GAO: NRC faces challenges tied to licensing

3 October 2007
Electric Power Daily
English (c) 2007 McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a more streamlined licensing process in place, its handling of new plant licensing applications may be hampered by a number of actions it has not finished yet, including review guidance and development of computer-based tools to assist reviewers, the Government Accountability Office reports. The steps that NRC still must complete could affect the agency's ability to effectively manage the large number of expected applications, according to GAO, an independent investigative arm of Congress.

As of September 10, NRC had been expecting five applications for licensing nine reactors in the first quarter of fiscal year 2008, and nine other applications through the end of FY08 for 13 reactors, GAO said. Six applications for a total of nine new reactors were expected in FY09, it said.

But industry plans keep shifting, including the number and timing of potential applications. NRC received the first combined construction permit-operating license, or COL, application from South Texas Project Nuclear Operating on September 24 - at least a week earlier than it had expected. The application was filed seven days before the start of the 2008 federal fiscal year, but the NRC staff waited until October 1 to begin its initial review to determine the completeness and technical sufficiency of the submittal. The GAO report noted that NRC's Office of New Reactors, or NRO, an office the agency established in August 2006 to focus solely on new reactor licensing, had about 350 employees in August and is targeting growth up to about 500 staffers in FY08. The report said some NRO managers were concerned about whether the agency would be able to hire staff to fill "critical vacancies" for project management, structural engineering and digital instrumentation and control. Managers in NRO and other parts of the agency also worried about retaining employees and having sufficient office space for them, GAO said. NRC's overall work force is slightly more than 3,500 employees.

The report said NRC would rely on contractors to perform about one-third of its overall new plant license review work. The agency expects to commit about $60 million to contractors in FY08 to provide about 50% of the work on the safety and environmental sections of the COL application reviews. Because the contractor budget will roughly equal NRO's FY08 budget request for staff salaries and benefits, the agency should focus on managing the increased use of contractors, the report said.

Among several challenges cited in the report was NRC's lack of formal criteria for prioritizing COL application reviews if there is a funding shortage. While the agency has a plan for allocating resources for various types of new plant licensing review work, it has not established specific factors for setting priorities for ranking COL allocation and schedule decisions if there is more work than money in NRC's new reactor budget. GAO recommends the agency have priority-setting criteria in place by January.

Despite the challenges it is facing, NRC managers and new plant applicants and reactor designers "are generally optimistic about the overall readiness of NRO's staff to review COL applications," the report said.

NRC Executive Director for Operations Luis Reyes said in a September 14 letter that the agency agreed with GAO's overall conclusions in a draft report and found the recommendations to be "very helpful." Reyes also said the agency "continues to aggressively take steps to address" the challenges laid out by the GAO and plans to implement the recommendations.

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