U.S. NRC Blog

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Monthly Archives: February 2011

When Foreign Countries Want to Buy into U.S. Nuclear Power Plants – What Then?

The United States has historically struggled to balance its commitment to economic openness and foreign investment with national security concerns. For example, U.S. national policy makers have worked to make sure sensitive military and defense technology and production remain with American companies.

After 9/11, concerns grew that foreign ownership of U.S. infrastructure could increase our vulnerability to terrorist attacks. One example is the heated debate triggered by the 2006 purchase of a company that ran U.S. ports by the United Arab Emirates-owned company Dubai Ports World. (Dubai Ports eventually sold its interests to a U.S. company.) More recently, globalization of the nuclear industry and the weak U.S. economy have attracted significant levels of foreign investment in the U.S. nuclear industry.

The Atomic Energy Act prohibits the NRC from issuing a license to any entity that the Commission believes is “owned, controlled or dominated by an alien, a foreign corporation or foreign government.” Broadly speaking, the foreign ownership prohibition protects the “common defense and security” of the United States, even though this may prevent some nations from participating in U.S. nuclear joint ventures.

However, the NRC can permit foreign investment in nuclear power reactors if certain conditions are met. What are these conditions?

The licensee must submit a plan that describes how it will mitigate foreign control issues. For example, the licensee could exclude foreign board directors from nuclear safety and security decisions or establish “Nuclear Advisory Committees” made up of U.S. citizens to oversee safety and security practices.

For any proposed foreign joint venture, the NRC staff reviews many aspects of the proposed corporate structures of the owners, including parent companies and subsidiaries, financial arrangements, operating agreements, voting requirements, and decision-making authorities. The staff can impose license conditions specific to the situation.

Foreign investment will continue to play a critical part in the U.S. nuclear industry. Through effective staff review and implementation of effective mitigation measures, the NRC can continue to protect the common defense and security regardless of ownership.

Anneliese Simmons
Nuclear Reactor Financial Analyst

Not just a place to work, but The Best Place to Work in the Federal Government

photo of NRC officials with plaqueWhen I graduated from college, I immediately began looking for a private sector job. I didn’t consider pursuing a government position even though my father and four of my uncles worked for various agencies or departments. Maybe my reluctance was because I saw my father work incredibly long hours and I thought NO WAY!

But after 10 years of long hours in a private sector job with little job security, I was back in the job market. This time, I focused on the federal government and was pleased to get hired. After eight years at that job, I was ready for another change. I was fortunate enough to be recruited by the NRC.

When I started at the NRC it had just been rated The Best Place to Work in the Federal Government for 2007. I soon found out why. The NRC offers great work life benefits with flexible work schedules, telework opportunities, an on-site health care center and even day care for those with children!

I didn’t quite understand what being No. 1 meant but here at the NRC it’s taken very seriously. NRC employees are surveyed annually about leadership management, performance, talent management and job satisfaction. If the NRC has a low score in one or more of these areas, the NRC takes measures to improve so that employees know they are being heard. The top leaders at the NRC believe the satisfaction of their employees directly supports the mission of the agency and the ability to meet the public’s expectations. So the efforts are not just for the employees, but for everyone the NRC serves.

The NRC must be doing something right. We’ve now been ranked No. 1 for the third time in a row! It’s a great feeling to say you work a the best place in the federal government and know that as an employee, you helped made it happen.

For more details: The Best Places to Work rankings

Kim English
Recruitment Program Manager

Improving Regulation at the NRC

Last month, President Obama issued Executive Order 13653, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.” While this executive order does not apply to independent regulatory agencies such as the NRC, you may be interested to learn that the NRC put in place many of these improvements long before the order was issued.

For instance, the order encourages agencies issuing proposed rules “to afford the public a meaningful opportunity to comment through the Internet” for “at least 60 days.” The NRC already offers opportunities to comment on proposed rules through e-mail and the website http://www.regulations.gov/. (All of NRC’s rulemaking dockets are accessible here.) The NRC usually gives the public 75 days to comment on proposed rules.

In addition, the order encourages agencies to consider the costs and benefits of regulatory actions. To the extent it is allowed under the Atomic Energy Act, the NRC does this for new or modified requirements for certain regulated facilities as part of its “backfitting” analyses. We consider whether the costs of modifying facilities to comply with new requirements are justified by a substantial increase in the protection of public health and safety or the common defense and security. We should point out that cost is not considered if we decide the modifications are absolutely necessary to keep the public safe and secure.

The order also says that agencies should adopt specific performance objectives, rather than specifying the actions that must be adopted. The NRC already does this through its performance-based regulations. In performance-based regulation, the agency sets the goal, but lets those regulated decide how to accomplish that goal.

The White House also issued a memorandum accompanying the order that directs agencies to “develop plans for making information concerning their regulatory compliance and enforcement activities accessible, downloadable, and searchable online.” The NRC already provides access to this kind of information through www.nrc.gov and our public ADAMS system. In fact, the NRC website provides the daily Status Report, Event Notifications, a Safety Performance Summary, inspection reports, enforcement actions, press releases, and public meeting information for each plant.

Recently, the NRC also created an Open Government website, which provides links to high-value data sets and other information that may be of interest to you.

Sean Croston
NRC Attorney

A Level of Confidence

The Commission’s recent update to the Waste Confidence Decision and Rule, published December 23 in the Federal Register, has been in the news lately. Many of the reports have misstated or misunderstood the meaning of the update and how it affects nuclear power plants. This post will provide a short history of Waste Confidence, a summary of the changes and a brief response to some of the most common misconceptions.

Waste Confidence generally refers to two documents: the Waste Confidence Decision and a corresponding Rule. The Decision provides the basis for the Rule and includes a number of generic safety and environmental findings. The Rule is a generic finding by the NRC that there will not be significant environmental impacts from storing spent fuel after a nuclear power plant’s operating license expires. (The term “generic” here means that it is not site specific.)

Waste Confidence stems from two federal court cases that set out the NRC’s obligations for safely storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The AEA requires the NRC to establish standards governing the civilian use of nuclear material and facilities; NEPA directs federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of major federal actions, such as licensing a nuclear power plant.

The 1984 Waste Confidence Decision included five findings that evaluated the technical feasibility of a repository and the long-term safety and feasibility of storing spent fuel. These findings satisfied the decisions in the cases mentioned above and formed the basis for the Waste Confidence Rule.

The Waste Confidence Decision and Rule have been amended twice since 1984. The most recent revision removed a date when a repository would be expected to be available for long-term disposal of spent fuel and evaluated the environmental effects of “at least 60 years” of spent fuel storage after the end of a reactor’s license.

A common misconception is that the update authorizes the continued licensing of nuclear power plants and the long-term storage of spent fuel. Rather, the update looks at only a small part of the NEPA analysis that needs to be completed before the Commission can decide on an application for a new nuclear power plant or spent fuel storage facility. Any licensing decision issued by the Commission must be based on a comprehensive NEPA analysis, and the update alone is not sufficient to meet this obligation.

Another common misconception is that the NRC has approved extended storage of spent fuel at reactor sites for the next 100 years or so. The update says the NRC has made a generic finding that the spent fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years, if necessary. This generic finding is needed to respond to the NRC’s legal obligations under the AEA and NEPA and does not make any site-specific findings or authorize storage at any specific location. Individual sites would still need to apply for approval to construct and operate storage facilities.

I hope that this helps provide some background on the Waste Confidence update and its history. I look forward to responding to your comments and questions on this complicated issue.

Tison Campbell
NRC Attorney

NRC’s Upcoming Regulatory Conference Expected to Draw 3,000 Attendees

Save the date RIC postcardThe NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference, known as the RIC, is coming up on March 8-10. This important conference is co-sponsored by the two NRC offices responsible for regulating nuclear reactors and overseeing research activities.

The conference provides a great opportunity for the NRC to discuss and share information on our regulatory, research and other activities in an informal environment. The RIC is the largest regulatory conference of its kind attracting participants from around the globe. This year we expect more than 3,000 attendees from as many as 30 countries.

This is our 23rd RIC and although some things are predictable, every conference is slightly different. This year we have 42 technical sessions and 29 technical poster and tabletop presentations that cover a wide range of topics related to operating reactors, new and advanced reactors, fuel cycle facilities, nuclear security, safety research, and safety culture.

Even at the NRC, not everyone realizes how early planning begins. More than 400 people are involved in making the RIC a success each year. Staff dedicated to the RIC start planning the next year’s conference the minute the last one ends. The NRC dedicates a lot of time and attention to this conference because it presents an invaluable opportunity to learn and share information and work together to ensure safe and secure regulation in the nuclear industry.

The conference is free and open to the public but you must register! Online registration is available on the RIC website until Feb 22. On-site registration will be available on March 7 from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Registration Service Desk on the hotel’s lower level. The Registration Service Desk also opens on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 a.m. and Thursday at 7:30 a.m.

Following the RIC you can access copies of presentations, speaker and panelist biographies, audio recordings of the technical sessions, and video copies of the plenary sessions through the NRC website.

Christine Steger
Communications Analyst (Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation)
Amy Bonaccorso
Senior Communications Specialist (Office of Research)
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