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Nominees for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission really ought to be asked some hard questions

Questions for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmation hearings, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, William J. Kinsella, 2 June 17  Throughout the first four months of the Trump presidency, a troubling scenario seemed possible at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the organization entrusted with ensuring the safety of the nation’s civilian nuclear energy infrastructure. Two of the commission’s five seats were vacant when the new administration took over, and one commissioner’s term was set to expire on June 30. Much of the commission’s work requires a three-member quorum, so the prospect of disruption loomed large.

The administration addressed the situation on May 22 by nominating Chairman Kristine Svinicki for reappointment and naming two additional nominees to fill the vacant seats. The nominees now face a confirmation process involving the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, followed by a full Senate vote.

What questions should senators ask the NRC nominees? All three are nuclear insiders, familiar with the commission’s mission and broad scope of activities as well as current and emerging challenges facing the agency. If the senators engage directly and substantively with the nominees about these matters, there can be an opportunity to explore the underlying philosophies and commitments they would bring to their work as commissioners.

Five broad principles of good regulation, summarized on the NRC’s website, provide some guidance, but the conversation needs to go much deeper. There are questions all three nominees should answer, and questions specific to each nominee.

Regulatory independence and transparency. Considering the entanglements surrounding so many of the administration’s appointments to date, any potential financial and political ties to the nuclear industry are an obvious area of concern. Senators should question each nominee directly about such possibilities.

More subtle institutional influences can be harder to evaluate. The commission’s purpose is to ensure the safety of nuclear technologies, rather than to promote them or protect their economic viability. But faced with competition from renewable energy and cheap natural gas, the US nuclear industry is struggling to survive. The industry claims that “regulatory burdens” are part of the problem, and has been pushing aggressively for regulatory changes.

The industry’s advocacy and lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has praised all three nominees, and their backgrounds suggest considerable sympathy with the industry’s position. Critical public interest groups regard at least two of them as “nuclear industry picks.”

In the current anti-regulatory political climate, senators will have a range of opinions about how to strike the right regulatory balance. The confirmation process should expose where each nominee stands in this regard, and may reveal where some senators stand as well. All the nominees will likely assert their unequivocal commitment to safety, but in practice, nuclear safety is always a negotiated process, accomplished by addressing particular problems and challenges.

Challenging times for nuclear safety. I have written elsewhere about some of thepressing challenges facing the NRCNuclear plant safety issues include the industry’s increasing reliance on aging facilities, efforts to extend reactor lifetimes to as much as 80 years, oversee decades-long plant decommissioning projects, and prepare for the possibility of regulating a proposed new generation of reactors.

Nuclear waste issues are perennially contentious, and have been flash points for conflict surrounding a number of previous NRC appointments. After years on hold, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project is back on the political agenda. Although the project remains controversial, and key steps in the licensing decision process remain to be completed, all three nominees appear to support it.

Senators should ask the nominees whether they see themselves as neutral referees in the Yucca Mountain process, or as advocates for moving the project forward. Related issues involve the storage and transportation of nuclear wastes, proposed new interim storage sites, and managing the wastes accumulating at operating and closed nuclear power plants across the nation…..

Two more broad issues deserve mention. Despite the Commission’s efforts to promote a strong safety culture, critics continue to raise questions about trust, accountability, and whistleblower protection at the agency and across the nuclear industry. Finally,cybersecurity has been a growing concern for some time, and is sure to remain one in the escalating threat environment.

Meet the nominees……


June 3, 2017 - Posted by | safety, USA

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