Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent regulatory agency that oversees the civilian use of Nuclear Power in the United States. It licenses and regulates the uses of nuclear energy to protect public health and safety, and the environment. The NRC's prime responsibility is to ensure that the more than 100 commercial nuclear power plants in the United States conform to its regulations. It also regulates the use of nuclear materials in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, in sterilizing instruments, in smoke detectors, and in gauges used to detect explosives in luggage at airports.

The NRC was established under the provisions of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C.A. §5801) and Executive Order No. 11,834 of January 15, 1975 (40 Fed. Reg. 2971). These actions dissolved the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and transferred the AEC's licensing and regulatory functions to the NRC. The AEC, which had both regulated and promoted nuclear power, fell out of favor because of these conflicting roles. Congress believed that the NRC, which has only a regulatory function, would better protect public health and safety, because it has no direct interest in the promotion of nuclear energy. The 1974 act also created the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) to handle the promotion of nuclear energy. This agency became part of the Energy Department in 1977.

NRC headquarters are located in Rockville, Maryland. There are also four regional offices. The NRC is composed of five members, all of whom are appointed by the president. One member is designated as chairman and spokesperson. Policies and decisions of the commission are carried out by the Executive Director for Operations, who also oversees the various NRC offices, including the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, the Office of Investigations, and the Office of Enforcement.

NRC fulfills its responsibilities through a system of licensing and regulation. The Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation licenses the construction and operation of nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities. It regulates site selection, design, construction, operation maintenance, and the decommissioning of facilities.

The Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards licenses and regulates the processing, handling, and transportation of nuclear materials. This office ensures the safe disposal of nuclear waste and is responsible for reviewing and assessing the safeguards against potential threats, thefts, and sabotage for all licensed facilities.

The Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research performs research to confirm reactor safety and to confirm the implementation of established safeguards and environmental protection policies. This office develops regulations, criteria, guides, standards, and codes that govern health, safety, the environment, and safeguards that pertain to all aspects of nuclear facilities.

Policies and procedures for investigating nuclear power licensees and contractors are developed by the NRC's Office of Investigations. The Office of Enforcement ensures that NRC requirements are enforced. The office has the power to give violation notices, enforce fines, and order license modification, suspension, or revocation.

In 1979, the credibility of the NRC, and the nuclear power industry in general, was questioned after an accident took place at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Almost half of the reactor's core melted, and radioactive steam escaped, but no major injuries were reported. NRC responded by reexamining safety requirements and imposing new regulations to correct deficiencies. It also required each nuclear plant to create a plan for evacuating the population within a ten-mile radius of the plant in the event of a reactor accident. Plant owners must work with state and local police, fire, and civil defense authorities to devise an emergency plan that is then tested and evaluated by the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Another issue of concern to the public and to the nuclear power industry is the problem of radioactive waste. The NRC has pressed Congress for a solution to this problem. As nuclear power plants age they accumulate spent nuclear fuel rods. On-site temporary storage at these facilities turned into long-term storage, which raised safety concerns with the NRC as early as the 1970s. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 10101-10226), authorized a study of possible storage sites. In 1987, Congress amended the act, directing that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, be studied as the only permanent storage site for nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain is located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The law gave the state of Nevada Veto authority over approving the site, subject to a congressional override. The NRC and the Energy Department endorsed the Yucca Mountain site as geologically sound and capable of safely storing the waste for the thousands of years it will remain radioactive. However, political controversy in Congress and Nevada stalled a decision.

The nuclear power industry lobbied the Bush administration for approval of Yucca Mountain and, in 2002, the Energy Department and President george w. bush formally endorsed the storage site plan. The state of Nevada formally vetoed the site; Congress had 90 days to overrule the decision. In July 2002, Congress overturned the decision and authorized the spending of $69 billion to prepare Yucca Mountain to receive thousands of tons of nuclear waste currently at power plant sites around the United States.

The fear of Terrorism played a part in the Yucca Mountain decision, as Congress expressed alarm that a terrorist might be able to steal or obtain spent radioactive material stored at power plant sites. Following the september 11th attacks in 2001, the NRC launched a review of nuclear power plants to determine if there were security risks. The commission concluded that the heavy concrete construction of nuclear facilities made it highly unlikely that a Three Mile Island episode could occur if a terrorist flew a hijacked plane into a facility. However, during heightened terrorist alert periods the National Guard and local law enforcement agents now routinely patrol nuclear plants.

Further readings

"History of the Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program." Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Available online at <www.ocrwm.doe.gov> (accessed August 11, 2003).

"Nevada Yucca Mountain Lawsuits." Yucca Mountain: Eureka County Nuclear Waste Page. Available online at <www.yuccamountain.org/court/lawsuits.htm> (accessed August 9, 2003).

Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Available online at <www.nrc.gov> (accessed August 12, 2003).

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <www.gpoaccess.gov/gmanual> (accessed November 10, 2003).

Cross-references

Environmental Law; Public Utilities; Solid Wastes, Hazardous Substances, and Toxic Pollutants.

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