC is “reaching our own timely renewal period,” Burns said.
Veteran staffer returns to NRC as chairman
Burns was sworn in as an NRC commissioner on Nov. 5, 2014. President Obama subsequently designated Burns as chairman of NRC on Jan. 1, 2015. Burns replaces Allison Macfarlane who resigned from NRC to return to academia.
Although new as a commissioner and chairman, Burns is hardly a stranger to NRC. He retired from NRC in 2012 after a nearly 34-year career that culminated in his tenure as the agency’s General Counsel. He then spent three years working in France at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) as the head of legal affairs.
“Many of us can recall — and may have lived through — some of the seminal moments in the agency’s history: the Browns Ferry fire in 1975, the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and, more recently, our response to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident,” Burn said.
Burns went on to say that NRC is working to address the remaining action items from the Fukushima task force.
“We do expect to see small modular reactors and eventually advanced reactors” will come before us in the next several years, Burns said.
NRC continues to oversee construction progress at the Southern (NYSE:SO) Vogtle Units 3 and 4; the SCANA (NYSE:SCG) V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Watts Bar 2 nuclear facilities.
In addition, NRC is still working on several license applications such as the DTE Energy (NYSE:DTE) Fermi 3 project, which might be “banked” for future use.
On Yucca Mountain, NRC has completed the safety evaluation report [SER] with “dwindling” funds left over from before the Department of Energy (DOE) suspended its pursuit of the application.
The courts have ordered NRC to resume the Yucca licensing process with remaining funds. “There is no money in the president’s budget for Yucca Mountain” either at NRC or DOE, Burns said.