Nuclear Agency Has Less Work Than Ever, Still Fights Budget Cuts

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Lawmakers grilled the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Wednesday because it has an enormous backlog of licenses for new and existing reactors despite the agency having a huge budget.

The NRC budget has grown 50 percent over the last decade, but the agency still has an enormous recurring backlog of licenses each year, even though its workload has decreased due to fewer nuclear reactors being built. Despite this, getting regulatory approval to build new reactors can take 25 years.

“Following September 11th, the NRC’s budget grew to address rising security concerns. Around 2006, it started growing to address growth in nuclear energy. Unfortunately, that growth hasn’t been as robust as we hoped,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in his opening statement Wednesday at a hearing. “In fact, we’ve seen 5 reactors close in recent years and at least 3 more will close by 2019. the NRC’s budget remains significantly higher…that it was ten years ago when the agency had more reactors and a larger workload.”

The slow pace of building new nuclear reactors is largely due to strict regulations and bureaucratic delays by the NRC, according to a March article in The New York Times. Complaints about the NRC’s inefficiency at the hearing weren’t limited to Republicans.

“I want to show the American people just how little has been done post-Fukushima. If I was working there [at the NRC], I’d probably quit because nothing is being done.” California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, ranking member of the committee, said at the hearing. “Five years after Fukushima, no target date has been set for permanent safety upgrades. The NRC [rejected safety] upgrades even though your senior staff said it’d be a good idea.”

It previously took the NRC six months and three different attempts to give congressional overseers information they requested on the agency’s research budget.

The NRC saw its budget balloon over the past decades. It predicted a wave of new reactor license requests and a general expansion of the nuclear industry following the applications of 13 different companies to build 25 new nuclear power reactors between 2007 and 2009.

Changing economic conditions, especially low natural gas prices, slows the demand growth for electricity — the Fukushima nuclear disaster ended this “nuclear renaissance” in America. This caused a declining interest in the construction of new nuclear plants, and as a result, the NRC has greatly decreased its work load as it received 40 percent fewer licensing requests and about half as many license renewal applications.

The average American nuclear reactor is 35 years old, nearly obsolete by modern design standards and near the end of its operating license validity. The NRC is planning to simply extend the operating licenses of reactors, against the advice of its own technical staff, instead of building new more modern reactors.

Currently, the NRC plans to reduce its budget by roughly 10 percent by 2020 while reducing its staff by around 9.5 percent from the current 3,778 to 3,600 by September 2016.

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