Is the NRC the “gold standard” of nuclear regulation or the “DMV standard”?
On October 13, 2011 the Reuters news service published an article titled NRC delays reactor certification to study Japan damage that led with the following paragraph.
WILMINGTON, N.C., Oct 13 (Reuters) – U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification of new reactor technology has been delayed by the agency’s evaluation of the earthquake and tsunami damage to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said on Thursday.
The article went on to say that the commission’s priority with its available resources was to complete the work required to issue a final design certification for the Westinghouse AP1000, which may be completed by the end of 2011 (or may not). After that effort is completed, the staff would then turn to focus on the ESBWR design certification, which was first turned into the NRC in 2005 – more than six years ago.
Since April 2011, I have been asking senior members of the NRC staff when their agency was going to seek additional resources from their Congressional appropriations committee to cover some of the unplanned expenses associated with the Fukushima Daiichi response effort. On August 31, I wrote a post titled NRC lack of planning will increase delays for new reactor licenses that asserted that delays in new license application reviews were inevitable, no matter what the offical spokespeople at the NRC said. That post includes a number of bureaucratic denials and obfuscations, but the bottom line was that the NRC leaders had decided NOT to ask for any additional resources.
I spent the last nine years of my naval career as a Washington, DC mid-level staff officer, so I have had the opportunity to be more deeply involved in the preparation processes of eight federal budgets than most people could stand. I know how the game is played. I have seen how reluctant politically ambitious decision makers can be to strongly make the case for sufficient resources when the people that they work for have made it clear that praise (and promotion) will only go to those who aggressively sell the party line of a need to cut back.
However, an agency that has been purposely designed to be independent of the political process should not be led by someone who is so politically ambitious that he is reluctant to clearly state that his agency CANNOT do its assigned work with the allocated resources. That statement is especially true when the constraint was not caused by poor management, but because there was a resource consuming natural disaster that COULD NOT have been predicted when the budgets were established. I decided it was time, once again, to try to correspond with the official spokesmen of the commission.
From: Rod Adams
Subject: Is the announced delay caused by resource onstraints?
Date: October 14, 2011 5:32:39 AM EDT
To: Scott Burnell, Eliot Brenner
Scott and/or Eliot:
I just noticed the Reuter story titled “NRC delays reactor certification to study Japan damage.” The lede is as follows:
“WILMINGTON, N.C., Oct 13 (Reuters) – U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification of new reactor technology has been delayed by the agency’s evaluation of the earthquake and tsunami damage to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said on Thursday.”
My writing teachers taught me to avoid the passive voice whenever possible. What does “has been delayed by the agency’s evaluation…” mean?
Does it mean that the NRC leadership has purposely delayed activities in order to obtain more information because they think that the specific lessons learned will be applicable to new designs that already include substantially greater passive safety?
Or does it mean that the NRC has a fixed resource base and that its leaders only have so much time in their days? Is the distraction of responding to an accident that occurred 12,000 miles away under circumstances that have never occurred in the US caused the agency to be incapable of providing the service of evaluating new plant designs?
If that is the case, where else should the thousands of people working on those designs turn so that they can continue being gainfully employed? Where should the investors who have sunk billions into new projects with the encouragement of the US Congress, Senate and President go to seek redress of their daily expenses while they wait for the only agency allowed to do the work? Where should the residents of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, who are already paying for Construction Work in Progress, go to get refunds for the extra time and money that they will have to spend?
Yes, I am ranting. Yes, I am angry because I have been asking this question about NRC license review resources for many months. I am especially angry because I know how much unrecoverable time your organization invested into a one-way “conversation” between the chairman and bloggers. That time could have been better invested by working on the effort to review applications for safe, passive new reactor plant designs.
From: Eliot Brenner
Subject: RE: Is the announced delay caused by resource constraints?
Date: October 14, 2011 8:13:04 AM EDT
To: Rod Adams, Scott Burnell
We are seeking a correction from the reporter, who as best we can determine is a local stringer for Reuters. He put an apple and an orange together, leapt to a conclusion and came up with a banana.
Subject: Re: Is the announced delay caused by resource constraints?
From: Rod Adams
Date: October 14, 2011 9:18:41 AM EDT
To: Eliot Brenner
CC: Scott Burnell
Eliot – thank you for the quick turnaround. However, your fruit salad answer avoids the question. Let me put it more simply:
Will the review of the license applications take longer than previously announced?
Is there a resource constraint at the NRC that has contributed to the delay?
From: Eliot Brenner
Subject: RE: Is the announced delay caused by resource constraints?
Date: October 14, 2011 10:33:10 AM EDT
To: Rod Adams
Cc: Scott Burnell
From page 5 of the SECY on the 45-day report. See the last parenthetical phrase.
The overriding challenge the staff will face when implementing actions to address the NTTF recommendations will be redefining agency priorities while ensuring that this process does not displace ongoing work that has greater safety benefit, work that is necessary for continued safe operation, or other existing high priority work. The staff has identified some examples of work, including National Fire Protection Association 805 reviews; resolution of Generic Safety Issue 191, “Assessment of Debris Accumulation on PWR [pressurized water reactor] Sump Performance;” implementation of the recently updated emergency preparedness rule; materials, fuel facility, and reactor oversight program activities; and near-term combined license reviews, which the staff does not intend to delay to work on the NTTF recommendations.
From: Rod Adams
Subject: Re: Is the announced delay caused by resource constraints?
Date: October 14, 2011 10:44:22 AM EDT
To: Eliot Brenner
If the staff does not intend to delay combined license reviews to work on NTTF recommendations, what is the cause of the delay?
The notion of defining priorities leads me as a former budgeter/requirements officer to think about resource constraints.
I ask again – why would the politically independent commission fail to address that constraint by pointing out to the Congressional appropriations committees that a completely unplanned event has caused it to be unable to execute previously budgeted and planned activities?
This morning there was a corrected version of the Reuters report titled CORRECTED – (OFFICIAL)-NRC to finish AP1000 work before GE reactor that included additional attempts by Scott Burnell to explain that the NRC is not delaying its review of the ESBWR (and all of the other design certification applications that are in line behind that effort) because of Fukushima response actions. Here is how the Reuters reporter interpreted his conversation.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s priority for new reactors is to complete certification of the Westinghouse Electric AP1000 design and the associated combined licenses for proposed new AP1000 units in Georgia and South Carolina.
After that, the agency will wrap up the certification of General Electric’s new Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) design, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.
He said the full commission is still expected to act on the final certification of the AP1000 design by year-end, which would make the certification effective in 2012.
Burnell said placing the ESBWR certification behind the AP1000 was an issue of priorities.
“The people that would be taking care of the ESBWR certification have been concentrating on the AP1000 … because that is the area most likely to produce a license to build a new reactor first,” Burnell said.
Though the allusion may be lost on Atomic Insights readers who do not live in the United States, I hope you can see why I have decided that the NRC is now following the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) model for license issue. Customers must wait in exactly the right line, if their paperwork is not perfect they must step out of line and go to the back.
It does not matter if there are people behind the counters who could be helping to alleviate the lines; they are not assigned the task of issuing licenses. If the phone rings and the person serving the license issue line is the one whose skills are needed, everyone must wait until that interruption is over before license issue starts again. If there is an earthquake on the other side of the world everyone in the DMV office might leave their counters to watch the news for several days (or weeks, or months) instead of serving their customers. After all, where else can those people go to get the license they need?
Every once in a while, the bosses at the DMV may hear that the line is getting too long. After finishing up whatever they are doing in the back offices, having a cup of coffee, and making a few personal phone calls, those bosses might take a peak out of their office to see for themselves how long the line is. They might see something that seems manageably short by the time that they look, but they will fail to find out that there were dozens of people at the end of the line who got tired of waiting and left the building in disgust.
Unlike a traditional journalist, I do take this story very personally. In my day job, I work with several refugees of the ESBWR design certification project who still regret the massive layoffs that occurred in Wilmington. They liked living in that terrific North Carolina coastal town. The layoffs came when it became apparent that the lengthy licensing delays had discouraged the entire customer base to the point where every potential customer had decided to find another vendor.
After the customers made their intentions clear because of the uncertain time frame required to obtain permission to build, GE made the rational decision to drastically reduce its spending on the ESBWR in favor of wind turbines and combustion gas turbines. Those power generators do not need any federal licenses and both are well-supported governments and fossil fuel suppliers.
I have a pretty good second-hand view about how many hard-working, experienced, and extremely intelligent people were negatively affected because the only government agency allowed to review new nuclear plant licenses failed to competently and predictably do its job. It looks like there will be another round of similar layoffs soon. Even a company as large as GE-Hitachi cannot keep a several-hundred-member design engineering team twiddling its thumbs for six months while waiting for questions to be posed.
I just hope my own employer does not do the mental math to recognize how badly the current resource management decisions will affect us in a few years. At least one other person is thinking and writing about the domino effect of the ESBWR delay on projects that are further behind in the queue. NRC decision could delay Comanche Peak expansion approval.
Comanche Peak faces more significant hurdles in terms of getting investors to line up to pay to build it. Luminant’s parent Energy Future Holdings is carrying way too much debt to support new investment in twin 1700 MW nuclear reactors. EFH would have to sell Comanche Peak to a new investment consortium to get it built. In any case, demand for electricity in Texas is way down which could push the need for the reactors well into the next decade. A delay of one-to-three years in certifying the Mitsubishi design won’t make the Japanese firm very happy, but even if it were approved tomorrow it might not make much difference.
You have apparently accepted the NRC’s logic that sales need to come before licensing. My own experience is that finding customers to commit to an unlicensed product is virtually impossible and finding financial backing for an unlicensed product that does not have any committed customers is so darned close to impossible as to be indistinguishable from it.
In other words, a predictable, proven licensing process is fundamental to enabling the nuclear industry to function. It is far more important for our success than any “loan guarantee” program or any other kind of subsidy.
Take a good look at the interest and excitement in the UK as they move smartly forward in their enabling efforts to allow the construction of safe, reliable new nuclear power stations.
I, like you, voted for Obama. As of right now, I don’t like any of the Republicans any better than him for a second term.
If, however, one of the Republican field is elected, I think Jaczko’s job as chairman will be short lived. He is far too political to survive in a Republican administration. It is a shame that Dale Klein’s ‘No Bozos’ rule did not apply to commissioners.
Jaczko’s job as chairman is protected by law. I think a former US President (Roosevelt) once tried to remove a top ranking official (like Jaczko) from his position and the Supreme court did not allow it. There is jurisprudence on that type of situation.
If Jaczko’s job is taken away, it will be by a court decision and most probably linked to obstruction in the Yucca mountain case.
I hate the guy.
Jaczko’s position as a Commissioner is protected; his position as the Chairman is not. I do not have to point back to the Roosevelt era to find a precedent backing up that statement; Dr. Dale Klein was the Chairman until President Obama demoted him in favor of Jaczko.
Dr. Klein decided to resign rather than serve with the current chairman, though he would probably phrase his decision differently.
The Supreme court ruling in question regarding Roosevelt is:
Humphrey’s Executor v. United States
Thank you Daniel, an interesting read, the commission in that case was specifically founded to be non-partisan and not subject to the specific control of the president. Is the chairmanship the same for the NRC?
Maybe Rod or Brian or DV82XL or Andy would know better.
The NRC upper management are not without knowing that further delays in the AP1000 will put a lot of light on their work and the way they run their business.
The Chairman is already under a lot scrutiny, and possibly legal obstruction for Yucca, and I do not think that he enjoys that.
The AP1000 will be certified on time. Not doing so will be a tipping point for the NRC. Enough is enough. The impermanence of things applies everywhere and the NRC’s way of doing things could come to an end when the entire base of the nuclear industry (those employed by it directly or indirectly) manifests itself in a strong fashion.
I am therefore confident for the AP1000 certification.
The AP1000 will most likely be certified. However, it should have been completed several years ago, so it is incorrect to say that it will be “certified on time.”
It must be recalled that the process for certifying the AP1000 actually started about 18 years ago with the submission of the AP600 application.
And will go as far as stating that it will be certified before mid Jan 2012.
If this does not happen, there will be considerable forces going against the NRC.
President Lincoln will come to te rescue. This too applies to the nuclear industry :
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
The NRC is our standard of course, there is no other. But, will it remain the ‘gold standard’? That is, a standard used around the world in place of adequate local regulatory expertise. I doubt it.
China is well on its way to completing the first 4 AP1000s. They did not wait for the NRC. When the questions about the redesign of the shield building came up, they incorporated changes in the reactors not yet under construction, but they did not slow down for one day on the reactors already being built.
We clearly need to fix the NRC for nuclear build in the United States, but for the rest of the world it will become irrelevant. It’s sad to say, but GE-Hitachi, Babcock & Wilcox and others may need to look OUS to find customers for their first plants.
Maybe you should just outsource running the NRC? Mike Weightman and and the chaps at the ONR seem to have got the EPR through UK GDA, are well advanced on the AP1000 (Westinghouse are holding matters now until its confirmed they’ve got a sale), and are saying they’re close enough to completing the post-Fukushima work to start assessment on the ESBWR.
(Sorry, can’t help being just a little smug…;-D)
Seriously, though, looking in from the outside, it’s a little hard to fathom this “NRC Gold that, Standard” concept. I’m not sure what it is from a technical perspective that justifies that idea and more generally, the NRC looks both ponderous and politicised.
I wonder why countries such as the US, Canada, and the UK at least can’t rely on each other to approve a design. I’m sure each of these countries perform equally thorough design reviews. this could save a lot of time and money. the Canadians could provide review for the CANDU reactors, the US the AP1000 and the UK the GE/Jitachi reactor.
Its about market protection, plain and simple. And no one country is worse than the others in this regard.
The RMV/DMV would be unnecessary if everyone who wanted to drive was required to get a minimum of $100k in insurance – the insurance companies would simply refuse to insure (or require prohibitive premiums) from anyone who was a dangerous driver or didn’t know how to drive.
Same thing with nuclear reactors. Provided nuclear plants are able to get private liability insurance of say $100 billion, I don’t see why the NRC would be necessary. After all, Fukushima and TMI II proved that Western NPPs are only really a hazard to property when they fail, not to life.
If the NRC is the gold standard, why does Korea build reactors for half the cost of US reactors? I do not know the answer, but would like to find a study of the Korean method as opposed to the US methods.
First, I would expect the NRC rules cause higher costs than the Korean rules. The study I would like to see would detail the rules and the costs.
Second, I would expect that union work rules are really different. The study I would like to see would detail the work rules differences and assign costs.
Third, I would expect that fleet planning (5 to 10 reactor plan) is a major cost reduction factor. I would expect to see a Korean 10 year plan where expertise can be moved from one job to the next. I the US there is no fleet planning concept. How much does that affect cost?
Fourth, I would expect to find plans built in about 36 months in Korea and 50 months in the US. No study is needed to see a lot of cost reduction of interest-during-construction.
Just think of the effect of nuclear construction costs reduced by 50%.
Is the Korean regulatory body the gold standard?
All of the existing US fleet was built under Part 50. All of the reactors now under NRC review will be built under Part 52. One of the main reasons for Part 52 was to reduce uncertainty and regulatory delay.
As of now, the 4 AP1000s’ in the US under construction are on or below budget. It will be a few years before we see if Part 52 lives up to its promise.
I understand why, as of now, Mpower is going with a Part 50 build for the first unit but B&W understands this to be a somewhat risky shortcut.
That decision is TVA’s not B&W’s. Because of Watts Bar II and Bellefonte, TVA is more familiar with and comfortable with the part 50 process.
Here is a link to the key licensing assumption letter that TVA submitted to the NRC.
My guess is that another part of the reasoning for TVA going with Part 50 for the Clinch River site is the fact that some of the site characterization work done for the Clinch River Breeder project would still be applicable (certainly with some updates) for the proposed first installation of mPower units.
That is only my guess though.
European regulators do work closely together, DV82XL – for example the issues around control and safety system (over) integration on the EPR were the subject of a joint challenge by British, Finnish and French regulators – who worked with Areva to come up with a solution acceptable to all three.
Indeed, ther is supposed to be a simlar agreement in place concering transaltantic collaboration – but, to all accounts the NRC simply doesn’t listen to anything from outside the US
I was referring to the U.S. the U.K. and Canada, the three countries mentioned in the previous comment. All three have made a point NOT to approve the reactors of the others to protect their internal markets from offshore competition.
I’m a skeptic on this one. I think that all three have tacitly agreed to make it as difficult as possible for reactor manufacturers to achieve scale economies by serving larger markets with identically designed reactors that only have to go through the licensing process one time. They do that because all three have politically powerful fossil fuel interests to protect.
The “nuclear industries” in the three countries have not done themselves any favors; they actually do see their domestic markets as something to protect from other reactor vendors. Some of that is due to an incredibly narrow view of the market (they think they are competing for customers only against other nuclear systems) and some is because there really are no “nuclear industries.” There are a few organizations like AECL that are focused on nuclear technology, but government employees are not really very good at competition. There are other organizations like GE and Rolls Royce that would just as soon sell combustion gas turbines or wind mills as sell nuclear focused structures, systems and components. They really do not care what the heat or motive force is for their machinery.
” I think that all three have tacitly agreed to make it as difficult as possible for reactor manufacturers to achieve scale economies by serving larger markets with identically designed reactors that only have to go through the licensing process one time. They do that because all three have politically powerful fossil fuel interests to protect.”
I doubt that very much (at least in the UK case) – not only do we work jointly with other European regulators (Finnish, Franch and UK regulators have used “workshare” deals on the EPR), but we have an explict deal with the NRC (although to all accounts it’s not been overly fruitful).
The ONR has published (in 2009) this document concerning collaboration and recognition of overseas regulatory assessments:
The relevant statements are probably these:
“Our strategy for using information from, and working with, overseas regulators
during Steps 3 and 4 is built on three main strands:
■■ using information that already exists;
■■ working in co-operation on new assessment work;
■■ participating in international forums for multi-national information sharing between
20 Given that the Canadian company AECL has withdrawn the ACR1000 reactor
from GDA and GE-Hitachi have asked us to suspend work on the ESBWR, it is
appropriate that, for assessment of AP1000 and EPR, we work particularly closely
with the nuclear safety authorities from USA (the AP1000 country of origin), and
France and Finland (the EPR is under construction in both countries).
Using overseas regulator information that already exists
21 It should be noted that the prime objective of NII’s assessment is to consider
the designs against UK requirements. However, where it is considered that an
overseas regulator’s assessment can provide substantial/significant additional
assurance, as a result of its scope and rigour, then we will take this into account
during our detailed assessment work.
Conversely, where another regulator’s
assessment identifies issues of concern, then we will use this information to help us
focus our assessment efforts. In some areas, this may help us to agree common
positions with overseas regulators. In deciding to draw upon overseas assessments
we will consider the strength of evidence available to support them and how this
can best be taken account of in our own work.
22 Therefore our strategy here is to:
■■ consider what information already exists and establish initially whether this may be
useful to us. This work is already underway and will continue during Steps 3 and 4.
Examples of the types of information that is relevant are given in the IAEA IRRS
■■ as part of their assessment work, our specialist inspectors will, as far as time
and resource allow, familiarise themselves with the information that is available
within their technical area and take this into account within their own plans for
additional assessment work, areas that require sampling, and areas that have
been studied sufficiently already etc. This may require technical meetings and
exchanges with overseas regulator specialists;
■■ our specialists will use these insights to take the work of overseas regulators into
account, where appropriate, in arriving at their conclusions for GDA.
Working in co-operation with overseas regulators on new assessment work
23 As the overseas regulators have further work to do on AP1000 and EPR there
may possibly be areas where we can work co-operatively. This could include:
■■ regular technical exchanges on topics of common interest;
■■ independent validation;
■■ joint inspections;
■■ collaborative research.
24 Therefore our strategy is to:
■■ have exploratory discussions with regulators to see if there are common areas of
interest for co-operative working;
■■ if it is beneficial, some of our specialist inspectors may work co-operatively with their overseas counterparts in targeted technical areas and take the results into
account in arriving at their conclusions for GDA.”
As I said, it’s certainly been followed through with the French and Finns – but I’ve heard relatively little about the NRC. to be blunt, I think the rest of the world peceives this as a matter of cooperation amongst Peers – the NRC thinks it’s got little to learn from non-US bodies.
re “All three have made a point NOT to approve the reactors of the others ”
A bit of a mystery, then that this announcement came from the ONR as rcently as 27th June:
“27 June 2011
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has informed Westinghouse that it has agreed to close a ‘regulatory issue’ raised against its AP1000 reactor design. The regulatory issue, opened in February 2010 by ONR’s predecessor organisation (HSE’s Nuclear Directorate) concerned the AP1000’s civil structures, which were assessed by the regulator as part of the Generic Design Assessment, run jointly by ONR and the Environment Agency.
ONR has judged that although there are still design issues with the civil structures, progress made by the company means that these are now less significant and the regulator is confident that Westinghouse will be able to resolve them satisfactorily before final ‘design acceptance confirmation’ is granted”
and has given the AP1000 “stage 3” clearance, together with resolution plans for the remaining issues.
And note, we already run a Westinghouse PWR, in the form of Sizewell B.
Ya the U.K. was the first to break on this issue, but only because Magnox reactors aren’t being built anymore.
The US nuclear industry has not initiated and successfully completed a single commercial nuclear reactor since NRC came into existence in 1975. Today, hope springs eternal that the NRC will reform its licensing practices such as to allow reactors to once again be built in the USA (the current revamping of NRC reactor licensing actually began in internal agency planning in 1988) Citizens of the United States needing additional clean electrical power are still waiting for the first license to construct and operate a new nuclear reactor to materialize after over two decades of waiting.
What is needed?
A stable regulatory environment is far more important to the long-term health of the nuclear industry than any short-term government subsidies. A predictable nuclear regulatory process that permits financial supporters to more easily predict costs and anticipate schedule is vital to reviving the nuclear industry.
Oh, do grow up.
The last Magnox was started in 1963, and first generated in 1971. We had the AGRs following that, then built Sizewell B starting in 1987.
You’re only about 24 years adrift.
Which is why there are LWR in Canada, and CANDUs in the US. If the U.K. hasn’t got a domestic product to protect anymore then that is why they have let other designs in.
At any rate the original question was why isn’t the approval of one country’s nuclear regulator valid in other countries, and the answer is still protectionism and that was the case in the U.K. when they where building Magnox. In fact no one has made any effort to hide this fact, and the historical record is full of such admissions.
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