On March 10, 2015, I attended my first ever Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), which is an annual event hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I had heard from various associates that everyone who is anyone in the nuclear industry should plan to go to the RIC whenever possible.
They were right. First of all, the conference fee is just rightsized for an independent publisher – zero dollars. That also makes it just right for any member of the public who is interested in finding out more about nuclear energy regulation and makes it right for any organization that wants to send a large contingent to the meeting. Other ideal candidates for attendance include nuclear professionals who might be looking for their next employment opportunity.
Aside: I ran into several former colleagues from the mPower project who fit that last description. End Aside.
Over the years I’ve attended numerous conferences hosted by various groups within the nuclear community. The RIC was, by far, the most heavily attended of them all. There were close to 3,000 people there — perhaps because of that rightsized price — with the overwhelming majority of them being older white men in dark suits.
It says something slightly disturbing about an industry where the largest annual gathering is hosted by the regulatory body for the purpose of explaining its actions to the people that must abide by the directives, memos, guidance, and regulations. We need some innovative thinkers who can change that situation.
On the morning of day one, which was the only day my schedule would allow me to attend, Chairman Burns, Commissioners Ostendorff and Svinicki, and the Executive Director for Operations (EDO) Satorius each gave talks and addressed a few written questions from the audience. Those talks were captured with full video and are available on the NRC webcast archive site. (Look for videos with RIC 2015 in the title.)
Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for verbal questions from the floor. That’s usually one of my specialties at a nuclear conference. At most nuclear gatherings I attend, there are few people who can beat me in a dash to the microphone.
For a thoughtful, entertaining and personally revealing speech, it would be difficult to beat the talk that Commissioner Svinicki gave. Even with a pretty big audio issue through a part of her talk, she captivated the audience and provided a great deal of insight into the way that she approaches the task of serving as a regulator.
One of the specific topics that she addressed was timely and worth highlighting. A fairly constant refrain from certain politicians and antinuclear activists is that the nuclear industry has been slow to implement the recommendations made by the Fukushima Task Force that was hastily assembled by Chairman Jaczko and tasked with providing a reaction roadmap within the 90 days after the event.
Commissioner Svinicki explained how hundreds of members of the commission staff have taken that report as a reasonable first look at the event and added their own expertise and experience in formulating effective plans that meld with other industry actions without duplicating them or conflicting with them. Her words are better than my interpretation of them; please watch the short clip below.
A written question was submitted from the floor to Chairman Burns regarding the conduct of public meetings. Though I am not positive of the source of that question, I’m reasonably confident that it was at least partially stimulated by the intensive discussion in various nuclear blogs about the intimidating environment that was tolerated by the NRC at the Feb 19, 2015 meeting in Brattleboro, VT.
During his later talk, Mark Satorius, the Executive Director for Operations, added some additional information. Both the chairman and the EDO acknowledged the need to improve, but seemed a bit cautious about making any affirmative statement about maintaining good order. Satorious indicated that a study group within the agency was tasked last summer to review public meeting conduct. He said that the report from that effort would be sent to the Chairman within the next few weeks. I joined the questions and responses from the chairman and EDO together in the below clip.
Chairman Burns also addressed an important question that affects the US’s ability to be a leader in nuclear innovation. Here is a transcript of that question and response, followed by the excerpted video from the recorded talk.
William Dean: (Reading a question submitted by RIC 2015 audience) How can the commission deal expeditiously with entrepreneurial non-light water advanced reactors, likely without a traditional utility buyer?
Chairman Burns: I think the staff is in a position to speak with those who might be interested in it to understand what some of the issue are with respect to where the NRC has a role to play in terms of licensing; in terms of understanding what the acceptance criteria are.
But again, because we are a few-based agency, those who come in generally will have to be able to pay for the application; be willing to pay for the application review. There has been some work, I know, in the Department of Energy in terms of working with some of those who might be interested in the newer technologies. But development side, that’s where that’s going to have to be.
What we can do, as I alluded to in my speech, we are engaged in a project that looks at general design criteria for advanced reactor or non-light water reactor designs. And that’s the type of work we can do to assure that our processes are as transparent as they can be and that they are also — and again this is consistent with our principles of good regulation — that they’re repeatable. That they’re repeatable in terms of what the criteria are and what the necessary hurdles are to obtain acceptance or licensing in those circumstances.
What that interaction reveals is a functional system breakdown that can be described as a “chicken or egg” or “Catch-22” conundrum. The regulatory agency that has a monopoly right to grant permission to own and operate nuclear reactors in the United States has no existing criteria for reactors that are not based on light water technology.
Developers are free to approach the NRC and volunteer to pay $279 per hour to the government to have them listen and think about developing the necessary criteria. Assuming they complete that task, then the developers are free to develop an application for a technology that meets all of the criteria and then pay the NRC to review that application.
It might not be clear to people who have always worked for the government, but investors cannot make that kind of commitment to a project that has no way to control either cost or schedule. The complete lack of clarity and the idea of supporting government activity that has no time limit based on an hourly fee schedule prevents any interest in developing advanced reactors. Even Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, decided he could not afford to risk entry into that process.
I had the opportunity to participate in a press conference with Chairman Burns during the mid morning break. That gave me the chance to ask a follow-up question. In his answer, Chairman Burns agreed that a technology neutral set of criteria would be an ideal situation and that he would be working with his staff to consider how those may best be developed.
In hallway conversations during the rest of the afternoon, I was involved in several discussions on various ways to alter the situation. Some of the ideas included the formation of what would essentially be a standards group among nuclear technology innovators — to include both established entrepreneurial companies, dedicated academics with a focus on new technology development, and perhaps even some pre-formation stage entrepreneurial inventors — that could develop a proposed set of general design criteria for advanced reactors.
If that group put its collective mind to the task, and gave up any hidden agenda of skewing rules to favor something they have already developed, it is possible that they could present the NRC with a set of technology agnostic design criteria that could be reviewed, revised if necessary, and adopted.
I heard rumors that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has formed an advanced reactor study group that might be able to perform this function, but that might not the correct sponsorship group. The NEI already has a strong constituency that has shown that it has little interest in enabling new reactor technology to be efficiently developed and deployed.
It really is okay for people to recognize that there are many different interest groups within the nuclear umbrella; perhaps it is time to develop a few specialized voices that can represent the varying views of inventors, manufacturers, operators, and suppliers.
That particular topic was a big one at my end of the hotel bar after the day’s meetings had adjourned. Other participants in that conversation shall remain nameless at this time.