NRC Chairman tells Congress that nuclear regulator will get smaller

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) workforce will decrease over the long term, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns said at an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 9.

“We are taking steps to be more efficient. We see a smaller NRC over the long term,” Burns said in testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power, and the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

“The NRC currently has approximately 3,700 employees. This is down from a peak of about 4,000 employees in fiscal year 2010. … We have set a staffing target of 3,600 employees by the end of fiscal 2016,” Burns said.  

The agency is striving to sharpen its focus and be more responsive, Burns said.

Less than a decade ago, the NRC thought it needed a large headcount to deal with a large number of new nuclear power plant applications. But the anticipated flood of new plant applications slowed to a trickle. That’s partly due to flat power demand and an electricity sector dominated by cheap natural gas.

At the peak of the industry’s projections in 2008, the NRC was increasing staffing levels to accommodate up to 23 combined license applications for construction and operation of a total of 34 new reactors. The NRC also had received or was expecting applications for four early site permits and four standardized plant design certifications beyond the one design certification already issued.

“It is a different picture today,” Burns said. “Now, only six applications remain active out of the 18 combined license applications that were filed. Thus, far, the NRC has issued combined licenses authorizing the construction and operation of five units, and expects to make licensing decisions on several more in the coming year,” Burns said.

The agency currently has two early site permit requests, two standardized plant design certifications, and two design certification renewals under review. In late 2016, the agency also expects to receive a small modular reactor design certification application and an application for an early site permit for an SMR, Burns said.

However, the anticipated new reactor work was not the only reason why the NRC needed additional resources. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a greater focus on security, safeguards, and emergency preparedness. Work on license renewals, power uprates, and the Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository application precipitated an increased need for resources, Burns said.

The goal of NRC’s Project Aim is to establish an organizational structure that improves the NRC’s ability to plan and execute our mission while being more responsive to changes in the industry. But that effort must be undertaken in a way that ensures the agency retains its ability to carry out its safety and security mission, Burns said.

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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