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Taking a Long-Term View on New Reactor Licenses

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Since 2012, the NRC has licensed 11 new reactors in the United States. The first four of those are under construction, two in Georgia and two in South Carolina.

The other seven? Their licenses are ready to go whenever the companies involved choose to start building them, and here’s why.

These new reactors are authorized through the NRC’s Combined License process. Under this approach the license includes permission to both build a reactor and operate it later, as long as a detailed list of completion requirements are met.

A Combined License includes the same 40-year operating period as the licenses for today’s reactors. Those 40 years start when the NRC concludes the reactor has been built according to its license and can operate safely. The construction portion, on the other hand, is set up without a definitive expiration date.

We base our permission to build the reactor on our review of technical and environmental information the applicant provided. Issuing a license means we found all that information acceptable.

Let’s imagine Company X receives a Combined License and waits 10 years before deciding to start construction. If the original information is still valid, the project could get underway. Most categories of information won’t change in that time. The license includes provisions where the company must account for new information when it decides to start construction.

All of this means that companies with a Combined License can therefore take additional time to consider those issues affecting the business decision to construct or not that fall outside the NRC’s jurisdiction. For example, a state’s utility agencies can create or revise policies on how the state obtains and pays for electricity. Changes in interest rates, prices for other electricity sources and even the makeup of regional electricity markets can affect the company’s overall business case.

Once a company concludes conditions are right for using a Combined License, the utility will give the NRC advance notice of its intent to start construction. The NRC will inspect construction activities and otherwise ensure the company meets relevant requirements for protecting the public.

NRC Inspectors: Free to Inspect

Diane Screnci
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region I

We often talk about having NRC Resident Inspectors at each commercial nuclear plant acting as the eyes and ears of the agency on site. It’s important to understand how they go about their business.

Paul Cataldo

Paul Cataldo

On a daily basis, resident inspectors are attending meetings, walking down equipment, monitoring major work activities, reviewing paperwork, and talking to control room operators and plant workers. When an event occurs at a plant, the resident inspectors are in the control room, watching how operators and the plant respond. They provide first-hand knowledge of what’s going on at a plant to regional management on an on-going basis. Inspectors often work business hours, but they’re required to work evenings, weekends and overnight hours, too.

NRC inspectors, including region-based specialists, have “unfettered access,” so they can go anywhere and watch any activity they choose. NRC regulations specify that NRC inspectors must have immediate unfettered access, although inspectors must comply with applicable access control measures for security, radiological protection and personal safety. That means if an inspector wants to enter a radiologically controlled area, he or she is allowed to, but first must follow the radiation protection requirements for the area.

“My job is to ensure the company is in compliance with our regulations and their operating license, which provides reasonable assurance that the plant is safe. One approach I use is the “trust but verify” method,” says Paul Cataldo, the NRC Senior Resident Inspector at Seabook Station in New Hampshire. “In essence, having access to any document, equipment or personnel on-site, without asking permission or the licensee having prior knowledge of a request, gives us confidence regarding the integrity of the information we use during our inspections.”

Plant workers are also prohibited from announcing that an NRC inspector is at the plant or in a particular area. It’s a violation of NRC requirements and over the years we have cited plants when workers tipped off their co-workers that inspectors were on-site.

We rely on our ability to perform announced and unannounced inspections to independently evaluate plant performance. Without unfettered access, our ability to carry out our mission could be impacted.

Principles of Good Regulation: Clarity

Regulations should be coherent, logical, and practical. There should be a clear nexus between regulations and agency goals and objectives whether explicitly or implicitly stated. Agency positions should be readily understood and easily applied.

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

graphic-pogr_clarityThe NRC has a double challenge when it comes to clarity. We are a regulatory agency that derives its authority from a series of laws passed by Congress and we regulate a highly technical industry with many of our experts holding advanced technical degrees.

For those reasons, it can sometimes be challenging to explain what we do and why we do it.

Over the years, the agency has employed a variety of different ways to communicate with clarity. This blog and all our social media platforms are one avenue. Producing less technical executive summaries for otherwise quite complex documents is another way.

We often work with technical experts to help prepare them for public meetings and to ensure their presentations are “user friendly” for the audience expected to attend. The agency’s training center offers many courses to help technical experts present their complex work clearly in a way that is more accessible for both technical and non-technical audiences.

The agency’s website also provides a wealth of information to meet the needs of both technical audiences and the general public. Even our student corner section helps clarify the agency’s mission and activities.

The NRC’s work may involve an abundance of acronyms and technical jargon, but we are always striving to convey what we do and why we do it in the clearest way possible.

This post is the fourth of five that will explore each of the five principles separately. For the history of the Principles of Good Regulation, read this post.

 

Principles of Good Regulation: Efficiency

Maureen Wylie
Chief Financial Officer

The American taxpayer, the rate-paying consumer, and licensees are all entitled to the best possible management and administration of regulatory activities. The highest technical and managerial competence is required, and must be a constant agency goal. NRC must establish means to evaluate and continually upgrade its regulatory capabilities. Regulatory activities should be consistent with the degree of risk reduction they achieve. Where several effective alternatives are available, the option which minimizes the use of resources should be adopted. Regulatory decisions should be made without undue delay.

graphic-pogr_efficiencyThe principles of good regulation are critically important to the day-to-day operations of the agency. They’re our guide posts. They’re touchstones to help us be sure that we’re properly executing our mission.

As the chief financial officer, I am partial to the efficiency principle. It is one of the reasons that I come to work every day. We are not only federal employees but also taxpayers and citizens, so we should be sure that we’re taking care of the nation’s resources appropriately. In addition to the payments we receive from our licensees, the NRC also receives an appropriation from the Congress each year. It’s “your money” and “our money” at the same time. Efficiency as we execute the agency’s work supports both the public good and the expectations we have as individuals for the best value we can offer.

As part of our focus on efficiency, the NRC has an initiative underway to improve our ability to plan and execute our mission. Known as Project Aim, this is an effort to find ways to better adapt to a dynamic environment and changes in workload. With direction from our Commissioners, the staff is working to “right-size” the agency to ensure we have the skills we need to accomplish our mission; to use agency resources more wisely; to improve the timeliness of our decision-making and respond quickly to changing conditions; and to promote unity of purpose through clearer agency priorities.

As Steering Committee co-chair, I have seen a lot of creativity from the staff as we work though the initial 19 tasks approved by the Commission, especially as we work to make processes more efficient and to shed unnecessary work. By the time we complete this effort, the NRC will have saved a total of nearly $50 million. That’s real money in my book.

principles-of-good-reg-web-screen_1This work requires us to find the right balance to make sure we are meeting our safety mission while delivering results in a timely and cost-effective way. As an example, we aim to review applications in a timely manner while ensuring safety and security. Meeting this goal depends in part on receiving complete, high-quality applications. Many of our programs have implemented acceptance reviews, which give NRC staff a chance to make sure an application is complete before we begin our detailed technical reviews. If we find things we think are missing or would otherwise slow down our technical review, we ask the applicant to supplement their application. This process saves the licensee money and allows our staff to work on other activities until that application is ready.

For me one of the most important purposes of the principles is cultural. There are many different roles here at the agency. You hear people talk about being a technical or Commission office, as compared to people who provide corporate support. Or the distinction between people in the regions and those here in Rockville, Md. But, no matter your role, the principles apply to all of us. They are a unifying aspect to our culture. I can sit in a meeting with my colleagues in operating reactors or in nuclear materials and wastes and we’d still have an important shared vocabulary that is meaningful and helps us transcend our individual goals and move together toward the right solutions.

This post is the third of five that will explore each of the five principles separately. For the history of the Principles of Good Regulation, read this post.

Projected End Date for Indian Point Plant Comes into Clearer Focus

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

April 30th will mark a decade since Entergy submitted a license renewal application to the NRC for the Indian Point nuclear power plant. During the intervening years, thorough NRC staff reviews and a complex hearing on the proposal by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the quasi-judicial arm of the NRC, have moved steadily forward.

indianpointBut then came an announcement on Jan. 9 by Entergy, the plant’s owner, and New York state. Under an agreement reached between the two parties, Indian Point Unit 2 would permanently shut down by April 30, 2020, and Indian Point Unit 3 by April 30, 2021. (Indian Point Unit 1 ceased operations in 1974).

This represents an earlier retirement of the reactors than proposed in the company’s license renewal application, which sought an extension of Unit 2’s operating license to April 2033 and Unit 3’s to April 2035.

Entergy cited the low cost of natural gas and rising operating costs as primary factors in its decision. The company said it would instead pursue a license renewal for Unit 2 to 2024 and for Unit 3 to 2025 to allow operation until then in the event the plant’s power output is still needed.

Company officials offered assurances that there would be continued adherence to safety requirements for the remainder of the plant’s operational life. NRC inspectors will be on hand to independently verify that all safety commitments are being met.

The NRC has three full-time Resident Inspectors assigned to Indian Point. We also send specialist inspectors to the facility to assess such areas as security, radiation safety and reactor operator training.

Agency staff will also have to complete their license renewal reviews and the hearing process will have to be brought to a conclusion. With respect to the latter, a motion to withdraw the remaining contentions in the hearing process is expected today.

It will be essential for Indian Point employees to maintain a strong focus on safety no matter the plant’s eventual end date. It will be incumbent upon the NRC to ensure that is occurring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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