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Legislation to Improve Safety and Security Oversight of the Department of Energy

March 22, 2000

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

It is a pleasure to appear before you today to discuss the proposal for external regulation of facilities owned or operated by the Department of Energy, and in particular to explain the Commission's views on the recently introduced bill, H.R. 3907, "External Regulation of the Department of Energy Act." As the Commission previously testified before the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on July 22, 1999, and before the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Power on May 20, 1998, the Commission believes that NRC could be the sole external regulator of DOE nuclear and radiological safety, if the Congress determined that such regulation was in the best interests of the Nation. The Commission also testified that we believe that a majority of the technical, policy, and regulatory issues identified during the NRC/DOE pilot program at three DOE facilities can be adequately resolved within the existing NRC regulatory framework. We see a path to resolving the remaining issues and we continue to stand by our previous testimony.

Today we are testifying on a significantly different approach than that discussed in previous Commission testimony. H.R. 3907 would require the NRC to assume regulatory jurisdiction over the entirety of DOE's activities -- both defense and non-defense -- at one time. The Commission strongly prefers a multi-phased approach, as former Chairman Dicus testified to the House Science Committee in July of last year. Exactly such a multi-phased approach was contemplated by the House Science Committee last fall in Section 15 of H.R. 1656.

Our concern is that a one-phase approach could divert significant agency resources from important ongoing regulatory initiatives relating to current NRC licensees. These initiatives, in areas such as license renewal, license transfers, a new reactor oversight process, a more effective license amendment process, and dry cask storage for spent nuclear fuel, have been urged by Congress and require significant agency resources to bring to fruition. NRC previously testified that it could initially regulate the relatively less complex, less costly facilities of DOE's Office of Energy Research, now the Office of Science (SC), and Office of Nuclear Energy, now the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science, and Technology (NE) -- and that, subject to receiving adequate resources, it could then gradually phase in the more complex, more costly facilities of DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) over a period of several years. Assuming responsibility for all DOE nuclear facilities at one time could overwhelm the agency and place at risk the critical regulatory initiatives currently underway. Thus, the Commission does not believe that the approach described in H.R. 3907 is feasible, even if significant resources were made available. Indeed, aside from the SC and NE facilities, at this point we would have a very hard time estimating the necessary NRC resources without further study.

Let me give you an example of the cost associated with a very complex facility. The NRC now provides regulatory advice to the DOE concerning DOE's Hanford Tank Waste Remediation Systems project. This effort includes a resident inspector, who is on site full time, and significant involvement both by our Headquarters staff and our Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses in Texas. There is no prospect for an NRC regulatory role until at least 2015 under DOE's current program, yet NRC's current assistance is costing about $2.4 million each year. The Hanford project is extraordinarily complex. Nonetheless, there are many complex DOE EM and NNSA facilities presenting many challenges, both from a technical and programmatic perspective. Without a transition period and phased approach, we would have great difficulty estimating the likely NRC resources required. The immediate assumption of authority over potentially hundreds of such complex DOE EM and NNSA facilities would likely overwhelm our staff and put at risk the progress we have made in regulatory initiatives affecting our current licensees.

The Commission respectfully urges the Committee to consider the phased approach to external regulation of DOE advocated in 1996 by DOE's Working Group on External Regulation. We would see an overall gain in public health and safety only if NRC regulation of DOE were undertaken in a manner that does not risk diverting the Commission's attention from the NRC's primary mission of ensuring the safety and security of civilian nuclear facilities.

Another issue which is not addressed in the bill is NRC's authority to regulate safeguards -- that is, physical protection and material control and accounting. We believe that these matters are so integrally linked to safety issues that it is important for the effectiveness of NRC's regulatory oversight that safeguards authority be explicitly included.

As I stated at the outset, we believe that a majority of the technical, policy, and regulatory issues identified during the NRC/DOE pilot program can be adequately resolved within the existing NRC regulatory framework. Others will require clarification in statute. We would be pleased to work with the Committee on these provisions.

In conclusion, we appreciate the confidence that this Committee has demonstrated in NRC by introducing H.R. 3907. We support the bill in spirit, but strongly believe that a phased approach focusing on the less complex and less costly DOE SC and NE facilities should be the first step. We stand ready to work with the Committee to identify an appropriately phased approach.

Thank you Mr. Chairman. We would be pleased to answer any questions that you and Members of the Subcommittee may have.

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