Secret ingredient of nuclear success: Independent regulation

Secret ingredient of nuclear success: Independent regulation
© Getty Images

It’s crept up on us slowly, so quietly that you may not have noticed, but nuclear energy has become safer and more reliable. In the U.S., nuclear power plants generate approximately 20 percent of our energy and 55 percent of our clean energy.

Even if you were aware that nuclear power plants now commonly run nonstop for 18 months to two years, that worker radiation dose has gone from small to vanishingly small, and that operators have modernized their plants with new materials, monitoring systems and techniques, you may not have recognized a key secret ingredient of this success: high-quality, independent regulation.

Skilled nuclear regulation is a U.S. export product. U.S. certification of new reactors designs will make them desirable around the world, in countries new to nuclear energy and seeking to benefit from American expertise. A strong, independent regulator is one of the pillars of nuclear safety and part of what makes the U.S. the world leader in that field. Other countries measure their regulatory progress by comparison to the U.S.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in our tenure and in the decades since, has contributed to the technology’s success, by staying independent, stressing openness and transparency with the public, and focusing on what’s important. (Contrast this to the Soviet Union, which had no independent regulation, and where the industry kept secrets even from itself, two characteristics that helped lead to the Chernobyl disaster.) 

In the era of hostile Washington politics, we ought to recognize the success of independent regulation, and refrain from partisan attacks on the agency. Its decisions should remain free of the kind of divisive bickering that has paralyzed Capitol Hill.

As our former colleague William Magwood testified recently before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the commission is known for honest debate.

“That’s a healthy process because in that debate, often you learn things from even the colleagues you disagree with, that end up in the final package. I know the commissioners,” he said. “I think they’re all people who are trying to do the right thing,”  

The commission isn’t partisan and it isn’t political, and it benefits from the expertise and judgment of the commissioners, he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The NRC was created nearly 50 years ago when Congress split up the old Atomic Energy Commission, which had the uncomfortable job of both promoting nuclear energy and regulating it. The promotion job eventually went to the Department of Energy.

The NRC, in contrast, isn’t an advocate. It ensures public health, safety and security. It also ensures that its mandates are worthwhile, so that when it orders something, it is not requiring resources to be squandered. But if something needs fixing urgently, the commission will order it done.

The NRC, like a handful of other agencies, has a career staff, and commissioners, who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. In practice, on a five-member board, the White House nominates one member per year to fill empty seats. By statute no more than three commissioners can be from one party, so both parties are always represented. 

This is the mechanism by which our elected representatives pick the people who run the nuts-and-bolts, esoteric technical parts of the government. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Consumer Products Safety Commission are other examples. They are independent agencies and do not report to a cabinet secretary.

Once on the commission, all the commissioners are independent of their party, unlike appointed-and-confirmed political officials in cabinet departments, like Energy and Defense, who serve at the pleasure of the president and take instructions from the White House. It is usually impossible to discern the party of a commissioner from his or her votes because the responses to issues are determined by their personal views, not party affiliation.

And mostly what the commissioners vote on are proposals brought to them by non-partisan civil servant staff: proposed rules and policy statements. Sometimes they agree with their staff and sometimes they don’t. They consult with each other one-on-one before voting. They are known to negotiate a bit with one another, developing positions that can attract a majority vote.

In formulating their votes, they hear not only from their staff but from interested parties: licensees, “watchdog” groups and outside experts, including academics.

And then they make decisions, based on their professional opinions. They are not guided by political party leaders. They are guided, though, by several principles. One of them is that their mission, under the law, is to provide “reasonable assurance of adequate protection.” Obviously, those words require human interpretation. With any regulation, they can (and should) ask, is the public adequately protected? Is the regulation reasonable? Perfection isn’t possible, and isn’t the goal. Instead, there is an expert, non-partisan, non-ideological analysis.

The commission makes expert decisions on sophisticated technical questions, which is exactly what the public should expect. 

Dale E. Klein, Ph.D., was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 2006 to 2009. He is associate vice chancellor for Research at The University of Texas System. Klein is on the boards of the Southern Company and Pinnacle West / APS utility companies. He is also chairman of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee for TEPCO. He serves on the Committee for Nuclear Power in the UAE, which advises the ENEC Board on nuclear safety issues. In addition, he serves on DOE committees.

Peter B. Lyons, Ph.D., was a commissioner at the NRC from 2005 to 2009 and led the Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy from 2010 to 2015. Lyons is on the technical advisory boards of NuScale, which designs reactors, as well as Longenecker and Associates. He has advised the Landmark Foundation and is on the advisory boards at Oak Ridge, Idaho, Sandia, and Argonne, as well as the Atlantic Council and Nuclear Matters. He is also on the DOE (FACA) Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee and co-chairman of the Existing Fleet Subcommittee and he consults with the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan and the Jordan Atomic Energy Agency.

Richard A. Meserve was chairman of the NRC from 1999 to 2003. He is president emeritus of the Carnegie Institution. Meserve is on the Nuclear Advisory Oversight Board of Vistra Energy. He is an adviser to the Nuclear Risk Research Center in Japan and chairs the IAEA International Nuclear Safety Group. He is also an adviser to the Jordan Atomic Energy Agency.