Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Nuclear Interest in a Government Shutdown

Government shutdown has been all the rage in Washington lately. Appropriations run out at the end of September, also the end of the fiscal year, and the government cannot fully function without them. Well, it can – it’s not like the treasury is empty aside from moths and dust – but without passing appropriation legislation, none of that money can be divvied among government functions, thus shutdown.

Now, obviously, essential activities continue regardless. When the government last shut down in 2013, the Department of Homeland Security furloughed about 15 percent of its workforce. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sidelined about 90 percent of its staff. Nothing “bad” happened, or was expected to, but it’s not a good situation.

There is a notable difference between DHS (and many other government agencies) and the NRC. NRC is 90 percent funded by the industry it oversees; in many ways, it’s a fee-for-service entity and one where the key goal, like that of DHS, is to protect public safety. Even though safety is well covered, shutdown or no, there seems a distinct gap between the NRC’s obligations and its response to government shutdown.

NEI’s President and CEO Marv Fertel addressed these issues in a letter dated September 4 to NRC Chairman Stephen Burns. This is available only on NEI’s member Web site, so we’ll quote it more fully here to give you  its full flavor and context.

In addition, as you know, approximately 90% of the NRC’s appropriations are offset by user fees, which licensees continue to pay during a funding gap. As a matter of fairness, those paying government fees should be able to receive the services for which they are paying. Our research identified a significant difference in this regard between the NRC’s approach and that of DHS as that department continued to allow normal operations during the October 2013 funding gap for a range of activities funded through DHS fees and multi-year appropriations (e.g., programs under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Protection and Programs Directorate, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).

Fertel makes a series of suggestion on how the NRC might balance the needs of licensees and a shuttered government:

* ensuring its interpretation and implementation of the Anti-Deficiency Act is not unnecessarily conservative and more limited than required;

* ensuring it will maximize the use of carry-over funds and fee-based revenue to ensure continued operations during a lapse in appropriations;

* identifying lessons learned from DHS and other agencies to help the NRC to determine how it can forestall furloughs and continue normal operations;

* establishing in advance the bases for continuing commercial contract work during a funding gap;

* clarifying that power generation and grid reliability concerns can justify the processing of emergency and exigent licensing actions;

* engaging the relevant congressional committees to address statutory impediments to the NRC taking appropriate regulatory action and providing necessary services during a funding gap.

The NRC already recognizes the breadth of “excepted activities,” that is, those that can continue during a shutdown. It’s broader than you might think:

Excepted functions include a broad list of NRC responsibilities: event notification, emergency response, site operations, resident inspectors, enforcement, allegations/investigations, facility and nuclear reactor security and safeguards, commissioners, policy direction, legal advice, state liaison, international liaison, public affairs, congressional liaison, inspector general, financial management, administrative and information technology support, and human resources.

And that alone should justify a new look at the NRC’s shutdown contingency plan:

Given the breadth of this list, we believe the agency should look afresh at its shutdown contingency plan to ensure staff normally performing “activities essential to ensure continued public health and safety” and “activities that ensure production of power and maintenance of power distribution” are not furloughed.

Past government shutdowns have tended to include an element of brinksmanship, so, assuming that recurs this time, we may not know until September 30th or even October 1st whether one will occur. But the industry has provided good reasons and reasonable recommendations to ensure that the NRC continues its essential activities during any shutdown that may occur.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So, here's a simple, common-sense question (which means it will go nowhere in the land of make-believe DC): if you pay for a service, such as NRC fees, should you not get the service? If you do not get service, should you have to pay? When I go to my auto repair shop, I pay a fee for service and get service. I do not expect to pay a fee and receive no service. That would be theft. If the NRC shuts down by still collects fees, is that a case of theft? It would be in the real world, but evidently not Washington.