Nuclear Energy:

NRC's Workforce and Processes for New Reactor Licensing Are Generally in Place, but Uncertainties Remain as Industry Begins to Submit Applications

GAO-07-1129: Published: Sep 21, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 2007.

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Nearly three decades after the last order for a new nuclear power reactor in the United States, electric power companies plan to submit 20 applications in the next 18 months to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for licenses to build and operate new reactors. Since 1989, NRC has developed a new license review process that allows a power company to obtain a construction permit and an operating license through a single combined license (COL) based on one of a number of standard reactor designs. NRC expects its new process to enhance the efficiency and predictability of its reviews. GAO reviewed NRC's readiness to evaluate these applications by examining the steps NRC has taken to (1) prepare its workforce and manage its workload and (2) develop its regulatory framework and review process for new reactor activities. GAO reviewed NRC documents for new reactor workforce staffing and training, examined NRC's guidance for the review of license applications, interviewed NRC managers and representatives of nearly all of the COL applicants, and observed NRC's public meetings.

NRC has taken many steps to prepare its workforce for new reactor licensing reviews, but several key elements of its preparations are still underway. As a result, uncertainties remain about NRC's ability to manage its workload associated with the surge of applications. Specifically, NRC has increased its funding for new reactor activities, created the Office of New Reactors and reorganized several other offices, and hired a significant number of entry-level and midlevel professionals. To assist its staff in reviewing the applications, NRC also plans to contract out about one-third of its fiscal year 2008 workload. However, several elements of NRC's preparatory activities are still in progress, including hiring for some critical positions; developing key training courses; and developing computer-based tools intended to enhance consistency and coordination in reviewing like sections of COL applications. In addition, NRC has not fully developed criteria for setting priorities if the workload exceeds available staff and contractor resources. Finally, while the Office of New Reactors established a cross-divisional resource management board early in 2007 for coordinating certain office review activities, it has not clearly defined the extent of the board's responsibilities. NRC has significantly revised its regulatory framework and review process to prepare for licensing new reactors, but until NRC completes certain additional actions, it may not fully realize the anticipated benefits of the new process. NRC has revised, augmented, and clarified most rules, guidance, and inspection oversight criteria to provide for early resolution of issues, standardization, and predictability in the license review process. However, NRC has not yet completed several actions to implement this process. For example, NRC only recently modified its acceptance review process to include an evaluation of the application's technical sufficiency in addition to its completeness. NRC plans to complete new acceptance review guidance and tools reflecting this change by the end of September 2007. NRC also is refining its process for tracking requests to each applicant for more information but has not developed a coordinating mechanism to avoid unnecessarily requesting information from multiple applicants.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC's Resource Management Board holds weekly issue-specific and broader monthly meetings on resources, expenditures, and budget allocations. The Board considers Commission factors/criteria in making decisions. For example, the Board is leading a prioritization process that will inform its fiscal year 2009 staffing plan in preparation for expected budget and staffing constraints for fiscal year 2009. NRC will formally incorporate the Resource Management Board's interim roles and responsibilities, such as making scheduling and resource decisions for the Office of New Reactors and making recommendations to the Commission on slowing or accelerating the reviews of certain applications, in the comprehensive update of its overall Licensing Program Plan.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that its workforce is prepared to review new reactor applications and its review processes more efficiently and effectively facilitate reviews, NRC should clarify the responsibilities of Office of New Reactor's Resource Management Board in facilitating the coordination and communication of resource allocation decisions.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC has provided staff with the resources needed to implement reviewer and management tools to ensure that the most important tools will be available as soon as is practicable. Specifically, NRC (1) completed and launched all such tools between October 2007 and June 2008; (2) provided staff additional training and guidance on using each of the tools, and (3) provided applicants with information about enhancements to its request for additional information process during at least three design centered working group meetings. For example, the request for additional information database has the capacity to search on particular topics by application or reactor design, and across design centers on more generic issues. NRC officials said that GAO's focus on this area assisted management over the past several months in setting and supporting planning and infrastructure priorities.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that its workforce is prepared to review new reactor applications and its review processes more efficiently and effectively facilitate reviews, NRC should provide the resources for implementing reviewer and management tools needed to ensure that the most important tools will be available as soon as is practicable, but no later than March 2008.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC staff had prioritized all of its new reactor work within he categories of licensing, infrastructure, and construction inspection by January 2008. The licensing reviews budgeted for in the fiscal year on the basis of the applicant's letters of intent will be given greater priority. For the remaining applications, NRC staff will consider such factors as the quality and completeness of an application and the extent to which a design certification is likely to be followed up in the near term by a combined license application.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that its workforce is prepared to review new reactor applications and its review processes more efficiently and effectively facilitate reviews, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should fully develop and implement criteria for setting priorities to allocate resources across applications by January 2008.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC has improved its process for requesting additional information by (1) implementing an electronic workflow system for preparing, processing, and managing the approval and issuance of requests for additional information for licensing application reviews; (2) providing its staff with training to focus requests for additional information on gaps in the safety evaluation report for a given application; and (3) providing industry with guidance to ensure that applications contain the necessary information. In addition, NRC now routinely includes an agenda item on requests for information in its Designed-Centered Working Group meetings with industry.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that its workforce is prepared to review new reactor applications and its review processes more efficiently and effectively facilitate reviews, NRC should enhance the process for requesting additional information by (1) providing more specific guidance to staff on the development and resolution of requests for additional information within and across design centers and (2) explaining forthcoming workflow and electronic process revisions to combined license applicants in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

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