Ensuring State Regulators Meet Our Expectations

Duncan White
Chief, Agreement State Programs Branch

People are often surprised to learn that regulators in 37 states oversee 87 percent of the radioactive materials users in the United States. agreementstatesSome people might ask, isn’t that the NRC’s job?

In fact, the NRC oversees all commercial power reactors. But Congress in 1959 gave states a role in regulating nuclear materials. A governor can ask the NRC to enter into an “Agreement” to oversee materials used in medicine, academia, research and commerce. The state must develop regulations, inspection and licensing programs, and hire and train staff. Once we find the state program to be adequate and compatible with the NRC’s, we can relinquish our authority.

But our job does not end there. The NRC plays an important role by overseeing state regulators. We review Agreement State programs, usually every four years (see our earlier blog post on this oversight program). Overall, the Agreement States do a very good job. But from time to time we find issues that need fixing. A management board looks at the review team’s findings and draws a conclusion. The board can find the program:

 Adequate and compatible
 Adequate but needs improvement
 Adequate but not compatible
 Not adequate

For programs that show weaknesses, the board can direct additional actions. They might place an Agreement State on monitoring or in a heightened oversight mode. At any one time, six to eight states may be in heightened oversight or monitoring. For these states, the NRC provides extra support and closer scrutiny. States on heightened oversight must develop plans to improve their programs and discuss their progress with NRC staff every two to three months.

If the board thinks the issues are more serious, it can recommend probation. A majority of NRC’s five commissioners must approve the recommendation before a state would be put on probation. This week, we announced we have put Georgia on probation.

georgiaGeorgia has been on a monitoring status since 2008. But in an October 2012 review, the review team found the state’s program had declined. They found significant deficiencies that could impact public health and safety if left uncorrected. Earlier this year, a management board recommended probation. Georgia developed a plan for improving its program and has had bimonthly conference calls with NRC staff ever since.

This is the first time the NRC has put a state on probation. In addition to our close scrutiny, we are notifying and coordinating with other government officials. NRC staff will stay in close contact and continue to work with the state on improvements. We will review Georgia’s program again in January 2014. If the state’s plan works, we could decide then to decrease our oversight. If not, we may continue the probation. If we see additional problems, we could suspend or even terminate the program.