NRC Chairman Burns seeks ‘sweet spot’ for right degree of regulation

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must constantly evaluate “how safe is safe enough” — and this is tough to determine, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns told the annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) March 8 in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I argue that the regulator needs to constantly pursue the sweet spot between under-regulation and over-regulation,” Burns said during the kickoff address for the 28th annual RIC sponsored by NRC.

Burns was sworn in as an NRC commissioner in November 2014, to a term ending June 30, 2019. President Obama designated Burns as chairman of the NRC effective Jan. 1, 2015.

But Burns was already a familiar face at the nuclear regulator. Burns joined the NRC as an attorney in 1978. Burns served in roles of increasing responsibility with the NRC staff before leaving his post as NRC general counsel in April 2012.

“The NRC does not regulate to zero risk,” Burns said. It did not in 1978 and it does not now, he added.

Since 1978 the public’s assessment of risk has changed on subjects from the proper diet to allowing children to roam their neighborhoods freely, Burns said.

Over time the assessment of risk seems to have become so increasingly fraught with politics and emotion, Burns said.

Whether the issue is “smoking, global warming, eating bacon or using nuclear power,” individual opinions are influenced by “how much we ‘trust’” the supposed expert, Burns said.

NRC can hopefully achieve trust by reaching decisions openly; being publicly transparent and being responsive to oversight committees in Congress, Burns said. “We must be vigilant in explaining our role … We are not a regulatory island,” Burns said.

Burns said he is registered as an independent and tries to function that way. “I’m also independent in that I’m open to new ideas.”

“I think problems must be clearly defined and there is rarely one solution to them,” Burns said. NRC will always take a hard look at itself, Burns said.

Burns touches upon belt-tightening during question-and-answer

NRC’s role is safety regulation and not to concern itself with the economic survivability of nuclear power – with the exception of regulating in the most efficient way possible, Burns said.

When asked about paring expenses, Burns said NRC will continue international travel and cooperation prudently. “When we go to a conference, do we need eight people going to that conference?”

“I don’t believe our basic regulatory structure is a hindrance” to development of new nuclear power reactors, Burns said. Some economic circumstances were not predicted even 10 or 15 years ago, such as low natural gas prices, Burns said.

 “We at the NRC don’t operate power plants … we have to set parameters,” for those who do run nuclear power plants, Burns said. The NRC chairman said he is committed to preventing another Fukushima-type event in the United States or elsewhere.

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