“We Need an NRC That Not Just Gets Out of the Way, But Leads”

Members of American Nuclear Society takes the regulatory body to task at annual meeting

The Breakthrough Institute has long pointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inefficiency as a barrier to advanced reactors and a heavy burden for the plants that are running today. But now the old-line nuclear establishment is saying so, too.

The problem took center stage at the American Nuclear Society’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on Tuesday, and the point was made again and again by the president of ANS, the senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute (the industry’s main trade association), a former member of the NRC, and Adam Stein, BTI’s Director of Nuclear Energy Innovation.

Stein, who addressed the gathering by Zoom, said the NRC is too narrowly focused. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 says that the government’s role is to allow nuclear technology to make “the maximum contribution to the general welfare.” Yet the NRC does not currently consider the general welfare in decision-making; it does not take into account that if a reactor isn’t built, something else will produce the energy, and that the something else will likely be dirty and dangerous. “If the agency takes no action, then there would be worse public health and environmental impacts,” he said.

Jeffrey Merrifield, the former NRC member, plowed what was, for him, new ground. “I embrace the motto of the agency, to protect the people and the environment, a tag line I helped craft,” said Merrifield, who was one of the five commissioners from 1998 to 2007. But, he said, “I believe that the agency has lost its way.”

“As an attorney, I am reminded of the old saw, when in doubt look at the law,” said Merrifield, reiterating the mandate in the Atomic Energy Act. The NRC fails to recognize the real contribution to public welfare of nuclear energy and focuses only on risk, he told a plenary session of the ANS, which is a 10,000-member scientific society.

Steven A. Arndt, the president of ANS, who moderated the panel discussion, pointed to the problem:

“The mission of the NRC as they have defined it, is to license and regulate the nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety, and in many cases, hard stop.”

“But that’s not what the mission says,” Arndt went on. “It also says, ‘to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment.’ That’s an incredibly important part of the mission.”

“We are providing a technology that has benefits to the common defense, in terms of energy security, in terms of clean energy,” Arndt noted. “Why are we trying to make it safer than things that are not providing comparable benefits?”

These complaints are not new, but they are being articulated with increasing sharpness by major groups at the heart of the industry itself.

Merrifield, now a senior partner at a Washington law firm that specializes in nuclear work, was particularly sharp in his criticism. The commission and its staff are suffering from “complacency and self-satisfaction of a type that the agency would have found unacceptable in one of its regulated entities,” he said.

“Congress, to this day, wants nuclear energy to occur,” he said. “It’s good for our country.” The agency is supposed to “enable the technologies as long as they can be considered safe,” he continued. But it holds itself remote from applicants, in the name of independence and to insulate itself from the charge of regulatory capture—that is, being unduly influenced by those it regulates. But it will always be independent, because it makes the final decision, he said. And in general, the agency does not know when to stop.

For example, the NRC’s original licensing scheme, called Part 50, was initially 50 pages long, he said. The commission has been working on a new scheme, for advanced reactors, called Part 53 for almost three years. “The proposed part 53 that is on the commissioners’ desk is 1,100 pages,” he said. “Really? The agency has lost the ability to know when to say ‘enough.’ It says, ‘what else can we add?’”

Similarly, the NRC does not know when to end debate. Staff engineers have a right to dissent and file “differing professional opinions,” but staff managers try hard to avoid this, producing rulings that are convoluted and delayed, he said.

Another panelist, John F. Kotek, who is senior vice president at NEI for policy and public affairs and a former acting Assistant Secretary of Energy for nuclear energy, said that accusing the agency of regulatory capture was “part of the playbook” of nuclear opponents, to which Merrifield replied, “that’s the same people who raise their hands and say, ‘what about the waste,’ for Christ’s sake. We need to drown out those nut-heads.”

The audience applauded.

Arndt, who worked at the NRC for 31 years, and is now finishing up a one-year term as ANS president, quoted the old phrase, “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” (It’s been attributed to everyone from Thomas Paine to George Patton, but may have come from somewhere else entirely.)

“We need a regulator that not just gets out of the way, but leads,” Arndt said. The NRC should be consulting with applicants, clarifying its sometimes-cryptic rules, and working together to advance the technology. The commission staff usually declines to work with applicants to help them understand what the NRC requires, he said, but “that’s just dumb.” The NRC should “be culturally part of the innovation,” he said.

Kotek, of NEI, pointed to another problem with the NRC’s approach. Many analysts have called for a doubling or tripling of nuclear capacity by 2050, and if that capacity is going to come from small reactors with a capacity of 300 megawatts or less (compared to the 1,100-megawatt behemoths now running) then there will be a huge number of license applications. But the NRC may have trouble dealing with all the license work for reactors already running, he said.

More than 90 percent of the reactors now running will apply for a second license renewal, allowing operations in years 61 to 80, he said, and 24 expect to apply for power uprates by 2030, which means changing their licenses to let them produce more energy. Eight expect to apply for permission to operate longer between refueling outages, and overall, NEI members expect to spend $7 billion on capital investments over the next ten years. Some of that work will require NRC approvals.

“Unless the agency gets more efficient and really gears up for the wave of applications we think is coming their way, the agency could become a real stumbling block,” he said.