The head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said Oct. 7 that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should trim more of its budget and payroll given the decrease in both the number of operating nuclear reactors and new plant applications.
“There should be cuts in the budget commensurate with this lighter workload,” Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told NRC Chairman Stephen Burns at the conclusion of an oversight hearing.
With recent plant retirements, the number of operating nuclear units regulated by NRC has slipped to 99. In addition, many of the new plant applications filed around 2008 have been either postponed or withdrawn.
“I don’t think anyone on our side is satisfied with the progress that’s been made so far,” Inhofe said. He acknowledged that NRC’s Project Aim a start toward that end.
Burns has promised Congress that the NRC workforce will get smaller. At the same time, he has noted that NRC beefed up regulations for existing and proposed plants in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan during 2011.
In his prepared testimony, Burns acknowledged that only six applications remain active out of the 18 combined construction and operating license applications that were filed.
The NRC currently has approximately 3,628 full-time equivalents (FTE). This is down from a peak of about 3,960 FTE in fiscal year 2010. “Under Project Aim, our staffing target is 3,600 FTE by the end of fiscal 2016. These numbers do not include the NRC Office of the Inspector General, which has a separate staffing allocation,” Burns said.
“While reaching that goal, we must retain key personnel. The NRC has acquired expertise in mission-critical areas such as nuclear, chemical, structural, and fire protection engineering; health physics and physical science; earth sciences including hydrology, meteorology, seismology, and geology; economics; information technology systems; and computer and physical security, among others,” Burns said.
SMRs, Fukushima discussed at hearing
At the same time, interest in advanced reactors is growing, Burns said. By late 2016, the agency expects to receive a small modular reactor (SMR) design certification application and an application for an early site permit for an SMR.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) expressed frustration at the slow progress NRC seems to be making on SMRs and other advanced nuclear technology. This includes plans being advanced by TerraPower, a company that has Microsoft icon Bill Gates as its chairman, Merkley said.
“We are losing a big piece of our fleet,” while the nation needs carbon-free power, Merkley said.
But deeper cuts at NRC were not the top priority for all committee members.
Ranking Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said NRC is going slowly on adopting recommendations by a near-term task force on the Fukushima disaster.
“For the last four years, I have been saying that in order to earn the confidence of the public, we must learn from the Fukushima disaster and do everything we can to avoid similar disasters here in the U.S.,” Boxer said.
“While I recognize that progress has been made on some of the recommendations of the Post-Fukushima Task Force, I am frustrated and disappointed with the overall slow pace,” Boxer said. “Not one of the 12 task force recommendations has been fully implemented. And many of the recommendations still have no timeline for action,” Boxer added.