Faced with intense cost pressure from inexpensive natural gas and incentivized renewables, the nuclear energy industry has actively searched in recent months for operating efficiencies and regulatory burden reduction. The Nuclear Energy Institute developed a strategic plan, Delivering the Nuclear Promise, that has already resulted in more than 40 industry “efficiency bulletins” addressing opportunities to improve operating practices. And, on the regulatory side, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched Project Aim to right-size the agency and streamline regulatory processes (which, among other things, reduces fees the NRC charges to applicants and licensees).
Interest in regulatory reforms has stepped up further as a result of the emerging policies of the Trump Administration. Several executive orders have explicitly focused on regulatory burdens, including Executive Order 13771, “Reducing Regulations and Controlling Regulatory Costs,” and Executive Order 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda.” And Executive Order 13783, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” specifically directs agencies to review existing regulations that may burden domestic energy resources with an eye to suspending, revising, or rescinding regulations that “unduly burden” energy resources.
All of this raises the question: what NRC regulations or regulatory processes might be considered for relaxation in the spirit of the executive orders? Neither the NRC nor the industry seems likely to propose eliminating substantive regulations that provide clear safety benefits. The industry itself, including through the efforts of organizations such as INPO, has always sought both improved economic performance and increased safety and reliability. But, putting aside the unlikely prospect of eliminating regulations, opportunities for regulatory reform certainly exist.
For example, is the NRC’s oversight program as efficient and cost-effective as it should be? The Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) was developed as an improvement upon the NRC’s traditional civil enforcement process—in transparency, objectivity, consistency, and efficiency. And clearly the program has achieved those goals in some respects. But the ROP management meeting process, the Significance Determination Process, and the “regulatory response” inspections for various performance indicators and performance deficiencies (the 9500X inspections) have proven to be costly endeavors—both in preparation and in execution. In particular, the initiating events and the scope of the subsequent regulator response inspections seem to merit review.
The NRC’s Office of Investigations (OI) also serves an important function in its focus on potential deliberate misconduct and “whistleblower” retaliation cases. But the investigations impose burdens on licensees who cooperate with the investigations through document requests and personnel interviews. Changes in regulations will not be the answer to increase regulatory efficiency in this area. On the other hand, changes in policies and procedures may be possible to assure that full investigations are initiated at an appropriate threshold and are conducted efficiently.
For example, there could be a hard look at the NRC’s practices for initiating and resolving cases. The NRC has thresholds for investigations now, but these might be revisited. Could there be an OI equivalent of a non-cited violation? Criteria that might be considered include: Who is alleged to be involved? What level of management? Were there any actual safety or regulatory consequences? Has the matter been addressed by the company (e.g., through the disciplinary process or in the corrective action program)? At appropriate levels of concern, the NRC should be able to conclude that a full OI evaluation and the prospect of action directly against an individual is not enough of a regulatory benefit to justify the cost of an investigation. Not every Section 50.5, 50.7, or 50.9 “violation”—even if substantiated—warrants application of the full federal investigatory and prosecutorial apparatus.
Similarly, not every case deserves a “check every box” investigation. OI management oversight of individual cases should be directed as much to preserving and prioritizing the NRC’s resources as it is to “assuring a complete and thorough” investigation. In the end, perhaps the most effective way to control the process would be to reduce the budget—to force management to pick cases more carefully and to manage investigations more efficiently.
The flip side of managing the investigation burden is the issue of allegations referred to licensees (and other companies) for response. This process is intended to be less intrusive than an OI investigation, and in many respects it is. But, this too can be a costly regulatory process for a company—especially small vendors, such as equipment fabricators, or contractors with tight economic margins. One issue is again the threshold for when a referral or request for information is necessary. Are there issues that can be closed out by an NRC inspection? Another consideration is the NRC’s expectations for a company’s response. In regulatory practice there is often a tendency to continuously define expectations upward—more independence in the company’s investigation; more interviews (such as interviews to sample safety culture); or more document reviews or verifications. Refining the level of expectations in these areas may be essential in right-sizing the regulatory burden.
In the end, the Administration’s recent executive orders focus on regulations. But the more fertile ground for efficiencies may be in regulatory policies and practices. Focused changes, coupled with the ongoing reviews of the industry’s own operating procedures and practices, should offer significant benefits.