Questions about reducing the employee footprint at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its impact on the regulatory agency — along with its ability to license advanced reactors — dominated an April 20 hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
NRC Chairman Stephen Burns and other members of the NRC appeared before the panel to discuss the Obama administration’s proposed FY 2017 budget for NRC.
The NRC’s proposed FY 2017 budget is $970.2m and 3,462 FTE, excluding the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The proposal represents a net decrease of $19.8m from the FY 2016 enacted budget, as well as a decrease of 90 FTE.
To put this in context, the FY 2017 budget request reflects a decrease of $73.7m and 279.7 full-time equivalent employees from the FY 2014 enacted budget, Burns had said in his written statement.
Many observers, especially among Republicans in congress, have said the cuts are needed given that NRC staffed up significantly several years ago in anticipation many new nuclear plant applications that never materialized.
In response to a question from Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), Burns said that NRC will be seeking authority to do additional buyouts or early retirements in the coming fiscal year. NRC did some of that in the past fiscal year, Burns said in response to questions.
Burns does not believe the cutbacks have undermined morale at NRC. He said that the workforce is “resilient” and has lived through many ups and downs through the years.
The NRC staff’s Project Aim is seeking to streamline NRC activity and do the regulator’s work more cost-effectively, Burns said.
“The Project Aim Steering Committee delivered to the Commission a re-baselining paper that outlines additional proposed efficiencies. This paper, which is publicly available, reflects more than 150 activities that could be eliminated or reduced over the next eighteen months, with total potential reductions of $49.5 million,” Burns said in his written statement.
NRC is taking “a hard look” at organizational support activity. NRC could also merge a couple of offices involved in reactor issues.
Yucca Mountain, advanced reactors also discussed
On at least one issue, Shimkus suggested NRC was not spending enough money. Shimkus scolded Burns and NRC for not requesting money from the Obama administration to continue the licensing case for the Department of Energy (DOE) spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
“We don’t have an applicant that is sponsoring the application before us,” Burns said, referring to the fact that DOE is no longer seeking to license Yucca Mountain.
But given federal court rulings, Shimkus said that NRC needs to request the funding to go forward with the Yucca Mountain application case.
“I’m tired of agencies not following the law,” especially when they are supposed to be independent agencies, Shimkus said.
The NRC commissioners also fielded various questions on ways to streamline and speed approval of advanced nuclear reactors.
Burns said NRC expects to receive a an application later this year for a small modular reactor (SMR) design from NuScale Power. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) is looking at plans for an innovative SMR project within DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) site.
Energy Committee members Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) noted that they have recently introduced H.R. 4979, the Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act of 2016.
The bill would have NRC and DOE enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on advanced reactor technology projects. The bill would also seek modifications in NRC’s traditional fee structure as its relates to new technology.
The MOU between the two agencies “could be,” helpful Burns said. He noted that NRC is a regulator and that the DOE has more of a technology support role.
The NRC continues to work on recommendations from a staff task force on efforts to reduce the chance of a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in the United States.
Significant progress has been made on the NRC’s requests for domestic plants to re-examine earthquakes and flooding hazards. Every plant has updated its understanding of potential earthquakes at its site. A quarter of the plants have completed all their earthquake-related work, Burns had said in written testimony.
On other topics, Burns noted that there are two potential applicants for nuclear waste storage sites in eastern Texas and New Mexico.