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Industry Urges NRC to Revise Government Shutdown Plan

Oct. 31, 2013—The nuclear energy industry has urged the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to revise its plans for dealing with a government shutdown, saying the agency’s decision to furlough 92 percent of its staff during the recent shutdown reflected an overly restrictive definition of essential safety functions.

The industry also noted that, since 90 percent of the NRC’s budget is recovered from fees levied on licensees, the agency should seek an agreement from Congress or the administration to allow fee-based activities to continue in the event of a shutdown.

During the recent shutdown, the NRC furloughed about 3,600 of its staff, leaving just 300 employees to carry out the agency’s safety mission. “We believe that the NRC has too narrowly defined the categories of personnel and activities appropriate to be retained under the [Anti-deficiency Act’s] exception ‘for emergencies involving the safety of human life or protection of property,’” NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel said in an Oct. 29 letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane.

“Other federal agencies, many of which do not directly regulate safety, apparently allowed a much greater percentage of personnel to continue working than did the NRC,” Fertel said. He cited a CNN report that said on average only 36 percent of other federal employees (excluding the armed forces and civilian defense contractors) were furloughed.

Fertel said the NRC’s shutdown plan does not fully recognize the importance of a reliable electricity supply in protecting public health and safety or the role nuclear generation plays in maintaining grid stability. Even in a brief government shutdown, he said, NRC personnel must be available to handle licensing actions to avoid unnecessarily taking a reactor off line or impeding a reactor startup.

To ensure these critical actions can be taken, Fertel recommended that NRC employees in the divisions of Safety Systems, Engineering, Operator Reactor Licensing, Risk Assessment and Inspection, and Regional Support should be permitted to work during a government shutdown.

Fertel’s letter also noted the NRC’s different financial situation compared to most other federal agencies, in that federal law requires the NRC to recover 90 percent of its budget through licensee fees.

“The NRC recovers virtually all of its overhead costs through annual license fees,” Fertel said. Those fees continue to be collected during a government shutdown, even though the NRC provides no generic services during that period.

He added that NRC work pertaining to a licensee’s applications for specific actions—including license amendments to avoid unnecessary plant shutdowns or to support returning a plant to service after an outage—is covered by separate fees imposed under NRC regulations.

“Cost recovery with respect to almost all of the NRC’s overhead and its services to licensees is assured, with only a 10 percent contribution from the overall federal budget,” Fertel noted.

Because licensee fees are not paid directly to the NRC, they must be appropriated by Congress. Fertel urged the NRC to engage Congress and the administration to seek administrative or legislative relief that would allow fee-based activity to continue during a government shutdown. He added that “fundamental fairness to those paying user fees, as well as good public policy, supports continuity of most NRC activity during what typically is a limited shutdown period.”