Monday, February 8, 2016

Principles of Good Regulation--25th Anniversary:

NRC Celebrates 25 Years of the 
Principles of Good Regulation

On January 19, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched what they characterize as a year of celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Principles of Good Regulation.  The first event was an employee seminar on the history and evolution of the Principles.  I was very pleased and proud to have been asked to be a part of that event.

I had wanted to report on this seminar earlier, but Mother Nature (the Snowzilla that hit the Washington, DC area a few days later) caused me to move up my vacation plans.  I escaped the blizzard in time, but the things I'd planned to do the remainder of that week got put off until now.

I have previously discussed the thinking behind the NRC Principles of Good Regulation and will not repeat that here.  I will focus instead primarily on what was discussed at this event.

NRC dates the effective beginning of the Principles of Good Regulation to the publication of the Principles in the Agency's Five Year Plan for 1991-1995 and the dissemination of the Principles to all NRC staff in a memorandum from the Chairman of NRC at the time, Kenneth M. Carr, on January 17, 1991.  The Principles have become very important to the Agency in the last 25 years, and therefore, the NRC has apparently decided to do a number of things this year to recognize the role of the Principles and to set the scene for their future.

The first of these events was the January 19 staff seminar.  It was held in the Rockville, MD headquarters of the NRC, but was broadcast to all the NRC regional offices.  (I will also note that it was held on the 41th anniversary of the day NRC started--January 19, 1975.)   There are plans for several other events and initiatives to be held this year focusing on the Principles.  For example, at the upcoming NRC Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), there will be a panel discussion on the Principles.

The seminar brought together a number of people who had been at the NRC when the Principles were developed, as well as some who have been involved with the Principles in more recent years.  The current NRC Chairman, Steven Burns, the current head of the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, Michael Weber, and the current Executive Director for Operations, Victor McCree, were all on the NRC staff at the time the Principles were promulgated.  Mike Weber and Vic McCree each made opening remarks.  Mike had been a technical assistant in Chairman Carr's office in 1991, so was heavily involved in the "birth" of the Principles.  Vic McCree noted how the Principles later led to a staff-initiated statement of values a few years later.  Commissioner Ostendorff, who has been one of the more recent champions of the Principles, made opening remarks as well, focusing on how he has tried to promote this concept to regulators in other countries.

The main speakers were former Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, myself, and the current NRC historian, Thomas Wellock.  The three of us tried to detail how the concept for the Principles developed and evolved. 

The idea for the Principles came from Kenneth C. Rogers, who was a Commissioner at the time.  While many people contributed to the Principles, Commissioner Rogers had assigned me the task of gathering and synthesizing inputs to the document.  The two of us reconstructed for the NRC audience some of the details of that effort:  his discussions with the other Commissioners, my interactions with their assistants and with senior NRC management, initial skepticism in some quarters and our efforts to incorporate suggestions that helped bring everyone aboard, the attempt to draw from previous statements and documents, the process for identifying and narrowing the list of potential principles to a reasonable set, and the decisions on what order to put the principles in and what language to use to explain and clarify them.

Tom Wellock then tried to give some historical perspective to the Principles.  (He abbreviated them PGR, which is probably a good idea.  And while I'm mentioning good ideas, I noticed that, although I always painstakingly try to put them in the order we initially used--independence, openness, efficiency, clarity, and reliability--I have seen the acronym ICORE used, which probably makes them a whole lot easier to remember!)  He confirmed what we always thought--that as far as he has been able to find, NRC's Principles were the first of their kind.  However, he noted that he has found a number of other statements of regulatory principles that were created after NRC's, including in the UK, Ireland, the EU, and IAEA.  He also put the initiative in a broader historical perspective--pointing to the 1960s, when more regulation was often viewed as a good thing (he cited Nader's initiatives), to the deregulatory efforts of the 1980s.   Most interestingly, he pointed to antecedents for some of the principles we used--words like independent, open and reliable began popping up in NRC documents in the 1980s. 

Of course, the true measure of the value of something like the Principles is in their impact, and that is much harder to assess.  The explanation of several of the Principles suggests the difficulty.  Each of these Principles is important, but there is always a balance to be struck.  Independence should not mean isolation.  Efficiency should not force NRC staff to act so quickly that they miss something.  Therefore, the goal is to minimize delay as much as is reasonably possible.  Reliability should not mean that regulations must be cast in stone.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure that changes in regulations are justifiable.

I have certainly seen times when NRC has been criticized for falling short on its adherence to the Principles of Good Regulation.  Some of this criticism may have been colored by the viewpoints and positions of the critics.  But even someone without an ax to grind might find fault at times in some of NRC actions.  After all, the Principles are a very ambitious set of rules to follow, and require a continual balance between opposing objectives.  What I think is encouraging is that, after performing this balancing act for 25 years, the NRC has made a conscious decision that this is still a valid standard of behavior to set for themselves, and has committed to continuing to try to hold themselves to that standard. 



  1. I have often noticed that the quality of NRC regulation often reflects the composition of the Commission itself. My dream is that someday nuclear will be less controversial and regulation will be similar to the FAA or FCC.

  2. Maybe the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence! I don't know as much about the FAA, but since my husband worked for FCC for many years, we had ample opportunity to compare and contrast the performance of the FCC and the NRC. While the controversies in the telecommunications sphere are different, they are no less contentious and divisive. Think "net neutrality," as just the most recent example.

    1. True the FCC has its controversies, however they are not at the level where they significantly delay technology development (e.g., no license submittal required for next model iPhone). ;-)

      Yes, nuclear technology is different, however it appears that the controversies in the NRC tend to have a greater impact on licensing impacts.

    2. As with many things, telecom regulation is a complicated issue. I'm beginning to think that this subject is worth a blog comparing regulatory organizations.

      That will have to wait at least a few days, but in the meantime, you might be interested in this thread on millimeter wave issues from the blog SpectrumTalk. Full disclosure, this is my husband's blog.

    3. I just noticed the link to SpectrumTalk didn't make it and am trying again:

    4. Thanks. It does shed light, however it still feels that the NRC has a greater approval role and takes longer. Maybe if iPhones were only used by a select few there would be more controversy and longer licensing at FCC?

    5. I'll try to address some of your thoughts in another blog. Stay tuned.