Overseeing construction at a few new power reactors, planning for retirement of others and drafting standards to help existing plants better withstand floods and earthquakes are on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agenda for the near future, Chairman Stephen Burns said Jan. 12.
Burns made his comments during a Washington, D.C., news conference sponsored by Platts. A webcast of the one-hour event was posted online.
Burns was named chairman of the commission for NRC on Jan. 1, 2015, after he joined the NRC as a commissioner in November 2014 for a term ending June 30, 2019.
While new as a commissioner, Burns is a familiar face at NRC. Prior to returning to the NRC (having first joined the commission as an attorney in 1978), Burns was head of legal affairs for the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.
“I’ve been back a year now. It’s hard to believe. It’s an interesting time,” Burns said.
The nuclear community is approaching the five-year anniversary of the March 2011 Tokyo Electric Power Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown in Japan. NRC and the industry “have made good progress” on issues connected with Fukushima, Burns said.
Since 2011, NRC has been working to implement various Fukushima task force recommendations geared toward accident scenarios with a very low probability but a severe impact. Such events could include floods, earthquakes, or terror attacks.
In the years since 2011, NRC has sought to have more backup emergency equipment for nuclear plants. In addition, the nuclear industry has financed the establishment of two regional centers in Phoenix and Memphis that house additional backup emergency equipment for nuclear plants.
The NRC chairman said that during plant site visits, he often makes a point to look at the “flex” emergency equipment that has added since Fukushima. Burns also recently visited the industry-wide nuclear emergency equipment center in Phoenix.
Some nuclear units retiring; others being deployed
Burns noted that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Watts Bar 2 unit has gotten its operating license and NRC expects commercial operation there soon. In a few years, NRC anticipates commercial operation of the Southern (NYSE:SO) Vogtle and SCANA (NYSE:SCG) V.C. Summer expansion projects, he noted.
NRC is also active on background material being submitted by NuScale Power on its small modular reactor (SMR) plans.
Burns also noted that in November nuclear power was the topic of a White House summit. NRC will have another workshop with the Department of Energy (DOE) later this year on development of non- light water reactor (LWR) development, Burns said.
The level of new nuclear plant development in this age of cheap gas is far below what was anticipated a decade earlier. Burns noted that NRC had once anticipated received license applications for up to 30 new reactors – rather than the handful under construction.
“I would be remiss if I did not mention Project AIM” to addressing staffing levels for NRC in the future. NRC is looking at staff size, “partly to take control of our own destiny.” Expect another report from the NRC staff on this issue in a few months, the NRC chairman said.
“We still have to carry out our safety and security mission,” but the staff level will be reduced.
While some new nuclear projects are in the pipeline, many others are planning to retire prematurely. In recent months, Entergy (NYSE:ETR) has announced plans to retire two of its non-utility nuclear plants in the Northeast.
NRC has launched a rulemaking effort on decommissioning, given that a number of nuclear units are being retired in advance of their license expiration dates, Burns said.
NRC has seen no evidence of nuclear plants “cutting corners” on safety because of tough economic conditions, Burns said in response to a question. “It’s something that we pay attention to,” Burns said.
NRC is sometimes asked: “Why aren’t you looking at the financial books?” The answer is that NRC gets better information, “looking at the plants themselves,” Burns said.
There is currently one vacancy on the five-member nuclear commissioner.
Burns could offer no update on the status of the nomination of Jessie Roberson, a commissioner at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, to become the fifth NRC commissioner.
“I know she has had some drop-in visits on the Hill … but I’m not aware of any particular update on that,” Burns said. Roberson was nominated by President Barack Obama in July to the vacant position, but the Senate has not acted on the nomination.