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.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

6 thoughts on “Ensuring State Regulators Meet Our Expectations”

  1. My reply, Jack, wasn’t so much about the administration or bureaucracy of the program. It’s how likely that licensees will be inspected (if they are at all) and having problems reported.through the system.

    It’s some matter of public health concern if someone is driving around fresh F isotopes in the wrong shipping containers and delivering them too early or if long-haul drivers are unknowingly exposed to serious levels of radiation during a cross-country trip but never given a dosimeter badge. I want some evidence that these are treated as serious incidents for the individuals involved and followed through with corrective action. States are closer, but less consistent than the NRC. Even the timelines for making reports is excessive when it involved overexposure or exceeding DOT approved levels on public highways.

    I don’t care which level of government does it, as long as regulation, licensing and oversight functions as it should and doesn’t degrade to a mere report-filing requirement by the state. I’m looking for the same approach as the generator side: find the root cause(s), put mechanisms in place to prevent the same thing from happening again.

  2. National companies such as Cardinal Health need to be licensed in each Agreement State in which they use radioactive materials. The Agreement States are required to have regulations that are compatible with the NRC’s and with other Agreement States, in part to make it easier for companies that operate in more than one state.

    States have different motives for becoming agreement states. The biggest reason is a desire by the state to have a single program that regulates all sources of radiation. Every state already has some responsibility to regulate machine-produced radiation. The office and staff that already exist can expand to include other nuclear materials. Some states see additional value in having regulators who are closer to materials users, being able to review license applications more quickly and at a lower cost than federal regulators can, and ensuring that state officials are in the loop about the nuclear materials being used within their borders.

    Most states set their fees to allow them to cover their costs.

    Duncan White

  3. How does this work for a company that operates in several states like Cardinal Health, Mr. White? I understand they operate some parts of their business under a master license and are not licensed in the individual states. Nothing special about Cardinal – I ask because they’re the only ‘big’ company name that I recognize.

    What motivates the individual states to take on their role as agreement states? Is it primarily for the licensing fees? I can see the benefit of handling material licensing at the state level for everyone, but can’t imagine they do this ‘for free’.

  4. Paveway III appears to claim that a large bureaucracy far away functions much better for the little people than a small bureaucracy close by. As one of Paveway’s “little people”, I often feel safer and more secure with regulators who are near and also more likely to personally share in any local catastrophic events and disruptions occurring on their watch.

    Congress in 1959 made a wise decision for the Atomic Energy Commission to delegate lesser regulatory responsibilities to state authorities, always subject to federal oversight, as described by our Moderator here. Recent actions by the large bureaucracies in DC and its environs show me that important decisions made far away from our little people can actually do more harm.

  5. Agreement States are required to notify the NRC of events involving state-licensed nuclear materials. The NRC publishes these notifications each weekday on our website. The information is also archived. Event reports dating back to 1999 are available here: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/event-status/event/. Just to be clear, Agreement States do not regulate nuclear reactors within their state. Only the NRC regulates reactors and the response to events at reactors is the NRC’s responsibility.

    NRC staff is in regular contact with state officials about these materials events until they are resolved. In our experience, the state regulatory offices take very seriously their obligation to respond to the events to protect their citizens and keep the public informed. They may issue news releases, coordinate with local responders and provide regular updates until an event is resolved.

    Duncan White

  6. Delegating parts of regulation to the states may work out well for the NRC, but its probably the worst thing you can do from a PR standpoint. Little people have no idea what the state regulators are doing because everything is a secret from the peons and especially so with the states. Getting any real information from them is an exercise in futility. If there ever is a significant accident and people are kept in the dark, some politician is going to point their finger at the NRC and demand to know why there wasn’t a specific requirement for transparency and real-time information (even though it wouldn’t help – you can’t mandate common sense). I’m pretty sure how you will respond to such a question, Mr. White. Looking at the fiasco in Japan, I would also venture to guess who gets thrown under the bus no matter how well-reasoned the answer.

    States may be following the terms of your regulatory agreements to a ‘t’, but they are the last place you want the public to end up when they need information. Canned reassurances from state DHS and health departments won’t cut it. I don’t know specifically what the Agreements branch can do, but the risk is really to the reputation of the entire NRC. Fukushima bureaucrats that failed the public still have their jobs today – the former national regulators were not so lucky. Why would anything be different in the U.S.?

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