Senatorsat an oversight hearing on the agency's roughly $982 million budget request forfiscal year 2017 squabbled over the level of resources needed by the Nuclear RegulatoryCommission to perform its mission.
NRC ChairmanStephen Burns, in a statement before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public WorksCommittee on April 6, said that while the commission expects to be a smaller agencyas a reflection of "workload reductions and efficiency gains, the need forthe great majority of the services [that] we provide the American people remainsunchanged."
The cutsare evident in the NRC's proposed fiscal-year 2017 budget, which if, excluding the$11.2 million that will go toward the Office of the Inspector General for auditingand investigations, saw a net decrease of $19.8 million from the fiscal-year 2016enacted budget, to $970.2 million.
"TheNRC's safety mission is a critical one, but it accomplished its mission with significantlyfewer resources in the past," committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.,said in his opening remarks. The senator said the additional $31 million in costsavings put forward by the NRC under its Project Aim initiative is not enough. "Thecommission should move beyond incremental savings and examine its budget and regulatoryprocesses more fundamentally. The NRC can do better. I've seen it do better,"Inhofe said.
Inhofe,who has served on the committee since 1998, said the inefficiencies and market challengesthat he said plagued the NRC in the late 1990s appear to have returned. He recommendedthe NRC face them by being objective and safety-focused as well as timely and fiscallyresponsive when reviewing licensing by enforcing stricter application of the backfitrule, by avoiding vague terms such as "enhanced defense-in-depth" in itsregulatory decision-making, and by issuing a more disciplined use of "requestsfor additional information" when reviewing safety and environmental issuesnot addressed in applications.
However,the prospect of cuts concerned Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who addressed the commissionerson the threat of cuts undermining safety, in particular by reducing the hours ofplant inspections. NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Baran, in his statement, said he isconcerned about cuts reducing inspection hours.
Boxer,whose earthquake-prone-state is home to the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, asked why the NRC did not implementpost-Fukushima safety recommendations from its 2011 taskforce or set a target datefor permanent upgrades to mitigate power outages at nuclear plants from seismicactivity or flooding that would threaten a reactor meltdown.
Boxerreminded the NRC what is at stake for the industry in a post-Fukushima era, in which,she said, the majority of Americans are now against nuclear energy for the firsttime. "If we want to convince the American people again that they're wrongon nuclear power, that it can be done safely, this is the worst way to go aboutit," Boxer said. "One mess-up in any one of these power plants and it'sover for the nuclear power industry."
In theNRC's proposed budget, $861.2 million of its requested $970.2 million will be recoveredfrom fees assessed to NRC licensees, which will result in a net appropriation of$121.1 million. According to Burns' written statement, this appropriation is anincrease of $2.1 million compared to the fiscal-year 2016 enacted budget due tothe inclusion of $5 million in non-fee-recoverable resources for advanced nuclearreactor technology.
The inclusionof $5 million aimed at preparing for the eventual reviewing and licensing of advancednon-light water nuclear reactors was also raised at the hearing. Burns said the$5 million should go toward answering questions about whether the agency needs tochange regulations or provide guidance on how to address certain regulatory aspects.
In addition,he said, the NRC is talking with its Canadian counterparts on emulating their applicationprocess in regard to topical reports that "don't give a final sign-off butencouragement" that a would-be applicant is moving in the right direction insubmitting a successful application. However, Burns said the NRC does not "reallyexpect" an advanced non-light water application until the mid-2020s. "Sowe have some time there," he said after the hearing.
In addition,the NRC's budget request for siting, licensing and overseeing construction of newreactors is $169.9 million, which represents a funding decrease of $1.4 milliondue to delays in application submittals and project slowdowns and suspensions.
Duringthe upcoming fiscal year, the NRC also expects to continue reviewing three new reactorcombined license applications for new plants at North Anna, TurkeyPoint and Bell Bend. Additionally, the NRC will continue to conductinspections of four new reactors under construction: Alvin W. Vogtle units 3 and 4 and units 2 and 3. The NRCalso expects to receive and begin review of one small modular reactor design certificationapplication from Fluor Corp.subsidiary NuScale Power LLC.