On March 23, the NRC issued proposed rules updating license fees. This is an annual exercise due to federal laws that require the NRC to recover approximately 90 percent of its budget through fees, excluding certain items, such as generic homeland security activities and amounts appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund. The NRC accomplishes this through a combination of licensing/inspection fees under 10 CFR Part 170 and annual fees for certain facility licensees under 10 CFR Part 171.

The updated fees come at a time when the U.S. nuclear industry is facing significant economic challenges from low natural gas process and subsidized renewables. The industry has launched a multiyear initiative to enable its nuclear power plants to generate electricity more efficiently, economically, and safely. The NRC has also engaged in efforts to reduce its budget, and therefore fees charged to licensees and applicants, by identifying ways to reduce expenses to better reflect the agency’s current workload. On June 8, 2015, the Commission issued a Staff Requirements Memorandum regarding “Project Aim 2020 Report and Recommendations,” directing the NRC Staff to perform a common prioritization of all work activities across the agency with the goal of increasing regulatory efficiency. In SECY-16-0009, the NRC Staff identified a number of activities that that could be shed, de-prioritized, or performed with fewer resources—approximately $5 million in savings.

The NRC’s efforts to date will not result in meaningful reductions in the fees charged to licensees. After billing and collection adjustments, NRC’s fee recovery amount for fiscal year 2016 is $883.9 million, which is only nominally less than the $888.7 million for fiscal year 2015. Opportunities for more significant changes exist. Certainly there are a number of areas that the NRC has not yet tackled that could result in more substantial reductions. But, more fundamentally, it may be an appropriate time for Congress to reconsider and appropriately adjust the federal laws that limit the NRC’s flexibility on fees. A relatively minor change in the percentage required to be collected from licensees would have a limited impact on the Federal budget, while simultaneously have a large beneficial impact on the fees charged to licensees and applicants. The time may even be right for Congress to eliminate NRC fee recovery entirely to reduce the burden on a valuable source of non-carbon emitting generation. That would have the additional ancillary benefit of eliminating any perception that fees play a role in agency decisions.

Comments are due by April 23, 2016.