Saturday, May 17, 2008

NRC's Dale Klein hits the road to bring his message home

Wide travels bring a strong message to the nuclear industryair travel

Dale Klein, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been traveling a lot giving a speech to NEI's annual meeting, an interview in Tampa, Fl, and talks in university settings. He has been on the road so much lately that I'm expecting him to show up in a road warrior segment on CNN.

In press interviews and speeches, Klein comes across as a straight shooter. This has to be seen as a plus by the regulated nuclear plants, Congress, and the public. With billions of dollars weighing in the balance, to use a metaphor from basketball, what you really need at the agency is a guy who is is not afraid to get in close to sink a two pointer and can still toss in another for three points from the outside. In other words, what Klein's various on-the-road speeches reveal is a regulator who can dive deep into the details of inspections and materials and at the same time think about an international framework for licensing the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), fast reactors, and spent fuel recycling.

nrc_klein Earlier this month, Klein (left) sat down with the editors of the Tampa Bay Tribune to talk about the state's "nuclear friendly" agenda. Florida Governor Charlie Crist is supporting efforts to build four new nuclear reactors. Florida Power & Light plans to build two new units at its Turkey Point site and Progress Energy plans to build two new units in Levy County. The state is second only to Texas in an aggressive shift from fossil to nuclear energy. Both utilities in Florida plan to build using the NRC approved reactor design for the Westinghouse AP1000. NRC hearings on their COL applications are currently scheduled for 2012.

Klein was asked by the Tribune's editors if he expects support for nuclear energy to survive the current political climate. He responded, that no matter who is elected as president in November, demand for electricity will grow across the nation. Even more likely, Klein said, in 2009 the incoming new Congress will "do something" on carbon, either cap-and-trade or carbon tax. Take the two together and you will see a continued strong shift from coal to uranium as a fuel source.

As far as NRC's role in all of this, Klein says the current "nuclear renaissance" represents feeling of "exuberance" for nuclear energy, but he cautions that his agency is neither a promoter nor an opponent of industry plans. He says the role of the NRC is to be independent but a "predictable" and strong regulator.

NEI gets a longer term vision

nei_logo In his speech in Chicago on May 6th to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) annual meeting, Klein moved beyond the specifics of reactor licensing, to talk about the future of nuclear energy. His talk, titled, "Challenges to Licensing the Next Generation of Nuclear Plants," should get some attention here in Idaho where the work on NGNP is taking place. Managing the licensing process for that work is part of the NRC's agenda.

In terms of conventional reactors, which is the NRC's near-term focus, Klein said the agency has received nine applications for 15 reactors. The ability of the agency to review them within its self-imposed 42-month schedule depends, Klein said, "on the quality and completeness of those applications."

Licensing involves two key steps: (1) certifying a plant design, and (2) approving a site. The combined construction and licensing (COL) application is intended to review how a certified design works at a particular site. That's what's happening in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere around the country. All applications go through the same review process.

The future is the focus of Klein's message to NEI. The NRC, he said, is working with the Department of Energy to develop a licensing framework for the NGNP. This new reactor will be designed to demonstrate hydrogen production though high-temperature processes. It will be an advanced gas-cooled reactor. The challenge, Klein says, is based on the reality, "it has been many years since the NRC licensed a gas-cooled reactor." Advances in materials science will require the NRC to move up a steep learning curve to perform its safety reviews. The challenge for the INL will be to develop an organizational and project management focus to bring to completion.

Another challenge for NRC is how to license spent fuel recycling facilities and fast reactors that will come to market in the next decade. In addition to the agency's safety mission, it will also have to deal with nonproliferation issues related to the nuclear fuel cycle. Klein said NRC is working in four broad areas to get ready for these two challenges.

  • Develop a regulatory framework for commercial facilities (spent fuel recycling, fast reactors)
  • Provide guidance to applicants, including reactor design certification and COL for new plants
  • Develop qualified staff to handle the regulatory load across the board
  • Set up and operate a facility inspection program for spent fuel recycling facilities and fast reactors once they are built

In case anyone missed it, the NRC believes that these new nuclear plants have a time-to-market schedule that is moving at express train speed. While some nuclear scientists have estimated the time line for development of these facilities in terms of decades, the agency is getting ready for them now.

International regulators seek mind meld

While advances in communications for sharing data have not created the regulatory equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld, Klein thinks that other nations are ahead of the U.S. in commitments to licensing spent fuel recycling and fast reactors and the NRC has to catch up. Working with a variety of international nuclear regulators likely is as much of a challenge as inter-species communications on a galactic scale.

digital instruments Klein said one of his most significant expectations is that that his agency has to "keep its place at the table" in the global arena of nuclear component quality assurance. Klein said he is working to "establish international norms and standards." A key area is digital instrumentation and controls. This is a concern that is echoed by other NRC commissioners.

The international competition facing U.S. suppliers working in global markets means they will have to deal with more than the NRC. For example, on May 7th, the French government launched an initiative allowing the country's Atomic Energy Commission to promote French nuclear expertise and safety standards globally.

The French Commission's new international division "will help other countries build nuclear power stations safely and without harming the environment, while ensuring the technology is not used for weapons," the government said in a statement. French President Sarkozy is the world's top nuclear salesman with a major deal in China and another likely in South Africa. Overall, the French influence comes down with two feet in markets and regulation.

In a related speech on April 23rd at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, Klein called for "more extensive international channels of communication especially on components for nuclear plants." With an global sourcing ecosystem of suppliers, any nation building nuclear power plants has its work cut out for it in terms of ensuring the quality of equipment. The ability of U.S. reactor manufacturers to compete will depend on some common agreements among nations regarding regulation of nuclear plants. Here's what Klein said about components.

"There are two main concerns that persistently capture my attention. The first is whether there is sufficient quality assurance and control over the myriad elements that go into building a modern nuclear reactor. Whether it be major components, minor parts supplied by sub-vendors, reactor designs, manpower, software, or other elements—a new reactor today depends on a supply chain that is truly global in scope. And the close scrutiny that regulatory agencies can bring to bear on major manufacturers to assure that quality components are produced does not always apply with the same intensity to the sub-vendors that supply parts and materials to the manufacturers."

Back at home keeping counterfeit parts out of U.S. plants is just as important. With 104 reactors in the fleet, it is a major mission.

Regulating the current fleet is still the top priority


At the NEI meeting Klein noted that "our top priority remains the safety and security of the existing fleet." That said he also said that while the NRC is indeed "more intrusive" than other federal government regulators, the agency does not treat all violations equally. It weighs the safety implications in each case. He added that NRC is moving to a more systematic use of probabilistic risk assessment to balance where it pays attention to regulatory issues.

At the end of the day the human equation is still the place where the agency is most involved with the industry. People matter, Klein says, because the agency's talent pool is what will make it or break it.

"A related concern is the tightness of the human supply chain. A report prepared by the nuclear power industry has estimated that roughly 35% of current utility personnel will be eligible for retirement within five years. The situation for government agencies such as NRC, the Department of Energy, and the National Labs is equally dramatic. What makes the situation a matter of long-term concern is that many of the professors who teach nuclear engineering are getting ready to retire—and that is a link in the chain that is difficult to replace quickly. To help address this, Congress has allocated $15 million for the NRC to support scholarships, fellowships, and faculty development at colleges, universities, and trade schools. This a new program for us, and we are looking forward to allocating these grants as effectively as possible."

In the U.K the nuclear industry is planning to re-hire nuclear engineers out of retirement to support its massive new build. By comparison, in the U.S., the federal government pushes its talent pool out the door at age 55 with a $25K incentive. Maybe the NRC is different? It would be interesting to know if they plan to take a page out of the U.K. play book. At the other end of the age spectrum, Klein is getting out on the road and beating the bushes for new talent.

Klein closed his speech at RPI in New York by encouraging new engineering graduates to seek a career in the nuclear field and to consider NRC as an employer of choice. The agency is ranked right at the top as a best place to work in the federal government which makes that invitation all the more attractive especially with a guy at the top who isn't afraid to say where he is going and why.

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Dale Klein, official NRC biography

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