Subcommittees Continue Oversight of Nuclear Regulatory Commission

December 12, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison Macfarlane appeared before Congress today alongside NRC Commissioners Kristine Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William Magwood, and William Ostendorff at a joint hearing hosted by House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Environment and the Economy and Energy and Power. Today’s hearing focused on the NRC’s management and commission actions to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process. The subcommittees also discussed legislation authored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), H.R. 3132, the NRC Reorganization Plan Codification and Complements Act, which would clarify the commissioners’ powers and reform how the commission conducts policymaking.

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the NRC must resume its review of the Department of Energy's license application for the Yucca Mountain repository. It was not until three months later that the commission issued an order in November detailing the course of action to comply with the court’s order, including completion of the Safety Evaluation Report. “While I largely agree with the commission’s order, I question why it took so long and why some key budget and schedule information is still missing,” said Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL). During questioning, the commissioners confirmed the NRC does not have sufficient funds to complete the licensing review. While the commissioners all stated they would comply with the law, it remains unclear if the commission will request the funds necessary to meet this legal obligation.

Members raised concern over the commission’s efficiency and use of resources. Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) pointed out that, over the last decade, the number of licensing actions and tasks have decreased by 40 percent while the nuclear safety budget has increased by 48 percent. The NRC has also verified that the industry’s safety is improving. “There seems to be an apparent disconnect between the growth in the NRC’s resources and what appears as a declining workload. We believe these concerns warrant more scrutiny and I expect to delve deeper into these issues going forward,” said Whitfield.

During the tenure of the previous chairman, the commission was plagued by internal turmoil that was exposed by the NRC’s Inspector General. In response to these issues, Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) authored H.R. 3132, legislation to strengthen and clarify commission’s governance and structure. “While I know we are all glad to see the Commission functioning collegially as it should, it is incumbent upon us as legislators to do what we can to prevent this type of turmoil from recurring in the future,” said Terry. Commissioner Ostendorff said that there are some areas at the commission that “would benefit from greater clarity under the statute.”

Full committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) concluded, “There is no question that the NRC is one of our most important agencies, and it is critical we do what we can to optimize its performance.”

Pictures from today’s hearing can be viewed here.