Nuclear Bloggers’ Roundtable with NRC Chairman Burns



Today, the American Nuclear Society hosted a “Blogger Roundtable” event featuring special guest Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Stephen G. Burns. This event was hosted and moderated by Craig Piercy, ANS D.C. Representative. This was the second such roundtable ANS has hosted (the previous having been with Allison MacFarlane.)

The session allowed questions sent remotely via web and by hosted bloggers and authors on site. Chairman Burns opened by observing that he did not expect to return to the NRC (after about a year’s absence) as chairman, but that the journey has been a very interesting one. Burns said that goals and objectives he had entering the NRC again included knowing that the agency responds to the environment around it and that it continues on track, working through initiatives already underway; he also does not expect to “replace all the furniture.” The agency is working through project AIM 2020, giving a look at the agency itself and focusing resources properly/using capabilities wisely (as expected by the Congress and the EPW Committee). An older initiative Burns noted still underway is the continued response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident and both NRC and industry initiatives—noting strongly the need to “bring these things home.” Burns was impressed by site visits and by having witnessed first hand the improvements and additions underway at nuclear plants all across the United States. Also, Burns noted a need for “a better process in terms of decommissioning” of nuclear plants “in terms of the effectiveness of that process.” Finally, Advanced Reactors licensing/small modular reactor licensing was brought up by Burns as a key priority in the midterm time frame.


Piercy then asked about Project AIM 2020 and its staff reduction targets—what would these look like? Burns responded that the NRC looked at staff recommendations and set a target of 3600 staff by the end of FY16. Burns does not believe layoffs (RIF procedure, “Reduction In Force”) will be needed because buyouts and early outs will be offered very soon. About 100 of these will be authorized, for areas in which there is overstaffing. Overhead, or corporate support, which used to be growing (during the ‘nuclear renaissance’) is now shrinking, he said, and he believes that the NRC is in “a good position” in terms of normal attrition and staffing.NRC Chairman Burns with Craig Piercy, ANS D.C. Rep

Piercy pushed further on advanced licensing, the AIM 2020 reduction program, and where that meets the need to license advanced designs. Burns: With respect to Project AIM, the Strategic Workforce Planning looks at needed disciplines and in terms of planning, industry input will be key. “It’s difficult to forecast five years out,” but the kinds of work they will expect to see (guided by industry) will direct these additions, in addition to the core competencies. Burns believes the path forward will be a blend of the old Part 50 “two phase licensing” for new nuclear plants and the newer Part 52 licensing (“now 25 years old,” Burns noted).  The chairman sees an interesting perspective on the efficacy of each, and notes that NuScale is working through the design certification process—pointing up the need for the NRC to develop a stepped process as the various informative submissions are made by vendors. “This might not be the full licensing process, but these steps will give a fair degree of certainty to get toward full licensing.” Burns, when asked about Part 52 by Piercy, said that the new ideas being integrated into the information database will lead to a lengthened process; he noted that preliminary decisions and analysis could be “folded into” the Part 52 process. “The heart of that (Part 52) is the required certainty of each step… even though that might be an advantage, going back to a process that doesn’t have that kind of certainty (as does Part 52) might well be an advantage.” Burns believes that the need to refine design should be included in designs that continue to evolve.

Burns was asked about the Senate EPW hearing yesterday and the topic of San Onofre, spent fuel storage, and decommissioning. Piercy noted that Burns received some attention about the Emergency Planning Zone at San Onofre and relaxation of emergency planning. Burns replied that staff had examined the risk of spent fuel in the pools (which had been there for years, he said) and said that “one to two years out of the reactor, the spent fuel isn’t really hot anymore and recommendations that staff made and we voted for was that the risk profile gets to the point that full blown EPZ planning isn’t really needed at that time,” thus the exemption from full EPZ planning was granted. The chairman believes that the term “exemption” is misleading, since many requirements are still met for safety but not the same as for an operating plant. Burns believes this may lead down the road to a rulemaking process instead of the exemption process (from established requirements).

Burns was asked about the EPA Clean Power Plan, but noted that the NRC has no position on that, and that it was not consulted; the NRC is strictly regulatory in nature and not involved in policy.

Piercy took a question off the net, which noted bullying during some NRC meetings and lack of general decorum on the part of some (antinuclear) participants. Piercy then asked what the NRC needs to do to ensure civility at such meetings. Burns said that at the outset the objective is to have civil meetings, safe for all participants and with opportunity for free exchange of ideas and concerns. Burns mentioned attending a meeting at the Marble Hill plant, which got “pretty hot here and there,” many years ago. Burns knows “we’ve had real challenges at some parts of the country with this.” He says that NRC people need to work with local officials and the meeting site owners (be it hotel or government facility) to understand that the tone is set up in advance and then maintained at the meetings; he agrees that all should feel safe and free to express themselves at such meetings. Burns mentioned troubles at Diablo Canyon meetings specifically, which have been contentious but added that others there have gone very well. His suggestion is that meetings be held at government facilities.

Related to this (Piercy continued) is that nuclear technology is extremely safe and has a very solid record in terms of deaths per megawatt-hour; yet, it has an element of fear for the public. He commented that as the NRC approaches its job it faces a duality of having a very solid technical approach yet having to address a valid public concern—and asked how it navigates that duality. Burns said it is “very difficult,” and noted that the NRC staff making the best scientific and technical judgments possible is the top priority. “The difficulty sometimes is that .. the agency used to just say ‘here is what we did’ but has been a lot better in terms of use of social media, our blog and such, in terms of getting our thoughts and ideas out there in plain language (for the public).”

Piercy: “While things in nuclear are steady in the United States, lots of countries are building quickly. How does international cooperation fit within the strategic plan?” Burns: “Through Project AIM, we’d look at the effectiveness of some engagements and what we need to do. There is a very consequential need for engagement in the international community. My impression over the years … is that the need for integration and globalization of this industry is exponentially greater than it was (years ago.)” Liability concerns in international concerns are a key focus, he added. Burns said seven or nine new international agreements were signed by the NRC just within the last few weeks. The chairman has looked at information flow between AP1000 construction in China and the United States as well.

“At the EPW hearing, Sen. Inhofe said he’d change the NRC fee structure. Does NRC support that?” Burns: “We haven’t seen legislation yet. They’ll look at it. The question is that is there some leverage or leeway in terms of innovation (in funding the NRC) that is helpful? The sustainability question, in terms of reducing the fleet, has come up. I don’t know whether they’ll pursue changing the fee structure. How we treat overhead and corporate support will be examined… so that we’re not imposing an undue burden on the industry. Our new CFO is introducing new transparency on the fees and their use.”

Piercy brought up advanced reactors and the “chicken and egg” scenario where companies can’t really sell technology they’re trying to license (yet). What would U.S. policy be like ideally? Should the government invest in designs or incubate them? Should the Department of Energy have money available to subsidize the NRC licensing discussion? Specifically, does the NRC need its own money there to hire people for advanced licensing, or is there a relationship with the DOE to license without separate money? Burns: “Ultimately we still need our own appropriation. Working with the DOE is an important thing; I’ve set up a quarterly meeting with them, but we need to stay in contact and know what the DOE may be doing—I think that’s important for us. We need to know from industry too what it is to expect coming down the pike so we can plan for that. We have some very modest resources in the advanced reactor area, and if we see that there is real potential for something to develop we can budget for that. Communication with us about where designs may be, continued interaction with the DOE as well helps up plan and put us in a good place for this.”

“A few years ago the NRC undertook (funding) a study on cancer near nuclear plants,” Piercy said, and asked about the NRC’s decision to defund the study. Burns noted the Director of Research made the decision in communication with staff and NAS, “and the rationale was that NAS was saying that the outcome would have been relatively unclear. Continuing to collect unclear data wouldn’t tell you a lot either; so is it worth it to go for a full study…  Is it worth it to go for the full years long study? We think not.”

On molybdenum-99 (an isotope used for medical purposes), Burns commented that licensing of a new facility(to make it) is underway and that there will be a hearing later in the year. There are other isotope production applications underway, he added. “The U.S. is the primary user of medical isotopes and this is a critical need.”

Piercy then asked about an issue related to radiological sources and NRC Part 37 regulating them, and prospective bans on new radioisotope sources due to nonproliferation issues; the ultimate end was looking again at the rules. Burns said he wasn’t aware of any problems with the rollout of looking at Part 37; he has no problems with reducing some isotopes of concern. “Our obligation is to give a report at the end of next year about how Part 37 is doing.”

In the room, Julian Specter asked about Watts Bar-2 coming online very soon and lessons learned with new regulations, post Fukushima changes and so forth. “It’s interesting because Watts Bar-2 is being completed under Part 50, and when it received its construction permit in 1974 I was still in college! I give TVA a lot of credit because this has been a very long project and they’ve done an extraordinary effort to meet current requirements. They’ve added FLEX and post-Fukushima enhancements and have worked toward the new requirements. It’s been a very valuable experience for our staff (seeing the new parts installed and inspected).”

Fukushima and the Near Term Task Force: “What percentage, how far along are we to closure?” Burns: “It’s hard to say in percentage. What we said is that by the end of 2016 almost all plants will have done what we consider most significant—FLEX, seismic walkdowns, and such. Some flooding walkdowns are very complicated. The Commission sees the end of 2016 as the big point in time. Some of the things such as hardened vents push over to 2017 to accommodate scheduling. The point is that these things are consistent with what the Commission felt were important when it developed the plan originally.”

Burns was asked about having a four person commission and a fifth nominated. “I met (Ms.) Roberson once, and she came by to say hello … before she was nominated. She has a deep DOE background and industry background. I will not begin to gaze into the crystal ball about what the process will be for her. I and Jeff Baran were very unusual, in terms of the time line. For her we just don’t have any information. Senator Inhofe mentioned trying to get some courtesy visits.. but we haven’t heard anything. Working with a four member Commission has gone well; it isn’t the first time this has happened. We don’t always see eye to eye but we have a good dialogue with each other, and look for areas of agreement more than disagreement. I am trying to build consensus and we’re working together well. There’s always the specter of 2-2 votes and that really hasn’t happened.”

Piercy asked about the continuing resolution for NRC funding and if it hinders them. “No, because basically you continue at the level you had prior. It isn’t instituting some dramatic cut. What you have to watch is not being able to start new projects, but that would have to be REALLY new. I could not create a new Office of Advanced Reactors, say, and commit $25M to that. But ongoing work we have is okay.”

Piercy thanked Chairman Burns on behalf of the 11,000 members of the American Nuclear Society, ending an engaging, informative, and successful forum.

(Forum transcript for ANS Nuclear Cafe by Will Davis.)

Webinar audio recording link will be up soon.


One thought on “Nuclear Bloggers’ Roundtable with NRC Chairman Burns

  1. Dan Yurman

    Nice job everyone and great summary. BTW this is the 3rd time ANS has done a blogger webinar with NRC. The first was in 2011 with Gregory Jaczko.

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