Three federal lawmakers suggest NRC unprepared for workload

Three US congressmen ordered inquiry into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s ability to respond to a “significant” increase in licensing activity at operating nuclear power plants.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex), chairman of the subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality; and Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), chairman of the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, outlined their concern in a letter to NRC Chairman Richard Meserve.

The lawmakers said the staff is conducting a detailed evaluation of NRC’s current resources, fiscal year (FY) 2002 budget request, and future plans to deal with this new workload. While incomplete, they said some initial findings were cause for concern.

“With respect to nuclear reactor licensing activities, it is apparent that the number of power uprate applications, license transfer applications, license renewal applications, and preapplication interactions for new licenses NRC has received this year was well beyond the number anticipated,” they said. “For the current fiscal year, NRC planned for 3 power uprate applications, but has received 17.”

Several power uprate applications are larger than any NRC has handled before and would increase output capacity at four reactors by as much as 17%. NRC typically has budgeted for two or three license transfer applications per year, but according to a recent NRC briefing the agency will receive between 20-25 transfer applications this year as the industry continues to merge and consolidate, the lawmakers said.

With respect to license renewal requests, the lawmakers noted, NRC planned for two new renewal applications in FY 2000 and four in FY 2001, but has received three and five, respectively.

Finally, they said, NRC has no planned budget for new licensing activities, but has had to create a future licensing organization within the office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation to respond to several requests from the nuclear industry to begin reviewing next generation technologies.

Based on several briefings NRC has provided committee staff, the congressmen said, NRC’s oversight of nuclear safety has not been compromised even though a reallocation and possibly a reprogramming of NRC funds may be necessary to work on these unplanned activities.

However, they said the committee wants a better understanding of the regulatory, research, licensing, and other activities that will be delayed as a result of resource constraints NRC is experiencing this year. Furthermore, the congressmen said they are concerned NRC’s FY 2002 budget proposal contains no funding to support license and research activities toward new nuclear plant technologies, including the Pebble Bed modular reactor and the gas turbine – modular helium reactor, early site approvals, restart of licensing of existing applications, or a potential Part 52 combined construction/operating license application.

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