A few weeks ago, we highlighted the need for broad changes to the NRC’s fee structure, noting the challenging economic conditions facing nuclear power in the United States. The large fees charged to nuclear generators, the source of over one-half of the country’s carbon-free generation, are in sharp contrast with policies that promote and subsidize renewables. In response to similar concerns, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sens. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S 2795) to address the NRC’s fee structure and processes.
The proposed legislation would eliminate federal laws that require the NRC to recover approximately 90 percent of its budget through fees (excluding only certain items such as generic homeland security activities and amounts appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund) and replace it with a fee recovery process more closely linked to the services that the agency already provides. The legislation would also limit the amount of the agency’s budget that could be spent on corporate support costs—such as administrative services, financial management, human resources, information management and technology, policy support, training, and travel—to levels in line with other federal agencies. And, it would cap annual fees for operating power reactors at the FY 2015 level, subject to adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. These are all good ideas that would go a long way towards improving the NRC’s fee recovery processes.
Other aspects of the legislation aim to tackle concerns with the transparency of NRC fees. The legislation would obligate the NRC to develop and implement processes to audit invoices to ensure accuracy, transparency, and fairness of invoices and modify NRC regulations to give licensees and applicants an opportunity to efficiently dispute or otherwise seek review and correction of errors in invoices for fees and charges. On the accountability front, the legislation would direct the Commission to develop performance metrics and milestones schedules. While this would not necessarily be new, the legislation also includes provisions requiring the NRC staff to notify the Commission of delays in issuing safety evaluations that deviate substantially from the milestone schedule.
These proposed changes come at a critical time. Although there are a number of new reactors under construction, the total number of operating reactors has declined over the past several years. Yet, the NRC’s budget has remained relatively flat or increased. As a result, the remaining reactor licensees are subject to higher fees. Announcements of additional retirements would only exacerbate this problem. Similarly, uranium mines have faced substantial increases in annual fees in the recent past. Plans by the State of Wyoming to become an Agreement State would remove the majority of the remaining NRC-licensed mines from the NRC’s fee base, resulting in dramatic fee increases for the remaining NRC licensees. This dynamic is unsustainable and highlights the fundamental need for change.