Kristina Baum – 202.224.6176
Donelle Harder – 202.224.1282 

Senate Republicans Urge Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Restore Established Order

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, with Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Mike Rounds (R-S. Dak.) wrote a letter to request the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) return to regular order. 

“We believe the time has come for the NRC to integrate any remaining post-Fukushima items into the agency’s ongoing work and prioritize the work according to its safety significance.  The only way to ensure this is to return to “regular order” while utilizing established agency processes, disciplined regulatory analyses, and rigorous cost-benefit analyses,” the Republicans said in the letter.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry are implementing safety enhancements that range from reassessing the risks of earthquakes and floods to compensating for a loss of offsite power supply and mitigating the effects of extreme natural disasters.  This work has been in addition to the NRC’s and the industry’s efforts to ensure all U.S. nuclear plants operate safely every day.  As the post-Fukushima safety enhancements near full implementation, it’s time for lower priority matters to be scrutinized alongside other safety matters to ensure that NRC and industry resources are focused on the matters that yield the greatest safety benefits.  The best way to do that is for NRC to return to regular order and stick to its disciplined internal processes for technical and cost benefit analyses.  In COMSECY-14-0037, “Integration of Mitigating Strategies for Beyond-Design-Basis External Events and the Re-Evaluation of Flooding Hazards”, the NRC staff recommendations to the Commission are in line with this approach. 

“The NRC and the nuclear industry have undertaken significant safety improvements since the tragic accident at Fukushima nearly four years ago.  The time has come for the NRC to return to regular order and rely on its disciplined processes for distinguishing between necessary safety enhancements and regulatory burden that merely sounds good,” said Chairman Inhofe.


The full text of the letter is as follows:


March 3, 2015


The Honorable Stephen G. Burns
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
11555 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD 20852

Dear Chairman Burns:


We are writing to endorse the staff’s recommended approach in COMSECY-14-0037, “Integration of Mitigating Strategies for Beyond-Design-Basis External Events and the Re-Evaluation of Flooding Hazards”, dated November 21, 2014.  In addition, we believe the time has come for the NRC to integrate any remaining post-Fukushima issues into the agency’s ongoing work, focusing on matters yielding the greatest safety benefits.


Nearly four years have passed since the Fukushima accident in Japan.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) response has resulted in a vast undertaking that has consumed significant agency and industry resources.  Most of this work has been focused on issues the Commission believed to be in the top tier of importance, the so-called Tier One items, but also incorporates many Tier Two items as well.  We are pleased to see that implementation of these safety enhancements appears to be on schedule for completion in 2016.  This is a significant achievement for the NRC, reflecting the expertise and hard work of thousands of people within the agency.  As a result, our nation’s nuclear plants have achieved a new height of safety, yet another testament to the NRC’s reputation as the gold standard for nuclear safety world-wide.


While these changes have been important, they should no longer be viewed as distinct from safety work that is unrelated to the NRC’s post-Fukushima response.  Any future regulatory changes must be focused on the most safety-significant matters, regardless of their origin.  Given that work on the most safety-significant, post-Fukushima items has shifted into implementation,   the remaining post-Fukushima items are those with lower safety significance.   We believe the time has come for the NRC to integrate any remaining post-Fukushima items into the agency’s ongoing work and prioritize the work according to its safety significance.  The only way to ensure this is to return to “regular order” while utilizing established agency processes, disciplined regulatory analyses, and rigorous cost-benefit analyses. 


While several lessons learned from Fukushima have yielded safety enhancements, we ask the Commission to learn yet one more lesson.  It is a lesson that came out of the NRC’s response to the Three Mile Island accident and a reminder the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force gave the Commission in their report following Fukushima:

“…the post-TMI review considered a number of actions that were proposed for general safety enhancement rather than being directed at specific safety weaknesses revealed by the TMI accident.  As a result, some of the actions taken by the NRC after TMI were not subjected to a structured review and were subsequently not found to be of substantial safety benefit and were removed.”


The importance of structured reviews is illustrated in the NRC’s handling of external filters for Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) following the Fukushima accident.  On November 26, 2012, the NRC staff recommended the Commission issue an order requiring 31 BWRs install external filters even though the proposal wasn’t found to be cost-beneficial.[1]   This cost-benefit analysis was later criticized by the Government Accountability Office as “…not reliable because it did not sufficiently follow related best practices to fully or substantially meet any of the four characteristics of a reliable cost estimate.[2]  Despite this shortcoming, the staff justified their recommendation based on consideration of qualitative factors.


On February 4, 2013, seven members of this Committee wrote to the Commission raising concerns about this issue, and the need for the NRC to fully understand the impact of any new regulatory changes.[3]   The Commission, rightfully, subjected the issue of external filters to a rulemaking, thus requiring a rigorous regulatory analysis.  According to Inside NRC, the first step in this analysis reportedly shows the external filter requirement would not substantially increase health and safety and the NRC staff is now expected to recommend ending the rulemaking on the filtration requirement.[4]  One NRC staff person was quoted in the article saying:

“In the first proposal to the commission, we had not done the detailed analyses we have been able to do over the last few years.  And we have found that, in fact, what we had estimated in terms of a substantial safety increase have not been proven by the best science available to us.” 


The agency’s actions regarding external filters is, once again, a stark reminder that disciplined regulatory and cost benefit analysis provide a basis for distinguishing between matters that are truly safety-significant and those that merely appear so.  This is a clear example of why the NRC must subject any remaining post-Fukushima items to scrutiny under the agency’s established processes and return to regular order.


The Commission has an opportunity to demonstrate its recognition of this lesson with its consideration of COMSECY 14-0037: “Integration of Mitigating Strategies for Beyond-Design-Basis External Events and the Reevaluation of Flooding Hazards.”  The NRC staff’s proposal in COMSECY 14-0037 appropriately recognizes that any newly reevaluated hazards should be treated as a beyond-design-basis matter until a full regulatory analysis is completed in accordance with the NRC’s “Backfit Rule”: 


“NRC Order EA-12-049 requires nuclear power plant licensees to put in place mitigating strategies for a variety of beyond-design-basis external events, including flooding. The NRC staff plans to incorporate these requirements into NRC regulations through the mitigation of beyond-design-basis events (MBDBE) rulemaking. This approach ensures that licensees implement additional capabilities for dealing with the reevaluated flooding hazards….. There is also a possibility that circumstances at some nuclear power plants may warrant consideration of additional measures to protect against or mitigate postulated flooding scenarios. These additional measures (beyond those imposed by Order EA-12-049 and the related MBDBE rulemaking) could be pursued voluntarily by licensees or imposed by the NRC through the process defined in 10 CFR 50.109, “Backfitting.”


“The NRC will address, as a separate matter from mitigating strategies, whether the existing design basis and licensing basis for flooding of any nuclear power plant continues to be acceptable if the re-evaluated flood hazard at any plant is greater than the plant’s design basis and licensing basis. The NRC staff will follow the established processes for imposing additional requirements on licenses including Management Directive 8.4, “Management of Facility-specific Backfitting and Information Collection,” which describe how to initiate, review, and disposition these types of safety concerns.”


The Backfit Rule is of particular importance to ensure that the NRC’s and the industry’s resources are focused on issues that will provide the greatest safety benefit.  The rigorous, quantitative technical and cost benefit analyses inherent in the Backfit Rule are also essential to observing the NRC’s Principles of Good Regulation: Efficiency, Clarity, and Reliability.  We applaud the staff for recommending adherence to these established processes.  While some NRC staff did not concur with this approach, we are impressed with agency’s process for addressing disagreements in a professional and transparent manner. 


We request the Commission’s full support of the NRC staff’s recommendations in COMSECY 14-0037 and request responses to the following questions by March 20, 2015:


1.         Has the Commission met to discuss how to best execute the orderly transition of its post-Fukushima effort back into the statutorily mandated organization? If so, please tell us about those plans and schedules.

2.         What agency mechanism is now in place to periodically ensure that the post-Fukushima recommendations are receiving the benefit of a comprehensive structured review, including risk prioritization, to ensure the mistakes of the post-TMI era are not repeated?

3.         Without such mechanisms to ensure proposed requirements receive a structured review and risk prioritization, would you agree that the imposition of agency requirements becomes more a matter of ad hoc, subjective decisions, and less a product of a consistent, rigorous and risk informed consideration?

4.         How many of the remaining post-Fukushima issues would likely be justified under rigorous, quantitative technical and cost benefit analyses in accordance with the NRC’s Backfit Rule?

5.         Please provide a list of additional regulatory requirements imposed over the last five years that have been outside the scope of the Backfit Rule. 

6.         Please describe the training and mentoring programs in the agency that emphasize commitment to the Principles of Good Regulation, and empower managers to be guided by them.


Should you have any questions, please contact Annie Caputo of the Majority staff at (202) 224-6176.







[1] NRC SECY 12-0157: “Consideration of Additional Requirements for Containment Venting Systems for Boiling Water Reactors with MARK I and MARK II Containments”.

[2] Government Accountability Office: “Nuclear Regulatory Commission: NRC Needs to Improve Its Cost Estimates by Incorporating More Best Practices;” GAO-15-98.

[4] Inside NRC: “NRC Staff Close to Recommending End to BWR Filtration Rulemaking”; Volume 36, Number 25; December 15, 2014.