News & Views

Is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Overworked?

By Dave Speth on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011


I had the chance to attend a professional conference (The Adhesion Society-we stick together) last week that had no relationship to the nuclear industry. During the conference, I had some free time to walk around historic Savannah, Georgia. Since the weather was substantially warmer than it has been in Ohio this winter, it was a pleasant experience.

While walking I started to think about the role the Nuclear Regulatory Commission plays in the nuclear industry. As I thought back to the situation about 10 years ago, I suspect that the Commission was a relatively laid-back place to work. In that period, they had one major responsibility-to define procedures for and monitor repair and refurbishment activities at existing power plants.

Flash forward to the situation today. In addition to monitoring repair and refurbishment activities the NRC is now committed to

  • Re-license existing facilities as their operating licenses expire
  • Review and approve Generation III designs for new construction
  • Review and approve construction and operating licenses for specific new facilities (including early site permits for site preparation)
  • Evaluate new Generation IV designs that involve new technology approaches for small high temperature reactors

 

Each of these tasks is very resource intensive. All of them require knowledgeable staff to outline requirements and evaluate sophisticated engineering designs. Since the industry has been in hibernation for most of the last 20 years, I suspect talented people with the necessary skill sets are in short supply. On top of this, members of Congress are putting pressure on the agency to speed up licensing and re-licensing cases because the perception is the Commission is dragging its feet. This is especially true for the re-licensing delays some plants have experienced due to the volume of public comments, questions, and objections. Since the NRC has committed to review these comments, the process takes more time.

In these days of efforts to make government more responsive to the public, it is difficult to understand how the Congress can criticize an agency for doing exactly that. There is even talk of cutting the NRC budget to send a message to the regulators. This seems wrong-headed to me.

Given all the NRC is being asked to do, the commission needs more, not fewer, resources to do its job. With experienced staff already in short supply, cutting the budget will make it even more difficult to attract and retain the experienced staff the Commission needs to do its job. Since all of us want the industry to move forward safely, participants need to inform their members of Congress that they need to look at how the Commission is resourced relative to its commitments before criticizing its performance.

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