Legal & Regulatory

NRC's New Chairman Urged to Heed Agency's Climate Policy Role

Christopher Hanson, a nuclear energy government and industry veteran, has taken the helm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The designation by President Joe Biden on Jan. 23 may provide a boost to the administration’s climate initiatives, experts told POWER

Hanson, a Democrat, is expected to fill the role for remainder of his five-year term as an NRC commissioner that started in June 2020 and will end in June 2024. He replaces Republican Kristine Svinicki, who departed the NRC on Jan. 20. Serving as chairman since 2017, Svinicki was the longest serving member of the commission in the agency’s history, the NRC noted on Saturday.

Biden is now expected to nominate a fifth commissioner to fill the remaining vacancy. “If that pick shares Chairman Hanson’s views, the agency’s longstanding threshold for intervenor challenges to license applications could be overturned,” noted Ryan Lighty and Alex Polonsky, lawyers with Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP

President Biden designated Christopher T. Hanson as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 18th Chairman, effective immediately. Hanson replaces Kristine L. Svinicki, who departed the agency on Jan. 20, 2021, after serving as
Chairman since 2017. Source: NRC

Hanson “has more than two decades of government and private-sector experience in the fields of nuclear energy,” the NRC noted. Before he joined the NRC, Hanson served as a staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he oversaw civilian and national security nuclear programs. Hanson has also previously served as a senior advisor in the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, where he oversaw nuclear and environmental cleanup programs, and managed the Department’s relationship with Congressional Appropriations Committees. He has also held a role as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton where he led multiple engagements for government and industry in the energy sector.

Groups Urge Continued Work on Nuclear Innovation

Nuclear industry trade group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) congratulated Hanson on his appointment to the independent agency, which has traditionally been tasked with establishing and enforcing safety and security standards for nuclear power plants and users of nuclear materials. 

But, as Maria Korsnick, NEI president and CEO, recognized, the agency is playing an increasingly important role today in sustaining a future for nuclear through its implementation of risk-informed, technology-inclusive licensing frameworks for a new generation of advanced nuclear technologies. 

However, Korsnick urged the NRC to take a stronger stance on broader policy objectives as it makes progress on modernization. “With the administration and Congress prioritizing climate policy, it is essential that the NRC, led by Chairman Hanson, recognize the important role the agency plays within broader U.S. climate and energy policy,” she said. Recognized globally as a “premier” nuclear regulatory body around the world, the NRC “should continue efforts that make possible the innovation we see across the nuclear industry,” she said.

“Over the next decade, we will see the deployment of next-generation nuclear technologies responsible for bringing high-quality carbon-free energy jobs, protecting the climate and boosting our economy,”  Korsnick said. “Modernizing regulatory approaches will advance future reactor designs and sustain the carbon-free nuclear energy we have today, which Congress and this Administration have signaled must play a role in addressing our nation’s future energy needs.”

Third Way, a national think tank that describes itself as leaning “center-left” on the political spectrum, lauded Hanson’s appointment. As Jackie Kempfer, senior policy advisor for the organization’s Climate and Energy Program, told POWER, “When you think about government agencies with a big climate impact, the NRC tends to fly under the radar. But the Commission is responsible for both preserving America’s largest source of carbon-free power, and acting as gatekeeper to advanced nuclear technologies that could prove vital in getting us on the fastest path to net-zero emissions,” she said. 

So far, the NRC has made “great progress in modernizing its processes for next-generation reactors and extending operating licenses for our existing carbon-free nuclear plants with a record of safe operation,” she noted. Hanson’s appointment is a “fantastic choice to lead the NRC into a new decade that will build the foundation of an advanced nuclear age,” she said. Under Hanson’s leadership, the NRC may continue to work on transforming the regulatory framework for advanced reactors and increased efforts to pursue international cooperation and license harmonization, Kempfer said. 

An Agency Shakeup

In a statement on Saturday, Hanson said he remains committed to ensuring the agency will work to assure the public adequate protection of health and safety in carrying out its regulatory responsibilities. “I look forward to building on Chairman Svinicki’s many accomplishments as the Commission takes on new challenges and faces new opportunities as nuclear energy technologies continue to evolve and uses of nuclear materials expand in the future,” he said.

Industry experts noted Hanson may have an early opportunity to exercise unique authority on personnel matters. “The NRC’s current Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (NRR), Ho Nieh, recently announced that he will leave the agency on January 30, 2021. Following Mr. Nieh’s departure, and after consulting with the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations, Chairman Hanson will have an opportunity to nominate a permanent replacement, subject to confirmation by the full Commission. Given the significant size and scope of the NRR regulatory portfolio, this may be Chairman Hanson’s first opportunity to steer the course of the agency’s day-to-day operations,” said the Morgan Lewis & Bockius attorneys. 

However, Hanson has stressed the merits of collaboration. During the Utility Working Conference, a virtual event held by the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in August 2020, Hanson pointed to several examples of recent NRC reform, transformation, and innovation. These include encouraging an agency-wide culture of sharing ideas. “The executive director for operations has supported crowdsourcing initiatives, even creating a challenge campaign to identify alternative and more efficient ways of doing things,” he said

He also highlighted Embark Venture Studio, a dedicated resource at the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation that seeks to promote and implement innovation projects to benefit the nuclear reactor safety program, as well as the agency’s mission analytics portal, which integrates data from different sources to enhance informed decision-making. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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