Sep 9, 2019

Ep 187: Ho Nieh - Director, New Reactor Regulation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Director, New Reactor Regulation
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
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Show notes

Becoming Director of the NRR (2:40)

2:40-9:46 (Ho explains his path to becoming the Director of the Office of New Reactor Regulation at the NRC.)

Q. Your dad was a nuclear welder, is that right?

A. Ho Neih’s father was a nuclear welder in North Easterly US. While growing up in New York, Ho’s father steered him towards science and technology, encouraging him to study engineering at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. After graduating, Ho worked on a prototype plant for the navy nuclear program before becoming a resident inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He is now the Director of the Office of New Reactor Regulation (NRR).

While Ho’s engineering education gave him an objective mindset, the NRC and attending business school taught him that regulation is not black and white. Early in his career, he was able to work under a former NRC chairman where he learned how public policy is formed. This gave him insight into the bigger nuclear industry picture.

It is fairly common for employees to take on different positions within the NRC. Taking on different assignments in different program offices gives employees a chance to see things in a different light. For example, Ho worked in the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response after the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City. This enabled Ho to look at nuclear facilities from a protection and emergency preparedness viewpoint rather than from an inspection and safety systems perspective.

The principles of nuclear regulation (9:47)

9:47-16:07 (Ho explains the primary principles behind nuclear regulations.)
Q. What are the founding principles of nuclear regulations?

A. The CRF10 regulation book is based on the idea of reasonable assurance of adequate protection. The agency has never defined adequate protection because it allows for engineering judgement and Defense in Depth, which are the multiple layers of protection put in place. Adequate protection does not mean zero risk, but rather protects people and the environment from radioactive material which could pose a hazard.

The NRC is going through a major evolution to become a modern risk informed regulator. The primary focus is to understand what risk-informed and reasonable assurance mean. In practice, making a decision about a regulatory action comes down to a concern about a risk or exposure to a hazard. Three questions are asked when making regulatory decisions: what can go wrong; how likely is it; what are the consequences. The probabilistic risk assessment technology gives insights into how likely an event is to occur and the potential consequences. These are both used to help inform NRC decisions, however, decisions are not based on numbers alone. Other factors, such as the deterministic criteria in regulations, material quality, Defense in Depth in place, mitigation strategies, and performance monitoring, are also taken into consideration.

Adopting Silicon Valley’s view on risk (16:08)

16:08-20:22 (Ho explains the need for the NRC to take on more risk.)

Q. As part of this transformation, are people allowed to bring out of the box thinking into the mix?

A. Yes. Another element of risk is being able to take risks. The NRC does not regulate to 0 risk as there may be some risk associated with every decision. The NRC must overcome the fear of risk, meaning out of the box thinking is important. Ho visited with innovative technology companies to understand how startups achieve success in Silicon Valley. He learned that they have a strong bias towards risk taking. They understand what the risks are, the probability of failure, how to mitigate the risk and then take the risk anyway. This approach to risk is known as “fail often, fail early.” The NRC needs to challenge itself because there is no risk is repeating what has always been done. Becoming more efficient requires the NRC to take on the risk of questioning previous ways of doing.

Flexibility with Defense in Depth (20:23)

20:23-26:07 (Ho explains the need for Defense in Depth. He also explains the five aspects that the NRC uses to determine risk.)

Q. Would you be willing to hear an argument against Defense in Depth?

A. Ho is open to hearing any argument. The NRC must be flexible and listen to alternatives about how to meet criteria. Defense in Depth, however, is internationally recognized. Ho understands that innovation and technology can improve safety, as seen in the automotive industry, but believes Defense in Depth is still needed in nuclear. The NRC can be flexible about this, however. Recently, the NRC was looking into a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) design where the applicant wanted to apply single failure criteria to a single valve. The NRC staff determined that the overall consequences were sufficiently low that Defense in Depth was not needed for this particular valve.

The NRC look into five aspects when determining the safety of a nuclear system: what are the regulation requirements, the Defense in Depth in place, safety margins, quantitative risk information and the type of performance monitoring that can be carried out. Ho notes that judgement must be applied here because nuclear regulation is not black and white and decreasing risk further may not always be in the public’s interest because of the cost associated with some decisions. There is therefore a tradeoff between the five aspects the NRC uses to determine risk and safety.

Making plants safer after Fukushima and 9/11 (26:08)

26:08-32:09 (Ho discusses the actions taken to make plants safer after Fukushima and the September 11th terrorist attacks.)

Q. Have we readjusted our notion of consequence as we’ve learned more from the various nuclear accidents that have occured?

A. There are international committees dedicated to radiation protection and dose levels. The industry is learning from Fukushima. Even though this was a rare accident caused by natural events, the industry learned that this type of accident can occur and thus some level of protection must be in place to prevent a similar accident occurring again. One measure put in place is the portable equipment to supply cooling water and power supplies to a facility in the event of an extreme accident. This equipment is located onsite and offsite at warehouses that can be delivered to any plant within the US in 24 hours. Another example is after the September 11 attacks, the NRC issued orders for nuclear plants to increase their level of security and to have portable equipment in place in the case of plant loss due to fires or explosions.

Modernizing the licensing process (32:10)

32:10-41:37 (Ho explains the licensing process for new reactor designs. He also discusses the new steps the NRC is taking to modernize the licensing process.)

Q. When a new technology wants to come to the NRC with a new idea, what’s the process for them to do so?

A. Companies with new technologies are already coming to the NRC. Non-light water designs are currently in pre-application discussions to understand the licensing process. With advanced reactors, each potential applicant will do their own review of licensing strategies and follow the process that makes the most sense for them. However, both licensing strategies (Part 50 and Part 52) were created with the traditional light water reactor designs in mind, meaning new designs require applicants to file exceptions no matter the licensing strategy chosen. The NRC is looking at different approaches to understand the new advanced reactor designs and the types of events that must be analyzed to determine safety criteria.

The NRC is also asking themselves how to do reviews differently. Ho notes that it makes little sense to take an advanced reactor design with better safety features and force it to fit the normal way of reviewing plants. The reviewing strategy of big light water reactors was to break the licensing process into components and have experts review each part separately. The new way of licensing will bring together fuel and electrical experts to take a more integrated review of advanced reactor designs.

The NRC is also looking to decrease the amount of time it takes for a plant to go through the licensing process. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act places requirements on the NRC to decrease the licensing process to 24 months rather than 4 to 5 years. Ho is challenging his team to look at the product that is actually being produced rather than reading through large amounts of materials and producing long reports. He believes it is most important to spend time on the issues that matter most to safety and is therefore important to question if the resources spent on studying a particular safety issue will improve safety of the plants today.

Decreasing regulations on new reactor designs (41:38)

41:38-50:21 (Ho explains how the NRC is approaching new licensing requirements for new plant designs.)

Q. Decreasing regulation on low risk drones enabled commercial innovation to grow. Can there be an argument made here where we draw a threshold for research sized reactors and decrease regulation, creating a technological boom for the industry?

A. The innovation cycle leads to further improvements in other areas. For nuclear in the advanced reactor area, there are some basic requirements, such as site boundary dose requirements. For light water reactors, the dose requirement is very prescriptive, but there may be other driving factors for advanced designs. The NRC is therefore paving the way to enable plants to be licensed using different criteria than the large light water reactor designs.

The NRC is thinking about setting boundaries that would decrease the need for regulation based on the low risk that some designs present. For example, some designs eliminate the need for operators, which would decrease the need for operator safety regulations. This challenges the NRC to leave behind old paradigms, such as the one that a nuclear plant must have operators in a control room. The new designs use the pre-application discussions to understand the type of regulatory exceptions they may seek from the NRC. The NRC may also use this time to understand what modeling they will need to see to undertake a safety review of a new design.

The future of the NRC (50:21)

50:21-55:53 (Ho discusses the importance of the NRC and the NRC’s future.)
Q. What is the future for the NRC?

A. Advanced reactors present an incredible opportunity for the NRC. The US and Canada have partnered on regulatory reviews of advanced reactors, leveraging their combined knowledge. The role of the NRC is not to promote nuclear, but to ensure the safety of Americans through regulation. The NRC is important because it is the fundamental enabler for safe innovation and growth in the nuclear sector. The NRC has been criticized in the past for not being very risk-informed and for being inflexible, but Ho is excited for a new NRC which takes on risk and out of the box thinking to modernize the regulation process. Ho is thinking of the future leaders of the NRC who come from the generation that grew up in the digital age and are focused on finding meaningful work. Ho believes making possible safe nuclear technologies can attract this new generation. Creating a new mindset is the start of an exciting future for the NRC.

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