Potential Government Shutdown: The Path Forward for the NRC — UPDATED

Mark Satorius
Executive Director for Operations

Update: This week’s Waste Confidence meetings will be held as scheduled. We’ll keep you updated on the status of meetings scheduled for next week.

The NRC can’t predict the likelihood of a government shutdown next week, but we are prepared for all contingencies in case of a lapse of appropriations for federal agencies effective on Tuesday.

If there is a lapse, many agencies will shut down operations and furlough employees except for those necessary to support possible emergencies. At the NRC, however, we have some “carryover” funding, which is essentially previous year’s funding that was not expended. By being careful with that money, the NRC should be able to remain open for at least one additional week of largely normal operations.

At this time, then, the NRC is not issuing employee furlough notifications. Should the lapse of appropriations last longer than our “carryover” funding allows, the NRC has a plan reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget for identifying staff members who will remain on the job to perform the excepted NRC functions for emergencies.

The planned staffing for NRC “excepted functions” necessary to support emergency operations during a lapse of appropriations is approximately 300 of the agency’s 3,900 employees. Of that number, roughly half are resident inspectors assigned to reactor and fuel facilities. The rest of the “excepted” personnel include staff necessary to initially respond to emergency situations at NRC licensed facilities. The Chairman, the NRC Commissioners and Inspector General are in addition to this number and are exempted from furloughs because they are Presidential appointees.

We will notify licensees and external stakeholders through a Regulatory Issue Summary if there is a lapse of appropriations on Oct. 1, and then again if the lapse exceeds our carryover funding.

OMB and OPM websites have more information about the situation government-wide.

The NRC will to continue to uphold our important mission of protecting public health and safety. We will also make every effort to reduce uncertainty and disruption for our valuable staff members, to the extent we can.

Waves of Uncertainty: The Demise of the Floating Reactor Concept (Part II)

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

Offshore Power Systems, apparently, did not appreciate that putting land-based reactors out to sea was bound to raise new safety, environmental and regulatory questions. Concerns about ship collisions, off-shore fishing grounds, barge sinking and the challenge of creating a new regulatory process for floating reactors were just some of the unique issues facing regulators.

Even the trade press raised concerns. Nuclear News worried about the “incredibly tangled mass of overlapping jurisdictions, state, national, and international law, inter-agency authority” that included new players such as the U.S. Coast Guard.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.
Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Events conspired to worsen OPS’s prospects. The oil crisis that began in 1973 made construction financing expensive and slowed electricity consumption. Facing slack demand, PSEG postponed delivery of the first floating plant from 1981 to 1985 and later to 1988. Tenneco backed out of the OPS partnership in 1975. With the entire enterprise threatened, Westinghouse and the Florida Congressional delegation asked the federal government to purchase four plants. But, the prospect of “bailing out” OPS did not appeal to officials in the Ford Administration. The purchase proposal died.

Floating reactors did not solve regulatory or political problems. The production facility in Jacksonville needed an NRC manufacturing license. There were so many technical and regulatory uncertainties that the licensing review ran three years behind schedule. A 1978 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the NRC for what it believed was an incomplete safety review, particularly for not accounting for impacts on the ocean ecosystem during an accident where a melting reactor core broke through the bottom of the barge.

Local and state opposition to the plant was intense. Nearby counties voted in non-binding referendums 2 to 1 against the Atlantic Generating Station, and the New Jersey legislature refused to introduce a bill to turn the offshore site over to PSEG.

Westinghouse held out hope for a brighter future; PSEG didn’t. In late 1978, the utility announced it canceled its orders for all four of its floating plants. Slack demand, it noted, was “the only reason” for the cancellations. “We simply will not need these units” in the foreseeable future, a utility official admitted.

Others blamed excessive regulation. In March 1979, John O’Leary, a Department of Energy deputy secretary, provided to the White House a “grim—even alarming report,” as one staffer said, that the NRC delays with the OPS license were symptomatic of a larger problem. “It has become impossible to build energy plants in America” O’Leary said, due to excessive environmental regulations and an indecisive bureaucracy. Environmental laws, O’Leary complained, had created “a chain of hurdles which effectively kill energy projects” and damage to the nation’s economy. He wanted presidential action.

Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.
Drawing from a 1978 GAO report.

Events rendered O’Leary’s plea for action moot. Two and a half weeks later the Three Mile Island accident occurred, ending any hope of an imminent industry rebound. The accident raised anew questions about a core melt accident and further delayed the manufacturing license. The NRC did not issue a license until 1982. In 1984, Westinghouse formally abandoned the OPS enterprise, dismantled the Jacksonville facility, and sold its huge crane to China.

Going to sea, OPS discovered, did not allow it to escape the problems that beset nuclear power. A novel technological solution could not overcome public distrust and economic, technical and regulatory uncertainty. We shall see how Russia handles the challenges.

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