The NRC in a "Nuclear Renaissance"

A regulator's take on the future*

As concerns about future energy needs for the world and the environment become increasingly important, the attention of energy producers has again turned to nuclear energy to play a larger part in the generation portfolio. The role the regulator plays in this initiative comes from the strategic goals of the Nuclear Regulation Committee (NRC):

Safety: Ensure adequate protection of public health and safety and the environment.

Security: Ensure adequate protection in the secure use and management of radioactive materials.

The foundation of a favorable outlook for increased safe and secure utilization of nuclear energy is based on demonstrating continued safe operations of existing nuclear generating capacity and keeping the public informed and involved in the process of developing new nuclear capacity. Public openness is essential to regulatory strength. There must be opportunities for public comment, and those comments should be addressed openly. There must also be opportunities for public hearings in licensing new reactors and amending the licenses for existing reactors. All of this openness will, of course, be balanced with the need to maintain security. The communications challenge for the NRC is to relate “risk” concepts in an understandable way to the public.

The concept of risk, such as the health effects of radiation exposure, reactor safety, and environmental issues, and the fact that each “type” of risk has its own methods of analysis and its own metrics, complicates the challenge for the NRC to communicate with both its internal and external stakeholders. But the NRC must also communicate how its requirements adequately manage the risk to acceptable levels and how the NRC ensures that licensees are meeting those requirements.

To aid in this challenge, the nuclear industry must continue to operate the more than 400 reactors worldwide in a safe and secure manner, and the regulators around the world must be seen as strong, consistent, and credible by both external and internal stakeholders. International cooperation and effective communication can make this happen.

The NRC has been engaged with regulators from around the world for some time and has been working with developing countries with no or newly developed regulatory agencies to assist them in becoming independent safety and security regulators in their own countries. The NRC has also continued its cooperation with the well-established regulators from around the world and has shared information to continuously improve the NRC’s abilities to ensure the continued safe and secure operation of the world’s nuclear fleet. One example of this cooperation is the bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements between the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) and the U.S. NRC to perform research in severe accident analysis and high-burnup fuels. The NRC is also a partner in the Multinational Design Evaluation Program (MDEP).

Vendors and electric utilities are also engaged in international partnerships. Construction of new nuclear capacity will have to be an international effort, since the resources necessary will have to come from the global economy. The domestic workforce requirements alone are an enormous  challenge, particularly since much of the experienced labor that built the last nuclear plants in the United States has reached retirement age.

Therefore, science and technology education must play an important part in any renaissance of nuclear energy. With the closure of almost half of the nuclear engineering departments on college campuses during the 1980s and 90s, much of the important education infrastructure has been lost, and nuclear engineering enrollments in the latter half of the 1990s have declined to less than half of their relatively constant levels at the beginning of that decade. Those enrollments are now returning to their previous levels, thanks in part to the efforts of nuclear engineering departments like Purdue’s, which graduated about 10 percent of the nuclear engineers in the country last year.

The NRC has become a partner in this effort with the NRC’s Nuclear Education Program. This program will award funds to educational institutions through undergraduate and graduate fellowships, grants to NE departments, and faculty grants. Developing the nuclear professionals of tomorrow will play a key role in expanding the utilization of nuclear energy to meet a significant part of the world’s energy needs. The NRC alone has set a goal to see a net increase in staff of 200 new employees per year. With the aging of the present nuclear workforce, more than 200 NRC employees are retiring each year. That means that to meet its hiring goals, the NRC needs to hire some 400 new employees every year, when there are only about 600 nuclear engineering graduates in the U.S. annually!

This is not the only education challenge that must be addressed in a nuclear renaissance. The United States continues to remain in or near the bottom half of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations in the International Mathematics and Science Literacy Rankings. The need to drastically invigorate and improve our primary and secondary education systems cannot be understated. The NRC and others need to work together to communicate the satisfaction and excitement of a technical career.

The nuclear renaissance is not guaranteed. There are many un-certainties, including regulatory issues, power demand, workforce requirements, availability of commodities, and availability of financing. It will be a tremendous effort to meet these challenges. n Peter Lyons, Commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

*This article is based on the NRC Commissioner Peter Lyon’s speech, which was delivered to the 2008 Annual Midwest Regional Pugwash Conference at Purdue, March 22, 2008.