In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rejected a proposal by the NRC staff to add a “Design Basis Extension” category of events to the agency’s regulations. The staff’s proposal resulted from Recommendation 1 from the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force Report. The Task Force Report had characterized the existing regulatory framework as a “patchwork” of requirements and safety initiatives, and recommended establishing a “logical, systematic, and coherent regulatory framework for adequate protection that appropriately balances defense-in-depth and risk considerations.” The staff proposed three separate, “practical,” and “lost-cost” “improvement activities” to address Recommendation 1: (1) establish a design-basis extension category of events and requirements with associated internal NRC guidance, policies, and procedures, (2) establish Commission expectations for defense-in-depth through the development of a policy statement, and (3) clarify the role of voluntary industry initiatives in the NRC regulatory process. 

The Commission disapproved implementation of all three “improvement activities” as proposed. It directed that the objectives of the first two activities be reevaluated in the context of the long-term Risk Management Regulatory Framework (RMRF - a result of a separate effort headed by Commissioner Apostolakis). The Commission also directed the staff, under activity 3, to evaluate the current implementation status on the most risk- or safety-significant voluntary initiatives to verify that those initiatives are being adequately implemented. With these decisions, the Commission clearly declared that Recommendation 1 from the Near-Term Task Force “is closed.”

Although the Commission ultimately decided against the proposed activities, the underlying votesdemonstrate the varying degrees to which individual Commissioners did – but mostly did not – support the proposals. Commissioner Ostendorff approved all three activities. Chairman Macfarlane approved activities 1 and 2, and elements of the activity 3 recommendation. Commissioner Apostolakis voted to defer activities 1 and 2 to the RMRF, but approved clarifying the role of voluntarily initiatives. Commissioner Magwood disapproved activities 1 and 2, while approving elements of the staff’s proposal regarding voluntary initiatives. Finally, Commissioner Svinicki disapproved all three activities. She agreed with the staff’s determination that the activities are not necessary for maintaining safety, but took issue with the staff’s conclusion that the activities could be accomplished at only “modest” resource levels, stating plainly: “[t]his conclusion defies credulity....”

The proposed activities to implement Recommendation 1 have been characterized in the documents and trade press as “streamlining” the NRC’s regulations. The characterization seems to presume that the existing regulations are indeed a “patchwork.” But more directly, the characterization seems suspect given the questionable anticipated safety benefit. And experience teaches that adding new requirements has seldom involved “streamlining” anything. The concerns of some of the Commissioners regarding the resources that would be needed to implement the proposed initiatives seem to belie the characterization.