Five Questions for NRC Chair Chris Hanson

Can Hanson Bring the NRC into the 21st Century?

Five Questions for NRC Chair Chris Hanson
NRC Chair Christopher Hanson delivers remarks at the agency’s annual Regulatory Information Conference. Photo Credit to NRC.

Last month, the Biden Administration, to the surprise of no one, submitted its nomination of Chris Hanson for a new term as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Hanson has been a Democratic appointee to the commission since 2020, and has served as its Chair since 2021. To his credit, Hanson has moved the commission to make significant improvements to the proposed draft of the Part 53 licensing framework for advanced reactors produced by the NRC staff, removing deeply problematic provisions that would have enshrined epidemiologically unobservable, demographically implausible, and technologically impossible health and safety standards and assumptions from the rule. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. Finding consensus among the NRC’s four sitting commissioners was not easy.

But there is much work still to do on Part 53 and much else in the coming years. The first advanced non-light water reactors have begun formal licensing activities. Virtually all reactors, new and old, light water and non-light water, face formidable supply chain challenges that NRC rules and standards often exacerbate. Rulemaking and other proceedings before the commission often take far too long to finalize, even when there is little or no disagreement among commissioners. And the NRC staff has been plagued by low morale and a wave of retirements over the last decade.

As I recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, America needs vision and leadership at the NRC. It is imperative in the coming weeks, as the Senate considers his nomination, for Hanson to make clear that he is prepared to be the transformative leader that the NRC needs.

With the NRC down to only four commissioners, Hanson’s confirmation is virtually assured. Absent that, Republicans would hold a 2-1 majority on the commissioner, an outcome that neither the present Administration nor the present Senate majority is likely to find tolerable. And to be very clear, even were that not the case, Breakthrough Institute would not oppose Hanson’s nomination. But I’d far prefer to be able wholeheartedly embrace his confirmation. In that spirit, here are five questions that I hope Hanson will address publicly in the course of his confirmation process.

1. Does he support revising the NRC’s mission to fully account for the public health, climate, energy security, and electricity reliability benefits of nuclear energy?

The official position of the NRC, stated by multiple commissioners in past public testimony and by the NRC general counsel’s office, has been that the NRC is mandated to consider only reactor safety and radiological health impacts when licensing and regulating nuclear reactors. To the best of our knowledge, there is no statutory basis for this claim. So it would serve Congress, the NRC, and the nation well for Hanson to clarify this question. Is it the position of the NRC staff, the commission, or the Chair that the NRC is forbidden from enabling nuclear energy, or considering its benefits in licensing and regulatory determinations? If so, what is the specific statutory language establishing this?

Does he support current legislative language, passed by the House of Representatives and currently in conference with the Senate, that would clarify the NRC’s mission, establishing that the goal of the commission should be to minimize the impact that regulations have upon the potential of nuclear reactors to improve general welfare, consistent with its responsibility to assure reasonable assurance of adequate protection to the public? Does he agree that nuclear energy brings substantial benefits to public health and the environment from reduced air pollution and carbon emissions that ought to be accounted for in regulatory determinations?

2. How does Hanson propose to establish cumulative radiological health standards for advanced reactors?

In its most recent direction to staff on advanced reactor licensing, Hanson and the commission directed the staff to remove the NRC’s quantitative health objectives from the proposed rule. The NRC established those objectives as high-level policy goals, not as actionable regulatory standards. As we have demonstrated, those goals delineate cumulative radiological impacts that are so minimal that any dose standard derived from them would be epidemiologically unobservable in even a very large exposed population. This fact makes such standards impossible to measure or enforce in a licensing framework that is performance-based, as Congress has directed.

But the proposal to pin comprehensive risk standards for the new licensing framework at levels far below those that could ever be observed empirically raises important questions beyond whether they are usable in a performance-based licensing framework. The more important question is why the NRC enforces radiological health standards that are so infinitesimal as to be entirely theoretical?

There has been a very long-running debate between proponents and opponents of the Linear No Threshold (LNT) hypothesis as to whether dose/response relationships between radiation exposure and various health consequences, such as cancer incidence, established in responses to high doses of ionizing radiation can be extrapolated to very low dose exposures. This approach is the basis of NRC regulation of very low-dose radiological risk associated with reactor operations and accidents, an approach that the NRC reaffirmed as recently as 2021.

Unfortunately, neither the LNT hypothesis, nor its opposite, hormesis (which posits that low-dose exposure to radiation has a beneficial effect and repairs, rather than damages, DNA at the cellular level) are falsifiable. Neither the theorized impacts nor the theorized benefits of low-dose exposure are large enough to be observed in a statistically significant way in human populations. This fundamental reality of the low radiological dose/response relationship, however, raises the question as to how regulating ionizing radiation exposures to levels far below those that can be observed, in service of eliminating entirely speculative public health impacts, serves any particularly important or even defensible public health objective?

As the commission considers this question, it would be useful for the current and likely future Chair to explicate why radiological dose exposures associated, theoretically, with health impacts far below those that can be observed are of regulatory concern? The commission has given the NRC staff several options to develop and put before the commission in a revised Part 53 rule. These include requiring applicants to propose a performance-based standard or developing one internally. But neither of these possible approaches necessarily addresses the central problem, which is that the NRC in many contexts today has established radiological exposure standards designed to avoid health consequences that can not be observed in the real world. Some margin for error in determinations of this sort is clearly reasonable. But the NRC’s quantitative health objectives, to take one important example, establish health objectives that are two hundred times more stringent than the cumulative risk standard that EPA has established for exposure to ionizing radiation under the air toxin provisions of the Federal Clean Air Act, which Congress in 1990 both explicitly endorsed and established as the controlling standard for federal regulation of air toxins.

Hanson ought to explain where he stands on the underlying issue. Should the agency continue to enforce radiological health consequences that can’t be observed epidemiologically? What does he believe to be an appropriate standard for radiological dose exposures and should that standard be appreciably different from standards enforced for a range of non-radiological environmental health hazards by the EPA and other federal agencies?

3. What sort of leader will Hanson choose as the next executive director of the NRC?

NRC commissioners come and go. The senior staff at the NRC often spend most or all of their careers at the agency. Transformation at the NRC requires not only commissioners but senior staff committed to remaking the agency as a cutting edge 21st century regulator for an innovative 21st century advanced nuclear industry.

The NRC’s most recent executive director, Dan Dorman, spent almost 33 years at the agency, working his way up from project manager at the agency’s Rockville, Maryland headquarters to the highest civilian position in America’s civilian nuclear regulatory bureaucracy. The executive director has unique authority to make decisions at the staff level and, arguably, has as much influence over the direction and priorities of the NRC, and more over its internal culture, than does the Chair. As the commission’s Chair, Hanson will need to nominate an executive director committed to remaking the agency to support technological innovation and regulatory efficiency and enable the development of the globally competitive advanced nuclear industry that America and the world desperately need. To enact lasting and meaningful change at the NRC, it is important that Hanson provide the Senate with insight as to what sort of executive director he is looking for.

4. What steps is he prepared to take to expedite commission actions?

At a moment when the commission needs to be agile and responsive in addressing a wide range of regulatory issues that nuclear vendors, operators, investors, and customers need clarity on, action at the commission on even uncontroversial and low-stakes issues is often painfully slow. Many proposed rules await commission action for 18 months or longer after staff proposals or recommendations have been received. This is often the case even when there is consensus on the commission or after a majority of commissioners have cast votes necessary to either enact or reject proposed commission action.

The expected timeline for commission action, per the NRC procedures, is thirty business days for proposed rules and sixty business days for final rules. But commission action rarely comports with these guidelines. Years of delay at the commission level, after years of rule development by the staff, is not efficient regulation. Hanson should tell the Senate what actions he is prepared to take to ensure that timeframes for commission voting are consistent with the NRC’s published procedures. He should further explicate why and in what cases he would delay commission action until all commissioners have cast their votes when the necessary majority has already voted for or against a proposed action.

5. How does he propose to improve public engagement at the NRC?

There has been much discussion among commissioners and stakeholders about how to improve public engagement. There are a range of straightforward steps the NRC can take to do so, requiring no new congressional action or spending. These include using consistent practices across divisions and proceedings to notice meetings, using consistent remote meeting and social media platforms for all public NRC proceedings, engaging stakeholders in two-way dialogue during development of rules, regulations, and standards, and presenting technical information in more accessible language and formats.

Hanson should outline the actions he is prepared to take in a second term as NRC Chair to address these shortcomings and assure that commission actions are accessible, understandable, and ready for engagement from all who wish to do so.