WASHINGTON—As deregulation of the electric utility industry unfolds, the biggest uncertainty facing the owners and operators of nuclear energy plants is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inconsistent, outdated regulatory process, the industry's top executives told members of Congress today.
Testifying at an NRC oversight hearing conducted by a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee, Joe F. Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that agency and industry resources are consumed by matters that have low safety significance, including a dramatic rise in enforcement actions that lack any connection to safety.
"NRC enforcement action focuses on strict compliance, and its inherently subjective concept of 'regulatory significance' is misplaced and has the potential to adversely affect safety," Colvin said.
"As the United States makes the transition to a competitive market for electricity production and distribution, our most significant business uncertainty is not the cost of fuel, such as natural gas, or changing environmental requirements on emissions that may increase the cost of, or limit production from, fossil fuel sources. The most significant area of uncertainty is the NRC's inconsistent, outdated regulatory process, its drain on the agency budget and utility resources, and its failure to focus directly on regulations that are most important to protecting public health and safety," he said.
Echoing Colvin's call for a regulatory process that permits resources to be focused on safety, James T. Rhodes, chairman and chief executive officer of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, said the industry has achieved steady gains in safety performance in large part through the determined efforts of the professionals running the 100-plus nuclear power plants that generate 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs.
"This professional commitment to excellence cannot be mandated by regulations, no matter how strict," Rhodes said. He gave the committee an overview of objective, performance-based indicators that INPO tracks to monitor plant performance—including availability of safety systems and the trend of "significant events"—and concluded, "For more than a decade now, there has been a substantial improvement in the safety and reliability of our country's nuclear plants."
Colvin emphasized that safety always will be the industry's top priority, and that a strong, credible regulator is essential to ensuring public trust and confidence in the industry. The industry's steady, consistent improvements in safety performance over the past 20 years have been achieved despite, not because of, a regulatory process mired by conflicting interpretations that often circumvent the formal rulemaking process, he said.
"The safety, reliability and economic performance of U.S. nuclear power stations have improved dramatically during the past two decades, yet the NRC's regulatory programs and oversight have failed to recognize these changes. Assessment, inspection and enforcement policies are inconsistent with the industry's high level of performance," Colvin said.
Having long advocated the need for comprehensive regulatory reform, the industry applauds the recent steps that the commission has taken in that direction and stands ready to work cooperatively with the agency to complete the process, Colvin told the Senate Environment Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety. He warned, however, that the onset of a competitive electricity marketplace will not permit reform to continue at the halting pace that has existed to date.
"Immediate, fundamental changes in policy and culture are necessary," he said. "At every turn, NRC's regulatory procedures are overly prescriptive—a process rooted in the 1950s, when knowledge about nuclear safety and nuclear plant operating experience was evolving."
Colvin called on Congress to provide oversight to ensure efficient NRC reform and urged members to authorize the Commission's budget in one-year increments "until the committee is satisfied that the agency is successfully on the path of implementing meaningful reforms." He also urged Congress to require an independent study of NRC programs, as well as management and staff effectiveness.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.