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House Leaders Ask NRC for Greater Efficiency in Decision-Making

Nov. 27, 2013—Two leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, writing to commend the NRC for resuming its review of the Yucca Mountain repository license application as ordered by a federal court, have asked the agency to explain why it could not perform more efficiently overall.

The NRC’s five-member commission earlier this month ordered agency staff to complete the safety evaluation reports on the Energy Department’s application to construct a repository for used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Nov. 19).

Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the subcommittee on energy and power, and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee on environment and the economy, noted in a Nov. 21 letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane that “the commission’s vote took place 97 days” after the court’s August ruling.

The letter expresses a general concern with the agency’s “inability to reconcile its declining workload and reduced number of licensees with its erosion of schedule discipline.”

The congressmen noted that the NRC not only is reviewing fewer applications for new reactors than it had earlier anticipated but is overseeing fewer operating reactors.

“In the past year, licensees have announced decisions to prematurely close five reactors. By the end of 2014, only 99 reactors will be operating and additional reactors may close prematurely which would further decrease the agency’s oversight workload,” the letter said. “In 2004, the NRC oversaw nearly 5,000 materials licensees. Today, that number is down to less than 3,000.”

“We would expect to see any decrease in workload [to] lead to more timely reviews but that does not appear to be the case here,” the letter said.

They also pointed to long delays in the NRC’s certification reviews for new, advanced reactor designs.

“While we heartily support the NRC’s mission … we feel compelled to ask: Is the NRC functioning as efficiently as it should and are its actions focused on matters that are safety significant?”

This inefficiency could negatively affect the economics of nuclear energy, the letter warned.

“These dynamics compound the challenges to the economic viability of existing nuclear plants and inhibit future new plant development,” it said.

The letter comes as the House committee prepares for a hearing scheduled for Dec. 12. Whitfield and Shimkus asked Macfarlane to respond to a series of questions by Dec. 5, in time for the hearing. Among several others, the questions ask for:

  • steps the agency is taking to identify declining workloads and to propose “corresponding resource reductions”
  • a schedule for the release of each outstanding volume of the Yucca Mountain safety evaluation reports
  • an estimate of the resources necessary to complete review of the Yucca license application in response to the court’s decision and to issue a decision on construction authorization for the repository “as mandated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

The Federal Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit ordered the NRC to resume its review of the Yucca Mountain application in August (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Aug. 13).