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US Sen. Barrasso: Nuke critics will attack NRC if it loses quorum

If the U.S. nuclear energy regulatory agency loses its quorum this summer anti-nuclear activists will use that lack of a quorum to undermine the agency, warned the chairman of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during a March 21 budget oversight hearing.

Sen. John Barrasso, R.-Wyo., therefore urged his colleagues to approve U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission nominees before the expiration of Democratic commissioner Jeffrey Baran's first term at the end of June.

The NRC's five-member commission needs at least three members to reach a quorum. Otherwise, the commission's rulemaking and adjudication responsibilities are delegated to the NRC chair, who is currently Republican Kristine Svinicki.

The Environment and Public Works committee advanced the nominations of Republicans Annie Caputo and David Wright to sit at the NRC in June 2017, and the reappointment of Baran to the agency in October 2017. However, a partisan impasse over whether Baran's reconfirmation should be tied to the other two's nominations continues to block a full floor vote for all three.

Barrasso said the NRC works best with "all five commissioners in place." He noted that the NRC has been without a quorum only once since its founding in 1974, when for seven consecutive months in the mid-1990s the agency's authority was delegated to a single commissioner.

"Not surprisingly anti-nuclear activists then challenged the delegation of authority," said Barrasso. "If the NRC loses its quorum in June, I fully expect those same forces to once again challenge the NRC's authority and ability to act."

Barrasso also questioned NRC's budget request of $971 million for fiscal year 2019, nearly $60 million more than the prior-year budget. The requested $60 million budget increase includes $10 million to craft a regulatory framework for advanced reactors and $48 million related to activities for restarting the licensing of the contested Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. As required by law, 90% of the NRC's budget must be recovered through fees collected by nuclear plant owners with reactor operating licenses or those applying for them.

"The key question that Congress needs to ask is: does the NRC's expected workload in 2019 justify licensees paying for a budget increase," pondered Barrasso. "I ask this because at the end of fiscal year 2017, the NRC had over-budgeted by $31 million."

Barrasso said it was baffling that the NRC continues to ask for more funding year-after-year as its workload decreases and the nation's civil nuclear fleet dwindles, with three reactors scheduled to shutter in 2019.

In contrast, ranking Democratic member Tom Carper of Delaware expressed skepticism that President Donald Trump's proposed budget provides the NRC with enough funding to both protect the public's safety and be responsive to the nuclear industry's needs.

"I believe there are smart ways that we can save federal money without crippling an agency’s mission or morale," said Carper. "We must ensure the NRC has adequate funding to continue to attract the best and brightest talent so that the agency continues to be the global standard for safety."

The NRC's requested fiscal-year 2019 budget would support 3,247 full-time equivalent employees, which is 149 fewer employees from what was authorized in the 2018 annualized continuing resolution. This decline in NRC staff is partially linked to the pending completion of work associated with the NRC's Fukushima Near-Term Task Force.

Responding to questions, Baran testified that budget cuts over the years are pushing NRC staff morale, its ability to complete work in a timely manner, and agency recruitment "close" to the breaking point if it is not already there "to some extent."

"There are fewer promotional opportunities, fewer training opportunities, [and] it's harder to move around the agency [than it once was]," explained Baran. "People want to know that there's a long-term future for them at the agency."

While Baran acknowledged that recent staff reductions "made a lot of sense" and helped the NRC bring its budget in line with its workload, he said continued layoffs of 12% of full-time staff every two years is not sustainable going forward and urged that job reductions "should be leveling off" now.