Nuclear Regulatory Commission
|Formed||January 19, 1975|
|Headquarters||North Bethesda, Maryland|
|Annual budget||c. $1 billion (2014)|
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency of the United States government tasked with protecting public health and safety related to nuclear energy. Established by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the NRC began operations on January 19, 1975 as one of two successor agencies to the United States Atomic Energy Commission. Its functions include overseeing reactor safety and security, administering reactor licensing and renewal, licensing radioactive materials, radionuclide safety, and managing the storage, security, recycling, and disposal of spent fuel.
Prior to 1975 the Atomic Energy Commission was in charge of matters regarding radionuclides. The AEC was dissolved, because it was perceived as unduly favoring the industry it was charged with regulating. The NRC was formed as an independent commission to oversee nuclear energy matters, oversight of nuclear medicine, and nuclear safety.
The U.S. AEC became the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1975, responsible for development and oversight of nuclear weapons. Research and promotion of civil uses of radioactive materials, such as for nuclear non-destructive testing, nuclear medicine, and nuclear power, was split into the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science & Technology within ERDA by the same act. In 1977, ERDA became the United States Department of Energy (DOE). In 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration was created as a subcomponent of DOE, responsible for nuclear weapons.
Twelve years into NRC operations, a 1987 Congressional report entitled "NRC Coziness with Industry" concluded, that the NRC "has not maintained an arms length regulatory posture with the commercial nuclear power industry... [and] has, in some critical areas, abdicated its role as a regulator altogether". To cite three examples:
A 1986 Congressional report found that NRC staff had provided valuable technical assistance to the utility seeking an operating license for the controversial Seabrook plant. In the late 1980s, the NRC 'created a policy' of non-enforcement by asserting its discretion not to enforcement with license conditions; between September 1989 and 1994, the 'NRC has either waived or chosen not to enforce regulations at nuclear power reactors over 340 times'. Finally, critics charge that the NRC has ceded important aspects of regulatory authority to the industry's own Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), an organization formed by utilities in response to the Three Mile Island Accident.
- Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962 (1984).
- Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963-1971 (1992).
- Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century (2000)
- Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (2004)
- The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (2009).
The NRC has produced a readable booklet, A Short History of Nuclear Regulation 1946-2009, which outlines key issues in NRC history. Thomas Wellock, a former academic, is the NRC historian. Before joining the NRC, Wellock wrote Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978.
Mission and Commissioners
The NRC's mission is to regulate the nation's civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment. The NRC's regulatory mission covers three main areas:
- Reactors - Commercial reactors for generating electric power and research and test reactors used for research, testing, and training
- Materials - Uses of nuclear materials in medical, industrial, and academic settings and facilities that produce nuclear fuel
- Waste - Transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear materials and waste, and decommissioning of nuclear facilities from service.
The NRC is headed by five Commissioners appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate for five-year terms. One of them is designated by the President to be the Chairman and official spokesperson of the Commission. Allison M. Macfarlane was the chairman of the NRC starting July 2012, replacing Gregory Jaczko. She was reconfirmed for a five-year term by the United States Senate in July 2013. A geologist by training, Macfarlane was an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University prior to chairing NRC.
MacFarlane was a member of the White House Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which was charged by the Secretary of Energy to examine the issues associated with nuclear waste disposal in the United States. Macfarlane is "a long time critic" of storing spent nuclear fuel in a mountain near Las Vegas called Yucca Mountain. She has stated that the seismic and volcanic activity as well as oxidizing in the environment would make the nuclear waste unstable. MacFarlane supports storing nuclear waste at reactor sites in dry casks and the allocation of billions to find a suitable geologic repository for storage over the next few decades.
MacFarlane resigned in 2014. The current chairman is Stephen Burns. He was sworn in on Nov. 5, 2014, to a term ending June 30, 2019. President Obama designated Mr. Burns as Chairman of the NRC effective Jan. 1, 2015.
The NRC consists of the Commission on the one hand and offices of the Executive Director for Operations on the other. The Commission is divided into two committees (Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards and Advisory Committee on the Medical Uses of Isotopes) and one Board, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, as well as 8 commission staff offices (Office of Commission Appellate Adjudication, Office of Congressional Affairs, Office of the General Counsel, Office of International Programs, Office of Public Affairs, Office of the Secretary, Office of the Chief Financial Officer, Office of the Executive Director for Operations).
There are altogether 17 Executive Director for Operations offices: Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, Office of New Reactors, Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, Office of Enforcement, which investigates reports by Nuclear power whistleblowers, specifically the Allegations Program., Office of Investigations, Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, Region I, Region II, Region III, Region IV, Office of Information Services, Computer Security Office, Office of Administration, Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, and Office of Small Business and Civil Rights.
Of these operations offices, NRC's major program components are the first five offices mentioned above.
NRC's proposed FY 2015 budget is $1,059.5 million, with 3,895.9 full-time equivalents (FTE), 90 percent of which is recovered by fees. This is an increase of $3.6 million, including 65.1 FTE, compared to FY 2014.
NRC headquarters offices are located in unincorporated North Bethesda, Maryland (although the mailing address for two of the three main buildings in the complex list the city as Rockville, MD), and there are four regional offices.
The NRC territory is broken down into 4 geographical regions; until the late 1990s, there was a Region V office in Walnut Creek, California which was absorbed into Region IV, and Region V was dissolved.
- Region I, located in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, oversees the northeastern states.
- Region II, located in Atlanta, Georgia, oversees most of the southeastern states.
- Region III, located in Lisle, Illinois, oversees the Midwest.
- Region IV, located in Arlington, Texas, oversees the western and south central states.
In these four regions NRC oversees the operation of US nuclear reactors, namely 104 power-producing reactors, and 36 non-power-producing reactors. Oversight is done on several levels. For example:
- Each power-producing reactor site has resident inspectors, who monitor day-to-day operations.
- Numerous special inspection teams, with many different specialties, routinely conduct inspections at each site.
NRC has a library, which also contains online document collections. In 1999 it started an electronic repository called ADAMS, the Agencywide Documents Access and Management System. for its public inspection reports, correspondence, and other technical documents written by NRC staff, contractors, and licensees. It has been upgraded in October 2010 and is now webbased. Of documents from 1980-1999 only some have abstracts and/or full text, most are citations. Documents from before 1980 are available in paper or microfiche formats. Copies of these older documents or classified documents can be applied for with a FOIA request.
Training and accreditation
NRC conducts audits and training inspections, observes the National Nuclear Accrediting Board meetings, and nominates some members.
The 1980 Kemeny Commission's report after the Three Mile Island accident recommended that the nuclear energy industry "set and police its own standards of excellence". The nuclear industry founded the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) within 9 months to establish personnel training and qualification. The industry through INPO created the 'National Academy for Nuclear Training Program' either as early as 1980 or in September 1985 per the International Atomic Energy Agency. INPO refers to NANT as "our National Academy for Nuclear Training" on its website. NANT integrates and standardizes the training programs of INPO and US nuclear energy companies, offers training scholarships and interacts with the 'National Nuclear Accrediting Board'. This Board is closely related to the 'National Academy for Nuclear Training', not a government body, and referred to as independent by INPO, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and nuclear utilities. but not by the NRC, all of whom are represented on the Board
The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act directed NRC in Section 306 to issue regulations or "other appropriate regulatory guidance" on training of nuclear plant personnel. Since the nuclear industry already had developed training and accreditation, NRC issued a policy statement in 1985, endorsing the INPO program. NRC has a memorandum of agreement with INPO and "monitors INPO activities by observing accreditation team visits and the monthly NNAB meetings".
In 1993, NRC endorsed the industry's approach to training that had been used for nearly a decade through its 'Training Rule'. In February 1994, NRC passed the 'Operator Requalification Rule' 59 FR 5938, Feb. 9, 1994, allowing each nuclear power plant company -rather than the agency- to conduct the operator licensing renewal examination every six years, eliminating the requirement of NRC-administered written requalification examination.
In 1999, NRC issued a final rule on operator initial licensing examination, that allows, but does not require, companies to "prepare, proctor, and grade" their own operator initial licensing examinations. Facilities can "upon written request" continue to have the examinations prepared and administered by NRC staff, but if a company volunteers to prepare the examination, NRC continues to approve and administer it.
Since 2000 meetings between NRC and applicants or licensees have been open to the public.
Terrorist attacks such as those executed by al-Qaeda on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 and in London on July 7, 2005 have prompted fears that extremist groups might use radioactive dirty bombs in further attacks in the United States and elsewhere. In March 2007, undercover investigators from the Government Accountability Office set up a false company and obtained a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would have allowed them to buy the radioactive materials needed for a dirty bomb. According to the GAO report, NRC officials did not visit the company or attempt to personally interview its executives. Instead, within 28 days, the NRC mailed the license to the West Virginia postal box. Upon receipt of the license, GAO officials were able to easily modify its stipulations, and remove a limit on the amount of radioactive material they could buy. A spokesman for the NRC said that the agency considered the radioactive devices a "lower-level threat"; a bomb built with the materials could have contaminated an area about the length of a city block, but would not have presented an immediate health hazard.
Prospective nuclear units
Between 2007 and 2009, 13 companies applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for construction and operating licenses to build 25 new nuclear power reactors in the United States. However, the case for widespread nuclear plant construction was eroded due to abundant natural gas supplies, slow electricity demand growth in a weak U.S. economy, lack of financing, and uncertainty following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Many license applications for proposed new reactors were suspended or cancelled. Only a few new reactors will enter service by 2020. These will not be the cheapest energy options available, but they are an attractive investment for utilities because the government mandates that taxpayers pay for construction in advance. In 2013, four aging reactors were permanently closed: San Onofre 2 and 3 in California, Crystal River 3 in Florida, and Kewaunee in Wisconsin. Vermont Yankee, in Vernon, was shut down on December 29, 2014, following many protests. New York State is seeking to close Indian Point Energy Center, in Buchanan, 30 miles from New York City.
Byrne and Hoffman wrote in 1996, that since the 1980s the NRC has generally favored the interests of nuclear industry, and been unduly responsive to industry concerns, while failing to pursue tough regulation. The NRC has often sought to hamper or deny public access to the regulatory process, and created new barriers to public participation.
Numerous different observers have criticized the NRC as an example of regulatory capture The NRC has been accused of having conflicting roles as regulator and "salesman" in a 2011 Reuters article, doing an inadequate job by the Union of Concerned Scientists. and has the agency approval process has been called a "rubber stamp".
Frank N. von Hippel wrote in March 2011, that despite the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, the NRC has often been too timid in ensuring that America’s 104 commercial reactors are operated safely:
Nuclear power regulation is a textbook example of the problem of “regulatory capture” — in which an industry gains control of an agency meant to regulate it. Regulatory capture can be countered only by vigorous public scrutiny and Congressional oversight, but in the 32 years since Three Mile Island, interest in nuclear regulation has declined precipitously.
An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stated that many forms of NRC regulatory failure exist, including regulations ignored by the common consent of NRC and industry:
A worker (named George Galatis) at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut kept warning management, that the spent fuel rods were being put too quickly into the spent storage pool and that the number of rods in the pool exceeded specifications. Management ignored him, so he went directly to the NRC, which eventually admitted that it knew of both of the forbidden practices, which happened at many plants, but chose to ignore them. The whistleblower was fired and blacklisted.
In Vermont, the day before the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the NRC approved a 20-year extension for the license of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, although the Vermont state legislature voted overwhelmingly to deny an extension. The plant had been found to be leaking radioactive materials through a network of underground pipes, which Entergy had denied under oath even existed. At a hearing in 2009 Tony Klein, chairman of the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee had asked the NRC about the pipes and the NRC also did not know they existed.
In March 2011, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a study critical of the NRC's 2010 performance as a regulator. The UCS said that over the years, it had found the NRC's enforcement of safety rules has not been “timely, consistent, or effective" and it cited 14 "near-misses" at U.S. plants in 2010 alone.
In April 2011, Reuters reported that diplomatic cables showed NRC sometimes being used as a sales tool to help push American technology to foreign governments, when "lobbying for the purchase of equipment made by Westinghouse Electric Company and other domestic manufacturers". This gives the appearance of a regulator which is acting in a commercial capacity, "raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest".
San Clemente Green, an environmental group opposed to the continued operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Plant, said in 2011 that instead of being a watchdog, the NRC too often rules in favor nuclear plant operators.[third-party source needed]
Developments since 2011
Gregory Jaczko was Chairman of the NRC when the 2011 Fukushima disaster occurred in Japan. Jaczko looked for lessons for the US, and strengthened security regulations for nuclear power plants. For example, he supported the requirement that new plants to be able to withstand an aircraft crash. On February 9, 2012 Jaczko cast the lone dissenting vote on plans to build the first new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years when the NRC voted 4-1 to allow Atlanta-based Southern Co to build and operate two new nuclear power reactors at its existing Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. He cited safety concerns stemming from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, saying "I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened". In July 2011, Mark Cooper said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is "on the defensive to prove it is doing its job of ensuring safety". In October 2011, Jaczko described "a tension between wanting to move in a timely manner on regulatory questions, and not wanting to go too fast".
In 2011 Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, criticized the NRC's response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the decision-making on the proposed Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design.
In 2011, a total of 45 groups and individuals from across the nation formally asked the NRC to suspend all licensing and other activities at 21 proposed nuclear reactor projects in 15 states until the NRC completed a thorough post-Fukushima nuclear disaster examination:
The petition seeks suspension of six existing reactor license renewal decisions (Columbia Generating Station, WA Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, OH, Diablo Canyon Power Plant, CA, Indian Point Energy Center, NY, Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station, MA, and Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, NH); 13 new reactor combined construction permit and operating license decisions (Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station Units 3 and 4, AL, Bell Bend, Callaway Nuclear Generating Station, MO, Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Generating Station, MD, Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, TX, Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, MI, Levy County Nuclear Power Plant]], FL North Anna Nuclear Generating Station, VA, Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, NC, South Texas Nuclear Generating Station, TX, Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, FL, Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, GA, and William States Lee III Nuclear Generating Station, SC);a construction permit decision (Bellefonte Units 1 and 2); and an operating license decision (Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station, TN). In addition, the petition asks the NRC to halt proceedings to approve the standardized AP1000 and Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor designs.
The petitioners asked the NRC to supplement its own investigation by establishing an independent commission comparable to that set up in the wake of the less severe 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The petitioners included Public Citizen, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace.
NRC officials stated in June 2011 that US nuclear safety rules do not adequately weigh the risk of a single event that would knock out electricity from the grid and from emergency generators, as a quake and tsunami did in Japan. In October 2011[update], and NRC instructed agency staff to move forward with seven of the 12 safety recommendations put forward by a federal task force in July 2011. The recommendations include "new standards aimed at strengthening operators’ ability to deal with a complete loss of power, ensuring plants can withstand floods and earthquakes and improving emergency response capabilities". The new safety standards will take up to five years to fully implement.
In November 2011[update], Jaczko warned power companies against complacency and said the agency must "push ahead with new rules prompted by the nuclear crisis in Japan, while also resolving long-running issues involving fire protection and a new analysis of earthquake risks".
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The independent National Nuclear Accrediting Board evaluates operator and technical training programs for nuclear plants throughout the industry, ensuring that accredited training programs meet the highest standards for excellence and incorporate best practices.
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In accordance with its memorandum of agreement with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the NRC monitors INPO accreditation activities as part of its assessment of the effectiveness of the industry's training programs. (The NRC also monitors the selected performance areas of its licensees as part of its assessment.) The NRC monitors INPO activities by observing accreditation team visits and the monthly National Nuclear Accrediting Board meetings.
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