Licensing Project Managers – The NRC’s Expert Generalists

Lauren Gibson
Lauren Gibson
Lauren Gibson
Licensing Project Manager

A licensing project manager for an operating reactor has a lot of responsibilities. We coordinate technical reviews, interface with the licensee, support the regional staff and the resident inspectors, respond during any incidents, and serve as the headquarters point of contact for anything related to the plant. We’re basically expert generalists who need a solid understanding of all the operational and licensing situations for each plant– and, importantly – the ability to communicate about it all.

I’ve been a licensing project manager for about three years, currently for the Palo Verde nuclear facility in Arizona and Columbia Generating Station in Washington State. The majority of my time is spent coordinating the review of license amendment requests. A plant’s license is much more complicated than your driver’s license. It does far more than just grant permission to operate a nuclear facility. The license also specifies how it is to be run.

Imagine having a driver’s license that required you to keep the gas tank more than half full and all four tires inflated to a certain pressure. If you wanted to wait until only a quarter of a tank remained to get more gas or you wanted to change the pressure level in your tires, you’d have to apply to amend your license. I am the person who receives those equivalent requests for my particular sites.

Those requests are then reviewed by a team of appropriate scientists, engineers, and experts, with the project manager responsible for engaging those experts and keeping an eye on the entire review. The project manager is in charge of coordinating schedules, interfacing with the licensee (the operator of the plant), ensuring that public documents are written in plain English, and packaging the final approval or denial of the request with a clear justification. In my experience, licensees have four to12 such requests at the NRC at a time. The project manager needs to understand the technical aspects of each one.

The project manager also needs to be aware of conditions at the site. The project manager serves as the headquarters point of contact for all matters related to the site, so it’s very important to know what’s going on. Every workday, I participate in a conference call with the resident inspectors and the region to discuss plant status and concerns. If the region or the residents need any headquarters support, I am there to provide it directly or to arrange it.

One of the most important and, thankfully, infrequent duties of the project manager is to respond in case of an incident at the site. If the headquarters operations center is activated, I will report there and provide site specific information. Having someone there who is familiar with the site, the conditions at the site, and any licensing and operational issues is important.

We also have the pleasure and responsibility of ensuring that the NRC is being open and transparent to the public. Licensing project managers run many of the site-specific headquarters public meetings.

So, while licensing project managers need to understand the highly technical aspects of a review or a performance issue, we also need to see the big picture, and how one issue may relate to other issues or actions at the plant. And we have to communicate it to all stakeholders – both inside and outside the NRC. It’s a great job, and one I’m happy to be doing. But it’s not easy being an expert generalist.

New England’s Nuclear Power Plants Readying for Nemo

nemomapNeil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I


New England states and other parts of the Northeast are battening down the hatches in anticipation of a winter storm dubbed “Nemo” by the Weather Channel.

Unlike “Finding Nemo,” the 2003 hit movie from Disney featuring a clown fish dad roaming the seas in search of his wayward son, those in the storm’s path won’t have to look far to see its impacts. Indeed, forecasts are calling for blizzard conditions and upwards of two feet of snow in the Boston area.

As with other significant storms, nuclear power plants that could be affected will be required to make preparations. These are actions such as ensuring that fuel oil tanks are adequately filled; that there are no materials on plant grounds that could become airborne missiles amid high winds; and that water-tight doors and other openings are properly closed in the event flooding becomes an issue.

NRC inspectors stationed at all operating plants on a full-time basis will likewise be busy, as they independently verify the facilities – particularly the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts and the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire — are positioned for whatever wicked weather comes their way. To help guide those evaluations, the inspectors will follow a procedure and checklist focused on adverse weather protection.

Once the storm arrives, plant operators have plans that guide their responses. For instance, if sustained wind speeds exceed a certain level, a plant would have to shut down. Also, if flooding were to be greater than pre-determined thresholds, an emergency declaration would have to be made and a shutdown may be necessary.

During Superstorm Sandy last October, three nuclear power plants ended up shutting down for reasons that included high water intake levels and electrical grid disturbances, but all did so safely and effectively. As always, the work that takes place before the storm arrives is an essential part of ensuring any storm-related problems can be handled in a prompt, safe manner.

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