NRC rule ~ No rabbits out of a hat
Dale Klein says the agency must be clear about what it does and how it explains its decisions to the public
Dale Klein, a Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and its former chairman under the previous administration, has two objectives for his agency. He said in a wide-ranging interview with this blog on Sept 24 that he wants the NRC "to be the agency of choice when people have questions about nuclear energy."
His second objective is to promote openness in decision making and to provide more transparency in the plant oversight process. [Full text of this blog post in PDF format for printing - 8 pages; 3 Mb]
Klein was in Idaho Falls this week for business meetings with the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). He also found time to speak to a lunch meeting of business and civic leaders. He’s a busy man often starting his day well before dawn. His trip in Idaho included a bus ride to the desert to check on the INL Advanced Test Reactor.
While Klein has spent much of his time the past few years in the halls of federal agency offices, he hasn't lost a dry sense of humor which he brought from his native "show-me" state of Missouri. He says, in effect, that he promulgates the 'no hat' rule.
Asked why the U.S. nuclear industry is so complex, Klein compared our situation to France. The U.S. generates 20% of its electricity from nuclear energy, but France gets 80%. His analogy on the differences puts them into an easy-to-understand metaphor.
"In America we have one kind of cheese and 104 reactors with multiple [publicly-traded] utility owners. By comparison, in France, you have 104 kinds of cheese, just one state-owned utility, and only two reactor designs."
In response to a question at the lunch meeting about the reason France has such a strong commitment to nuclear energy, he quipped, "That nation's energy polices come down to just four factors: no oil, no gas, no coal, and no choice."
No bozos allowed
Dale Klein is also the author of the now aptly named “no bozos” rule. In a June 2007 speech before a large number of chief executives from the nuclear utility industry, Klein, then NRC chairman, issued what has come to be called, outside the agency, the "no bozos" rule for involvement in building a nuclear power plant.
The nuclear industry is not child's play, Klein said. The NRC is watching to make sure that "inexperienced companies" don't jump on the nuclear bandwagon. He added that allowing "amateurs" to start up financing and construction of new plants "could threaten the resurgence of nuclear power in the US."
Failure to communicate is not an option
While Klein is more than willing to share his dry wit and insights about the world of nuclear energy, he is serious when it comes to how the NRC communicates with the public. In fact, retaining public confidence in the effectiveness of the NRC's work on nuclear safety is his top priority. When it comes to explaining the outcome of nuclear reactor safety reviews, especially for license renewals, Klein said, "we need to tell the public the answer and how we got to the answer. It’s taken a long time to get to this point," he added.
The agency is still learning from the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident. In a recent speech to aviation regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Klein noted that TMI was a tragedy for the nuclear industry, "but also it was a tremendous opportunity to learn." When you don't get it right you learn more."
That experience was painful. He says that as a regulator, the NRC may need to endure periods of intense public scrutiny to “insure our performance and the performance of the industry.”
He cites the development by the nuclear industry of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) as an example for other regulatory agencies. He said the FAA is looking into it and the response from the aviation industry trade press was favorable. Despite the fierce competition among airlines, Klein notes that no matter what industry you are talking about, "you should never be competitive on safety."
A mountain of Yucca paperwork
The safety issue is one of the reasons why he and his colleagues at the NRC get stressed when political debates about nuclear energy spiral out of the realm of reasoned dialog and descend into rhetoric. The NRC's toughest challenge is the Yucca Mountain license application, which includes 8,000 electronic pages of material and, by agency estimates, over a million pages of referenced content.
The NRC has by law just three years to complete its review. However, the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to the spent fuel repository has put a severe crimp in the agency's ability to meet that deadline.
According to Klein, the NRC asked for $99M to do the job, but OMB cut the request in half, and the Senate appropriation mark-up cut it in half again.
Klein is frustrated by people who have already made up their minds about the license application. Referring to the massive electronic document library that supports the project, he said ironically, "anyone who says Yucca Mountain is unsafe must be a speed reader."
If the funding shortfall isn't resolved, the agency may have to go back to Congress and ask it to amend the three-year legislative deadline for completing the license review. As a practical political matter, as long as Sen. Reid is in office, the NRC may be over a barrel as far as getting the money it needs to deal with the Yucca Mountain license application.
NRC best place to work, needs more workers
Another challenge is adding the staff needed to meet the rapidly expanding demand for new nuclear reactor combined construction and operating licenses. Currently, the agency has 18 license applications for 28 new reactors. Also, it is working on reactor design certifications [video] for new reactors from Areva, Mitsubishi, and GE-Hitachti.
Despite record hiring - more than 600 new staff in the past two years - the agency has also had record retirements. Klein cites a statistic from the agency's human resource department. About 50% of NRC professional staff have less than five years experience with the agency. The good news is the NRC is a magnet for talent in the federal government having earned a coveted designation as the "best place to work" in 2007 and again in 2009.
Ground breaking progress expected by 2011
Klein predicts that the first new nuclear reactor projects to "turn dirt" will likely be NRG's South Texas Project and the Southern's Vogtle plant. Success requires the Department of Energy to issue loan guarantees to cover up to 100% of the loans and 80% of the plant cost.
States that have laws on the books allowing utilities to recover costs while the plants are being built need to sustain them over the entire construction period and not pull the rug out from under the utility.
This is generally known as “construction while in progress” or CWP. Anti-nuclear green groups have recently initiated efforts to overturn these laws. Klein thinks that’s a bad idea.
Klein said the U.S. needs a shared vision of the role of nuclear energy in the nation's future especially when it comes to developing a response to the threat of global warming. "It is difficult," he said, "to figure to tell what President Obama's position is on nuclear energy."
"The U.S. has difficulty thinking clearly about how to make long-term capital commitments. The financing profile for a new nuclear reactor is now 60-80 years. Our grandchildren will benefit from them and some will operate them."
Getting to that shared vision may be an uphill battle. The reason is the public is really not engaged in dialog about future energy policies.
"Most of the public have no clue there are 104 reactors or any idea of the concepts of peak power and base load demand. They just want to flip a switch and know the power will be there."
Wind power not a substitute for nuclear energy
Nations that fail to capitalize on the potential of nuclear energy may pay dearly for it. Klein said that the upcoming elections in Germany may decide the fate of its 17 nuclear plants. In a reference to political advocates of wind power, who want to shut down nuclear plants, he said,
"If the reactors go away, and the wind doesn't blow, they are in trouble. You have to be a very rich country to afford wind-based electricity. Also, there is no guarantee Germany will be able to buy the electricity it needs from France."
Klein points out Sweden "did a 180" in its decision to replace its current fleet of nuclear power plants as they are needed. "They realized," he said, "that nuclear energy was their only viable alternative to coal."
Small reactors could offer big rewards
There are opportunities for reactors beyond completely new construction. One of them is to put reactors into old coal plants, replacing the boilers and hooking up to the existing turbines, as well as using the transmission and distribution infrastructure already in place.
Small reactors might fill the bill for this retrofit role, but he says small reactors are a dilemma for the NRC. The agency has problems with the review process for new and unproven technologies. It has received a lot of proposals for small reactor designs, but sometimes without detailed design information.
“The best opportunities for small reactors in the U.S.,” he says, “will be those that use light-water reactor designs as that's the technology the NRC knows best. Liquid metal reactors will take longer to review.”
Klein thinks there is a way to speed up time-to-market for affordable small reactors and to pay for the review of their designs. He proposes that the Department of Energy reinvigorate its "2010 program," which covered licensing costs for conventional, large, LWR nuclear reactors.
'If we could get DOE in the mix for small reactors, it would work, " he says. "It would encourage the deployment of small reactor technologies."
To help make progress on review of small reactor designs, the NRC is holding a public workshop at its Rockville, MD, offices Oct 8-9. According to an NRC press release, the meeting is designed to “get everyone’s expectations on the same page.”
“We’re going to examine how these ‘small’ reactor vendors would need to address the NRC’s requirements in areas including safety, security, decommissioning and emergency preparedness,” said Michael Mayfield, director of the Advanced Reactor Program in the NRC’s Office of New Reactors.
To expand outreach to the industry and the public, the NRC will offer live video streaming of the proceedings over the Internet or a voice-only stream via telephone.
Digital age comes with things that go bump in the night
Another of Klein's priorities is bringing the NRC into the digital age. The NRC is moving towards more digital information and less paper. For instance, license applications are submitted in digital format.
The move comes with a risk and it is one that is shared by the industry. The Internet is a tremendous tool, but it is also full of threats. To meet them, the NRC now requires reactor operators to include a cyber-security plan as part of their license.
Cyber-security is a critical need, Klein says, because more digital instrumentation and control systems are being introduced to nuclear power plants.
"All new control rooms will be digital. Vulnerabilities will change over time, but we know most of the current types of threats."
He points out NRC's IT staff have told him there are 1000s of attempts daily to break into the NRC and nuclear plants are a target as well.
"Anything with the term nuclear in its name is a target. As we move forward into the digital era, we need to make sure we are not setting ourselves up. Our goal is to make sure no one is ever going to capture a digital control system or any other computers at a nuclear plant.” "
The challenge includes security for both old and new systems. Many nuclear utilities have legacy process control and safety systems that were deployed long before the current crop of computer threats came on the scene. These systems have to be managed to meet current cyber-security needs Klein said.
Wireless devices face new threats
A new challenge is how to deal with wireless devices. Everyone carries one and that’s where the invisible threat will likely have its greatest impact.
NRC’s IT staff have told Klein, "It has been proven that cell phones can be hacked and used against the owner even when they are off."
Recent events bear them out. The BBC reports that in July the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that is planning to build at least three new nuclear reactors, an update for Blackberry users turned out to be spyware. The update was prompted by a text message from UAE telecom firm Etisalat, saying it would improve performance.
Blackberry maker Research in Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) said in a statement that "Etisalat appears to have distributed a telecommunications surveillance application.
Independent sources have concluded that it is possible that the installed software could then enable unauthorized access to private or confidential information stored on the user's smartphone".
The concern over the spyware came to light when users started reporting problems with their phones. Etisalat is a major telecommunications firm based in the UAE, with 145,000 Blackberry users on its books according to the BBC. The spyware’s victims reportedly included the phones of foreign nationals hired by the UAE to mange the process of acquiring and building the reactors as well as ensuring the safety and security for the plants.
International standards for reactor safety
The Internet as a global phenomenon has also opened up opportunities for one of Klein's initiatives, and that is to share regulatory information on an international basis about safety in nuclear reactor design, construction, and operation.
"International sharing of reactor requirements information essential. In Europe international borders are a lot closer where in the US you have one large nation containing 104 reactors. It is important as new reactors are built across the globe that we don't wait to see differences in safety showing up across Europe. "
“As a regulator, I am more anxious to see that these different regulatory regimes are not viewed as potential loopholes than can be exploited at the expense of high safety and security standards.
. . . an accident anywhere is a accident everywhere, so I want to help promote nuclear safety everywhere around the world.”
Klein told the WNA he wants to encourage more standardized plant design and construction as a means for improving safety. He said standardized design applications are easier to review and help regulators share information and best practices and standardized plants are easier to inspect.
“Regulators should also work together to harmonize our requirements, realizing that each country will have different regulatory structures.”
The Multinational Design Evaluation Program (MDEP) is the starting point for these initiatives. The NRC’s reputation as the “gold standard” for nuclear reactor safety is the basis for its work.
Klein said that reactor vendors have an incentive to standardize their designs to keep costs down. Even as the global industry rapidly expands, he says, we'll continue to see only a limited number of designs and plant types worldwide.
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