Policy Briefs


November 2013


Key Points

  • Examining the cumulative impact of regulatory actions is a priority issue for the nuclear energy industry. The NRC should be accountable for ensuring that regulatory actions are integrated and coordinated so that the necessary focus on safety is maintained and that new requirements can be effectively implemented.
  • Industry supports the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recommendation to take action on cumulative impact of regulatory action, yet it believes the scope of this review should be expanded to include all forms of NRC requirements.
  • The requirements in any integrated regulatory plan should be prioritized based on safety and security significance, but there is no publicly available NRC process for determining the priority of regulatory actions based on predefined measures.
  • The industry supports the development of a template for managing cumulative impact from regulatory actions.

 

Background

The nuclear energy industry and the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission hold safety of the public, plant employees and the environment as their top priority. The NRC’s mission includes establishing and enforcing regulations for the safe operation of nuclear energy facilities. Over the years, the amount of regulatory activity and industry-driven requirements has increased, requiring nuclear power plant operators to devote more resources to compliance efforts, some of which do little to enhance safety.

The NRC’s “Principles of Good Regulation” emphasizes that “regulatory activities should be consistent with the degree of risk reduction they achieve” and that when there are several effective alternatives, “the option which minimizes the use of resources should be adopted.” Yet it is not apparent that new requirements meet the principles, especially concerning relative safety significance. A more coordinated approach to regulation—informed by safety insights with accurate cost-benefit analysis—would help ensure that high-priority actions are taken before those that would have less of an impact on safety and that there are no conflicting requirements or regulatory gaps.

One example of regulatory processes gone astray is the NRC’s requirements to enhance the debris screens on reactor containment sumps. The issue, which presented a tangible safety impact, was quickly addressed by all affected plants. However, the focus shifted from the original issue to related concerns. As a result, the process has spanned more than a decade, during which time facility operators have been required to propose a series of options for resolving the issues, each of which has led to more questions from the NRC. The agency initially estimated the cost of compliance to be $2 million to $3 million per reactor. Some companies have spent more than 10 times that amount and the issues remain unresolved. NRC commissioners recently observed that the scope of the regulation had morphed into something beyond what originally was intended.

 

NRC Commissioners Direct Agency Review of Aggregate Impact of Regulation

The NRC has discussed the cumulative impacts of regulation for several years. In 2010, the agency’s commissioners directed the staff to consider if the process and schedule for implementing new rules should be influenced by the “aggregate impact” of the new and recently issued regulations already scheduled for implementation.

The NRC staff followed in 2011 with a paper advising the commission of its plans for enhancing regulation to enable explicit consideration of cumulative effects of regulation. Following a hiatus caused by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan, NRC restarted public interactions on cumulative effects of regulation. An NRC staff paper was sent to the commission in October 2012 recommending steps to reduce the cumulative effects of rulemaking.

This March, the NRC commissioners voted to adopt the staff’s recommendations for improving nuclear safety and regulatory efficiency. The commissioners called for a more-encompassing “holistic” evaluation to include not just rulemaking but “significant compounding effects of the NRC’s actions.” The commissioners directed the NRC staff to consider the effects of all the agency’s regulatory activities and called for case studies on how regulations have affected individual facilities and an assessment of the accuracy of NRC’s timetables and cost estimates.

A prioritization process and accompanying draft implementation guide was developed in 2013. Prior to industrywide implementation, it is being tested through pilot activities in a three-phase project: tabletop exercises, update of the guidance to reflect lessons learned from the tabletop activities, and field pilot testing at select plants. The objective is to complete the testing in early 2014 to enable insights and recommendations to be made to the commission in July 2014 and industrywide implementation starting late 2014.

 

More Action Needed to Develop Smarter Regulatory Approach

Although the commission’s vote was a first step in making NRC regulations more efficiently, more action is required to develop a smarter approach to regulation that is focused on safety:

  • The NRC should develop a public process for determining the priority of regulatory actions based on safety considerations and informed by the science of risk evaluation.
     
  • Evaluation of regulations by the NRC should result in one of the following:
  • accelerated implementation of actions that have high safety significance or are associated with protecting public health
  • normal implementation consistent with the importance when compared with other tasks required of nuclear power plant operators
  • deferment because of the need for additional information to define the desired outcome of the regulation
  • deferment because the proposed action has lower safety significance than other industry and regulatory actions.

 

  • The NRC’s move to increase public input during the development of rules should result in more realistic implementation plans and schedules that take into account the safety significance of the actions. Energy companies should be provided the flexibility to adjust the schedule of implementing NRC requirements based on the safety significance of new issues.

 

  • The NRC should consider all regulatory requirements as part of its assessment of cumulative impact of agency action. In fiscal 2012, the agency issued fewer than 20 rules, but there were more than 50 generic communications, including notices, advisories and other regulatory actions. All of these actions demanded the attention of licensees and should be considered in steps to address cumulative impact. The NRC’s assessment should include power reactors, fuel-cycle facilities and byproduct material licensees.

 

  • Regulatory activity should be coordinated to ensure there are no overlaps or contradictions between proposed and existing regulations. Management of the process should include all NRC.