The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards is a statutory body of scientists, engineers and other experts in fields related to nuclear safety. The Committee conducts independent reviews of nuclear power plant applications and other matters referred to it by the NRC. It has a long history – its responsibilities were described in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended.
This group shot, taken from the 1989 Annual Report to Congress, shows the ACRS members as of September that year. The photo is timely as the committee held its 637th meeting last Thursday.
The Chairman is seated in the middle. TBT Quiz: What was the Chairman’s name and to what position would he be appointed just two months later? Extra points if you can name the vice chairman, seen here seated second from the left.
Starting next month, the NRC’s tools for enforcing our regulations will get a boost through increased fines, referred to as “civil penalties” in the NRC’s regulations and policies. The agency’s enforcement staff is working these changes into the process for assigning penalties when a person or company breaks our rules.
The NRC has always had the authority, under the Atomic Energy Act, to levy fines. We just issued an interim final rule that increases the maximum civil monetary penalty for violations of the Act to $280,469 per violation, per day. That’s double the previous maximum fine.
This change stems from the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015, which helps keep fines high enough to deter violations. The law required federal agencies to make an initial “catch-up” adjustment by July 1, 2016, effective by August 1. The NRC and other agencies must also make annual adjustments for inflation beginning in 2017.
The NRC is making changes to its Enforcement Policy to keep the policy’s dollar amounts in line with the new maximum fine. For instance, we’re doubling the base civil penalty that applies to nuclear plants and other large licensees for the most severe violations.
We’re also increasing the policy’s lesser penalties for other licensee types, such as material users, to maintain the proportional relationship between penalties. An exception to these changes involves fines for the loss, abandonment, or improper transfer or disposal of regulated material. The NRC can adjust these fines relative to the estimated or actual cost of authorized disposal.
You can find more information on these changes through a set of Questions and Answers we’ve posted on the Office of Enforcement’s section of the NRC website.
It’s been more than eight years since Entergy filed an application requesting that the NRC renew the operating licenses for Indian Point Units 2 and 3. And, a final decision is still a ways off.
Under NRC regulations, if a company submits a sufficient application for a renewed license at least five years before the expiration of the current license, then the request is considered “timely” and the facility is allowed to continue operating under its current license until the NRC issues a decision on the license renewal request.
On December 13th, Indian Point 3 will enter the period of “timely renewal.” Entergy submitted a license renewal application for both Indian Point Units in April 2007, meeting the timeliness provision. The Unit 3 license would have expired December 12, 2015. This doesn’t mean the unit will be operating without a license. Rather Unit 3, like Unit 2 (which entered timely renewal in September 2013), will continue to operate under its existing license.
The Atomic Energy Act specifies that operating licenses can be issued for up to 40 years and allows license renewals in 20 year increments. Thus far, the NRC has issued renewed licenses to 81 reactors. Typically, it takes about 22 months for the staff to reach a decision on whether to renew a license – longer if there’s a hearing. In the case of Indian Point, though, the process has taken longer than projected, due in part to the large number of contentions the parties have raised in the hearing.
Although a final decision on the application hasn’t been reached, the NRC staff has measures in place to provide assurance the facility will continue to operate safely during this time period. We’ll continue to carry out our extensive regulatory and oversight activities. NRC inspectors, including the three on-site Resident Inspectors and specialist inspectors from the Regional office, will continue their duties during this period, providing independent oversight of the facility on a continual basis.
In a September 28 letter to the NRC, Entergy confirmed that the Unit 3 license renewal commitments required to be in place prior to entry into the period of extended operation were complete. In October, Entergy certified that the Indian Point 3 Updated Final Safety analysis report had been updated to incorporate aging management programs for the unit. In response, that same month, we completed an inspection to review the activities Entergy has taken to prepare for operating in timely renewal and found that the processes and commitments had been properly implemented.
While it might be some time before the Commission reaches a final decision on license renewal at Indian Point, our independent oversight of the facility will continue uninterrupted while in “timely renewal.”
Who decides if the U.S. is going to use nuclear energy to meet this country’s electric needs? It’s a question we get here at the NRC not infrequently. The short answer: Congress and the President. Together they make the nation’s laws and policies directing civilian nuclear activity – for both nuclear energy and nuclear materials used in science, academia, and industry.
Federal laws, like the Atomic Energy Act, set out our national nuclear policy. For example, in the Atomic Energy Act, Congress provided that the nation will “encourage widespread participation in the development and utilization of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.” Other federal laws, like the Energy Policy Act of 2005, call for the federal government to provide support of, research into, and development of nuclear technologies and nuclear energy. The President, as the head of the executive branch, is responsible for implementing these policies.
But sometimes, things get confusing as to who does what when it comes to putting these laws into practice! Although the NRC is a federal government agency with the word “nuclear” in its name, the NRC plays no role in making national nuclear policy. Instead, the NRC’s sole mission is to regulate civilian use of nuclear materials, ensuring that the public health, safety, and the environment are adequately protected.
The NRC’s absence from nuclear policymaking is no oversight, but a deliberate choice. Before there was an NRC, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was responsible for both developing and regulating nuclear activities. In 1974, Congress disbanded the AEC, and assigned all of the AEC’s responsibilities for developing and supporting nuclear activities to what is now the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). At the same time, Congress created the NRC as an independent regulatory agency, isolating it from executive branch direction and giving it just one task – regulating the safety of civilian nuclear activities.
Today, the DOE, under the direction of the President, supports federal research and development of nuclear technologies and nuclear energy in accordance with federal laws and policy goals. At the DOE, the Office of Nuclear Energy takes the lead on these programs.
Since its creation four decades ago, the NRC’s only mission has been to regulate the safe civilian use of nuclear material. For that reason, the most important word here in the NRC’s name is not “Nuclear,” but “Regulatory.” Because the NRC has no stake in nuclear policymaking, the NRC can focus on its task of protecting public health and safety from radioactive hazards through regulation and enforcement.
REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous posts. This originally ran in August 2012.
Ed Hackett Executive Director Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards
For as long as the United States has worked on commercial nuclear power plants, a group of experts has given regulators independent safety advice. Since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the group’s been called the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards.
The committee’s dozen or so members contribute decades of academic and/or practical experience in their specialties, which include risk assessment, health physics, accident analysis and several types of engineering. Past and present committee members have also lent their expertise to international regulators.
When there’s an opening on the committee, the Commission chooses a replacement from nominees among the leading experts in a given specialty. Committee members are supported by a small group of NRC staff who focus solely on the committee’s independent activities.
The full committee meets 10 times a year, spending several days each time to discuss a broad range of topics. For instance, this month’s meeting agenda included a developing new rule related to safety enhancements based on lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident. Other meetings have covered reviews of new reactor licensing topics and operating reactor license renewal, as well as proposed facilities to create radioactive material for medical uses.
Committee members ask detailed questions of both NRC staff and industry representatives. If members feel an issue needs more explanation or analysis, they’ll keep asking questions and challenging assumptions until they’re satisfied. All of this interaction contributes to the committee’s opinions on the topics.
The committee’s conclusions, which are independent of the NRC staff’s work, are provided in formal letters to the NRC’s Chairman. The Commission takes the committee’s views into account when it considers licensing or policy matters. The committee also meets publicly with the Commission at least once a year to discuss major topics. The Commission uses the advice provided by the committee, in addition to the information provided by the NRC staff, in reaching its decisions on regulatory matters.
The committee also has an obligation to advise the U.S. Navy on its nuclear reactor program, as well as the Defense Nuclear Safety Board, which deals with Department of Energy-controlled facilities.
The committee does all of this work according to the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. This means all committee meetings are public, except when discussing sensitive information the NRC needs to protect. It also means the public can speak and present information to the committee. Keep an eye on our schedule to see when we’ll discuss something you’re interested in. Also, see our YouTube videeo on the ACRS.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. was performing its first nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, the Beach Boys introduced “surfin’ ” music, and three prisoners supposedly became the first and last to ever successfully escape from the prison on Alcatraz. And the first Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) was created, and presided over a hearing on a proposed new nuclear reactor.
ASLBs independently review the NRC’s actions to ensure they follow not only U.S. law, including the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, but also existing agency regulations and past precedent. A Board’s rulings can make the NRC staff reconsider technical and legal conclusions they may have reached on a matter, and can even mean denial of license applications or amendments. Board decisions, though, can be appealed to the five-member Commission.
The original Atomic Energy Act in 1954 called for a single, legally-trained “hearing examiner” – today we’d say “administrative law judge” – to preside over legal and technical challenges to nuclear licensing and regulation. Later, when Congress amended the law in August 1962, the NRC’s predecessor agency was able to use, instead, an approach that more appropriately addressed the relevant legal, scientific and regulatory issues — three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards that included one or more judges with scientific expertise.
The revised law’s section 191 generally calls for a Board to have two technical members and a chairman “qualified in the conduct of administrative proceedings,” a legislative term-of-art for “lawyer.” The Atomic Energy Commission initially staffed these Licensing Boards using a pool of four attorneys (three of whom were already hearing examiners) and 11 technical specialists in areas including physics, nuclear engineering and nuclear chemistry.
The Board approach was put into practice in November 1962, for the Power Reactor Development Corp. case involving the Michigan-based Fermi I reactor. A week later the AEC appointed another Board to handle an uncontested construction permit case for a proposed Babcock and Wilcox test reactor near Lynchburg, Va. The Babcock and Wilcox Board conducted the first ASLB evidentiary hearing in Lynchburg on Dec. 10, 1962, and issued the first Board initial decision on Jan. 14, 1963.
In April 1967, the AEC created a process by which individuals from a panel of judges are assigned to particular Boards. Today’s NRC refers cases to the ASLB Panel’s chairman, who selects judges from among the Commission-appointed pool of full-time and part-time members. All told, between November 1962 and today, these special judges have presided over some 900 cases, covering not only issuing and renewing nuclear power reactors licenses, but also nuclear fuel cycle issues such as uranium enrichment.
The Boards’ work also examines licensing various medical, academic, and industrial uses of nuclear materials, as well as high and low-level nuclear waste disposal facilities (such as dry cask spent fuel storage); reactor and materials site decommissioning; and cases involving enforcement orders and civil penalties.
As ASLBs have presided over all these cases, the Panel’s pool of experts has expanded beyond law, nuclear engineering, and physics. Over the years, Board members have had expertise in such disciplines as health physics, medicine, chemistry, marine and land biology, ecology and environmental science, oceanography, geology and geophysics, economics, and mechanical, civil, sanitary, and environmental engineering. The five-member NRC Commission appoints both the full-time and part-time Panel members for their technical and legal expertise.