Even conventional projects could face delays if NRC is overwhelmed by the anticipated flurry of applications.
A study released in August by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s research arm, lauded NRC’s aggressive hiring to staff its new Office of New Reactors, raising NRC’s overall workforce from 3,100 in 2004 to 3,500 today (the agency expects to hit 4,000 by 2010). But GAO also advised NRC to plan for trouble, setting criteria by which it will triage applications if it becomes overstretched.
If NRC becomes overwhelmed, the first projects in the pipeline are likely to win out. That could mean delays for Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which notified NRC in August that it intends to seek certification for its latest pressurized water-reactor design. Mitsubishi hopes to file its application in early 2008, but Ganthner says that NRC needs more notice to plan for major projects such as reactor-design reviews. “They came into the NRC’s picture for the budgeting process about a year late in the cycle,” he says.
Watchdog groups, for their part, worry that safety quality will get lost in the shuffle if NRC shifts focus and resources away from enforcement. “NRC is approaching new reactor licensing with a near-exclusive focus on schedule, not quality,” says David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Washington. He believes that NRC is already stretched too thin. “The NRC lacks sufficient resources to undertake too many tasks,” Lochbaum says. “They can cover any half they want but can never cover it all.”