US regulator highlights transformation goals

21 March 2018

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is transforming the way it carries out its business as it adapts to meet new challenges, the agency's annual conference heard last week. The country's nuclear industry is mirroring the regulator's efforts with its own initiative to press for regulatory change.

The NRC's transformation effort is part of a drive to align the regulator's culture and processes to serve the needs of today's technologies and needs, NRC Executive Director for Operations Victor McCree told the NRC's 2018 Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), held in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Many of the NRC's processes and much of our regulatory framework were developed to serve mid-20th century nuclear technologies and needs," McCree said. Regulatory change is needed because changes occurring in the nuclear industry will challenge this framework, he said.

A "transformation team" set up by the NRC to recommend ways for it to fundamentally change the way it regulates the industry is later this year to produce a paper on the regulator's transformation strategy and vision, following consultations with stakeholders.

The NRC's transformation initiative covers areas including increasing the use of safety-enhancing digital instrumentation and control systems in nuclear power plant control rooms; using risk assessments to inform rules, advanced reactor licensing and other regulatory changes; and using insights from Big Data to make regulations and plant operations more efficient.

NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran encouraged the transformation team to look at digital instrumentation and control in particular.

"We need to ask the bigger question: 'Is there some kind of different way we should be looking at this?'", he said.

Baran also noted that the team had been talking to the US Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration and international partners to learn how highly technical, mission-critical industries made the transition from analogue to digital technologies.

Industry mirror

The US nuclear industry is mirroring the NRC's transformation efforts, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said. The institute, which represents the USA's nuclear industry, has formed its own transformation team to provide an in-depth industry perspective on how the NRC can change to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The team has now submitted a report to the NRC suggesting ways in which the regulator can increase its effectiveness, improve accountability and increase safety with reduced levels of effort and cost.

"The US nuclear industry's safety record is exemplary and a model for the nuclear industry worldwide," the report, A Framework for Regulatory Transformation, notes. "For years, NRC regulation had served to support this global leadership. However, recent changes in technology, understanding of risks and margins, and improvements in licensee performance have created a landscape where new regulatory approaches are needed to maintain NRC effectiveness. These new approaches must achieve change beyond an incremental evolution to enable the modernisation of the US nuclear industry," it adds.

The report outlines an initial set of actions to achieve the needed change in a timely, effective and sustained manner, building on the NRC's Principles of Good Regulation: independence, openness, efficiency, clarity, and reliability. Four primary objectives are identified: the early use of risk insights in regulatory decision-making processes; development of a results-driven, efficient, and predictable framework to determine reasonable assurance of adequate protection; a transformed reactor oversight process that better focuses resources on issues with risk and safety significance, leading to more timely decision-making; and flexibility in the regulatory framework to allow alternative ways to achieve safety goals, and embracing new approaches, methods, and technologies that help meet safety regulations.

"There is an urgent need for change and adaptation in the US nuclear power industry," said NEI Director of Life Extension and New Technology Jason Remer. "However, this change cannot happen without first transforming the regulatory framework and initiating the necessary changes in NRC and industry behaviour."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News