A one hour hearing last month by the House Subcommittee on Energy on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was low-key and noncontroversial. In contrast to hearings on Yucca Mountain that are often highly contentious, this hearing on NRC and Department of Energy coordination on advancing new reactor technologies revealed few policy differences.
This was the third hearing on nuclear power by this subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The first and second featured witnesses from DOE, private companies, an environmental institution, a federal laboratory and a DOE energy hub. This July 29 hearing had as its only witness NRC Chairman Stephen Burns. Burns joined the Commission last November, and was designated its chairman on January 1 by President Obama.
New nuclear reactor concepts have had difficulty gaining traction in the marketplace. The hearing was convened to examine the NRC’s role in advancing nuclear reactor R&D. In opening the hearing, Chairman Randy Weber (R-TX) spoke of historic bipartisan support for what he called “the nation’s open-access facilities” for basic and applied R&D, calling it “a particularly good model because the users ultimately take on whatever form of commercial risk they so choose while the government simply provides the infrastructure capability.” He asked if DOE, which is the lead government agency for reactor research “could use its authority to host private developers to conduct novel experiments advancing next generation nuclear technology, and could the NRC benefit in any way by allowing its staff to provide technical expertise and gain firsthand knowledge of such reactor experiments?”
In prepared testimony Burns described the well-established roles and responsibilities of NRC and DOE, citing “many examples of NRC and DOE cooperation on non-LWR [Light Water Reactor] projects.” Those projects were in the 1980s; more recent examples are administrative in nature. As a regulatory and licensing agency, NRC’s efforts regarding non-LWR concepts have included an updated policy statement, a report to Congress, and the development of various review procedures informed by ongoing dialogue with stakeholders. Burns told the subcommittee that the Commission “will continue to look for additional opportunities to work with DOE and make the NRC’s licensing process transparent and navigable” to stakeholders. Burns concluded his testimonysaying “We also recognize the important and complimentary role that DOE plays in those preparations [for non-LWR reactors.] We are prepared to perform additional tasks if funding is provided.”
Subcommittee members appeared satisfied with Burns’ testimony and his answers to their questions. Members asked about NRC’s jurisdiction over DOE experimental reactors, the anticipated cost and schedule for the commission’s reviews, distinguishing between research and commercial activities of new reactors, and the nuclear energy industry. The one major concern was raised by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who objected to the commission’s primary focus on light water reactors which he characterized as dangerous. This focus, he said, made it difficult for new concepts to be tested and jeopardized the leadership role of the U.S. in developing new nuclear energy technologies.