NRC Needs a Technology-inclusive Reorganization and Stakeholder-inclusive Engagement

Senior Policy Advisor Rani Franovich identifies two opportunities for NRC to successfully modernize its licensing frameworks: (1) reorganize its workforce ; and (2) provide more open, collaborative, efficient and effective engagement with external stakeholders.

On May 23, 2022, Rani Franovich, Senior Policy Advisor for the Breakthrough Institute (BTI), submitted a comment to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regarding its proposed guidance for light-water reactor applicants for a construction permit. Franovich expressed concern that the NRC’s organizational structure is driving a bifurcated approach to developing guidance for licensing new light-water and non-light-water reactors. Franovich writes: “Like the regulations themselves, guidance should be technology inclusive. One guidance document would be most appropriate for addressing commonality where it will largely exist and divergence only where appropriate and necessary.” She further argues that better consistency in regulatory outcomes, products, and services for the widest variety of applicants warrants an organizational restructure that integrates staff activities for light-water and non-light-water reactors in a truly “technology-inclusive” manner consistent with the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) of 2019.

More importantly, Franovich identified a fatal flaw in the NRC’s overall approach to developing a new, performance-based, and risk-informed framework for licensing new reactors–a lack of collaboration with stakeholders. She argues that “early engagement and involvement of those stakeholders in the initial development of these products would have been more consistent with the Principle of Independence, which “does not imply isolation. All available facts and opinions must be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public.”

A 30-year veteran of the NRC, Franovich recounts the regulator’s growing pains in the late 1990s. Under threat of deep budget cuts and Congressional pressure to reform its oversight of operating reactors, NRC collaborated with the industry and the public to construct a risk-informed, performance-based inspection and performance assessment framework that endures to this day. Why does it endure? “Because diverse ideas, new conventions, and unconstrained progressive thinking liberated the NRC from its compliance-based past.”

Franovich identifies a contributing cause of NRC’s failure thus far to modernize its licensing frameworks in accordance with NEIMA: the regulator limits the involvement of stakeholders in an inefficient, iterative process of unveiling and soliciting comments on largely status-quo regulations portrayed as innovative. She urges the NRC to take a cue from past successes and be more inclusive in its rule development. “This is not open and collaborative; nor is it an effective, efficient way to achieve success. NRC staff cannot be expected to solve complex matters in a vacuum; they need and deserve all the help they can get – especially considering the human capital challenge the Agency now finds itself in. NRC staff needs that help on the front end, not the back end, of the process.”