Compliments and Critiques
This week was an eventful one in the nuclear field. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission held its annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) on March 8 through 10, and the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima-Daiichi accident fell on March 11. Since I have already read some excellent blogs on 3-11, as the Japanese sometimes call it, I will focus my attention on the RIC, and in particular, on a session near and dear to my heart. (All RIC sessions were recorded and should soon be available on the NRC webcast archive.)
As I have previously reported, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation. NRC started its celebration of this milestone with the internal seminar covered in my earlier blog. They continued the celebration with a technical session at the RIC. The session was chaired by Mike Weber, Director of the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, and included speakers addressing the PGR, as they have come to be called, from a variety of perspectives.
The first two speakers were Tom Wellock, the NRC historian, and Kenneth Rogers, who was the Commissioner responsible for proposing that NRC develop a set of principles and for directing their development. Tom Wellock put the PGR in historical context--noting events of the time and the evolving view of regulation, as well as how the concept of the PGR has spread. Commissioner Rogers described some of the internal processes and debates behind the PGR, and also spotlighted some places where similar sets of principles have taken root.
The third speaker was Maria Korsnick, currently the COO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. She gave the NRC high marks for independence and openness, but said that the principles of efficiency, clarity and reliability need more work. Particular areas for improvement that she cited include better prioritization of regulatory actions and more accurate and transparent cost-benefit analysis. She also had messages for the industry, saying they need to be more accountable in explaining how they would implement NRC requirements. Overall, she concluded that NRC is "justifiably internationally renowned."
The next speaker, Diane Curran, an attorney who has represented citizens groups against the NRC, had a different view. She critiqued the implementation of the principles of openness and transparency. On openness, she seemed to suggest that NRC may hold open meetings but is not necessarily making them easy for the public to attend, and is not necessarily listening to the public. On the principle of independence, she seemed to suggest that it was wrong of the principles to equate licensees and the general public in this principle, as the interests of the public are paramount. (The principle states: "All available facts and opinions much be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public. The many and possibly conflicting public interests much be considered. Final decisions must be based on objective, unbiased assessments of all information, and must be documented with reasons explicitly stated.")
The final speaker, Joseph Klinger, from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, gave a state perspective. He said that, 25 years ago, he saw isolation between the NRC and the states. This isolation has largely disappeared. He attributes the change to the PGR. He felt the NRC really excelled in openness and transparency. He also said that Illinois had embraced the same principles. He noted that the 37 Agreement States are responsible for most of the regulation of radioactive materials, and thus collaboration between NRC and the states is critical. He particularly cited the importance of collaboration to achieve efficiency, one of the five principles.
References to the PGR were not confined to this session. They were mentioned in Chairman Stephen Burns' welcoming letter on the first page of the RIC program, and again in a one-page summary of the NRC on the third page. And they were raised repeatedly by Commissioners, NRC managers, and others throughout the conference.
Later, speaking to someone from NRC in the hallway between sessions, I learned that one of the non-US attendees in the audience at the session on the PGR (the RIC had attendees from 33 countries this year) noted that he thought that it was good to have something like the PGR, and he intended to bring the idea back to his country.
It was interesting to see the mix of positive and negative comments. While the compliments were, of course, good to hear, I think the criticism is also important to hear. While we may individually debate whether we agree with the comments, positive and negative, they all reflect how the NRC and its action appear to the various stakeholders. Like all lofty, aspirational goals, NRC will never be able to declare victory and rest on its laurels. There will always be times when it didn't meet the goals perfectly, and even when it does, there will still be room for improvement in the future.
I like to reflect back on the period, 25 years ago, when I worked in Commissioner Rogers office and helped develop the PGR. Little did I know then what impact it would have. It is nice to see that it thrives today, and if anything, its influence is growing.