The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”) is an independent agency, created by Congress in 1974, tasked with regulating the use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected. In carrying out this responsibility, the NRC administers standards and regulations for the nuclear material industry, issues licenses for nuclear facilities and users of nuclear materials, and oversees the inspection of nuclear material facilities to ensure compliance with applicable standards and regulations. Agency functions are performed through standards-setting and rulemaking; technical reviews, studies and research; conduct of public hearings; issuance of authorizations, permits, and licenses; and inspection, investigation, and enforcement.
NRC Leadership and Organization
The NRC is led by five commissioners, each appointed by the president for a five-year term. The Executive Director for Operations carries out the policies and decisions of the NRC and directs the activities of the three primary program offices: (1) the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, which regulates the construction and operation of nuclear reactors; (2) the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, which regulates the processing, transport and handling of nuclear materials, including the provision and maintenance of safeguards against threats, theft and sabotage of these materials; and (3) the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, which oversees, or contracts for, the research and development necessary for the NRC to perform its licensing and related regulatory functions.
Licensing for the Export or Import of Nuclear Equipment or Material
The NRC authorizes exports of nuclear material in certain forms and/or as contained in consumer products, to any country not designated as an embargoed1 or restricted destination.2 Any entity in the United States that seeks to export or import nuclear equipment or material must first obtain a license from the NRC. The NRC issues two types of export and import licenses: general and specific.
NRC general licenses authorize selected exports and imports of nuclear material or equipment and are effective without the filing of a specific application with NRC, or the issuance of a licensing document by the NRC to a particular entity. However, a general license is not equivalent to an exemption from NRC regulations, and it does not relieve the general licensee from complying with other domestic regulatory requirements that may apply.
Exports or imports of nuclear commodities under NRC licensing authority that are not explicitly authorized under one of the general export or general import license provisions must first be approved by NRC through the issuance of a specific license. To obtain a specific license, an application must be filed with the NRC. Each application for an NRC-specific export or import license must provide certain details regarding the applicant, a description of the equipment or material, and information about the proposed export or import transaction.
Inspections and Site Visits
Inspections are an important element of the NRC’s oversight of its licensees. The NRC conducts periodic inspections to ensure that licensees continue to meet NRC regulatory requirements. The NRC conducts inspections of licensed nuclear power plants, fuel cycle facilities, and radioactive material activities and operations. While such inspections vary in scope, inspectors are guided by the NRC Inspection Manual, which contains objectives and procedures to use for each type of inspection.
The NRC staff also conducts routine and reactive inspections of nuclear component suppliers. The staff performs routine supplier inspections to verify effective implementation of a supplier’s quality assurance program used to furnish safety-related components and/or services to the nuclear industry. The NRC performs focused, reactive inspections of nuclear component suppliers after allegations of misconduct and under special circumstances to address operational events. Typical routine vendor inspections include approximately one week of direct inspection by a team of qualified inspectors. Vendor inspections responding to an allegation of misconduct may require additional time and resources.
The NRC Regulations and the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR ”)
The EAR provides a list of items that are not subject to the EAR because they are exclusively controlled for export or re-export by departments and agencies of the U.S. Government that regulate exports for national security or foreign policy purposes. This includes the NRC-administered regulations controlling the export and re-export of commodities related to nuclear reactor vessels. Thus, items controlled under the NRC regulations are not also subject to the EAR.
The NRC , China and India
Although the NRC has authority over the export and import of nuclear components and materials, cross-border cooperation between the NRC and its counterparts in China and India continues to increase.
In December 2006, China announced plans to construct four Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors by 2013 and more than 40 nuclear power plants over the next 15–20 years, increasing its nuclear capacity from 9 gigawatts to more than 60 gigawatts. The NRC had already certified the AP1000 design, and some nuclear industry experts assert that the NRC certification may have led the Chinese to choose U.S.-based Westinghouse over foreign competitors such as France’s Areva or Russia’s Atomstroiexport.
The NRC approved a Memorandum of Cooperation on Nuclear Safety for the Westinghouse AP1000 with its Chinese counterpart, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (“NNSA”), which provides for the establishment of an NRC-NNSA Steering Committee to oversee technical cooperation on the AP1000. This agreement is governed by the 2004 Protocol on “Cooperation in Science and Technology,” which has provided the basis for cooperation in nuclear safety matters between the NRC and its regulatory counterparts in China. The Protocol was first signed Oct. 17, 1981, and has been renewed for five-year periods since then, with the most recent renewal signed April 23, 2004.
Teams of NRC staff have visited China to work with members of the NNSA and help train them on the U.S. review and certification process for the AP1000. The NNSA has invited the NRC to continue to observe construction of the AP1000 until its completion. The NRC Chairman has stated that when fabrication of specialized components begins, the NRC will send vendor inspectors to China to observe the fabrication process, and that he expects the NNSA to send inspectors to the United States to inspect components going to China.
In July 2007, the governments of the United States and India entered into the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (“123 Agreement”), reflecting the intentions of both countries to cooperate on research and development, nuclear safety, and commercial trade in nuclear reactors, components, technology and fuel. The 123 Agreement affirms fuel supply assurances that President Bush made to the Government of India in March 2006, and gives consent to India to pursue nuclear fuel cycle activities, provided that India adopt certain International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. In addition to executive-level cooperation, a strong relationship exists between the NRC and its Indian counterpart, the Atomic Energy Regulation Board of India. The agencies’ leadership meets several times each year, and the NRC Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation and Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research have each hosted Indian nuclear scientists as temporary experts.
The NRC licensing, export/import and inspection regulations can be quite complex. Nevertheless, opportunities for U.S.-based companies in the nuclear industry continue to grow as the U.S. Government pursues its nuclear interests abroad through cooperative initiatives such as those currently on-going in China and India. Taking full advantage of these new opportunities requires a strong understanding of the NRC regulations, as well as the integration of an NRC compliance program into a company’s overall U.S. regulatory compliance program.