What GAO Found
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) periodically reviews licensees decommissioning funds and related licensee data to determine if licensees have provided reasonable assurance that they will accumulate adequate funds for decommissioning. For example, licensees must submit estimates to NRC of decommissioning costs throughout the life of the reactor and submit fund status reports at least every 2 years while the reactor is operating. Licensees typically accumulate such funds over time through trust fund investments. The minimum amount of funds considered adequate is established by NRCs decommissioning funding formula, which is based on information collected more than 30 years ago.
NRC has taken actions to strengthen its oversight of licensees decommissioning funds by (1) creating guidance and other documents related to criteria for reviewing licensees 2-year reports and by using its enforcement process when deficiencies are identified, (2) conducting reviews at licensee offices to verify that fund balances licensees reported in their 2-year reports match their year-end bank statements in response to a 2006 NRC Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recommendation, (3) reevaluating the decommissioning funding formula to determine if it should be updated, and (4) improving decommissioning planning. However, several weaknesses may limit NRCs ability to ensure that licensees have provided reasonable assurance. Specifically:
NRCs formula may not reliably estimate adequate decommissioning costs. According to NRC, the formula was intended to estimate the bulk of the decommissioning funds needed, but the term bulk is undefined, making it unclear how NRC can determine if the formula is performing as intended. In addition, GAO compared NRCs formula estimates for 12 reactors with these reactors more detailed site-specific cost estimates calculated for the same period. GAO found that for 5 of the 12 reactors, the NRC formula captured 57 to 76 percent of the costs reflected in each reactors site-specific estimate; the other 7 captured 84 to 103 percent.
The results of more than one-third of the fund balance reviews that NRC staff performed from April 2008 to October 2010 to verify that the amounts in the 2-year reports match year-end bank statements were not always clearly or consistently documented. As an example of inconsistent results, some reviewers provided general information, such as no problem, while others provided more detail about both the balance in the year-end bank statement and the 2-year report. As of October 2011, NRC did not have written procedures describing the steps that staff should take for conducting these reviews, which likely contributed to NRC staff not always documenting the results of the reviews clearly or consistently.
NRC has not reviewed licensees compliance with the investment standards the agency has set for decommissioning trust funds. These standards specify, among other things, that fund investments may not be made in any reactor licensee or in a mutual fund in which 50 percent or more of the fund is invested in the nuclear power industry. As a result, NRC cannot confirm that licensees are avoiding conditions described in the standards that may impair fund growth. Without awareness of the nature of licensees investments, NRC cannot determine whether it needs to take action to enforce the standards.
Why GAO Did This Study
About 20 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by 104 nuclear reactors. NRC, which regulates reactors, requires their owners (licensees) to reduce radioactive contamination after reactors permanently shut down. This process, called decommissioning, costs hundreds of millions of dollars per reactor. NRC requires licensees to provide reasonable assurance that they will have adequate funds to decommission, in part, by accumulating funds that are greater than or equal to NRCs decommissioning funding formula. GAO and NRCs OIG have identified concerns about NRCs oversight of decommissioning funds. GAO was asked by Representative Markey in his former capacity as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment to (1) describe how NRC ensures that licensees provide reasonable assurance of adequate decommissioning funds and (2) identify any improvements or weaknesses in NRCs oversight of this area. GAO analyzed NRCs formula and reviews of licensee information and interviewed NRC officials, licensees, and others.
GAO recommends, among other things, that NRC define what it means by the bulk of the funds needed for decommissioning and consider reviewing a sample of licensees investments to determine if they comply with standards. NRC agreed to consider reviewing a sample of investments, but disagreed that defining bulk is needed because of the comprehensiveness of NRCs regulatory system. GAO continues to believe that this definition is needed.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission||1. To further strengthen NRC's oversight of decommissioning funding assurance, the NRC Commissioners should ensure reliability as part of the agency's process of reevaluating its decommissioning funding formula, by defining what the agency means by the 'bulk" of the funds that licensees will likely need to decommission their reactors.|
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission||
Priority Rec.2. To further strengthen NRC's oversight of decommissioning funding assurance, the NRC Commissioners should ensure reliability as part of the agency's process of reevaluating its decommissioning funding formula, by using the cost-estimating characteristics as a guide for a high-quality cost-estimating formula in the event that NRC chooses to update the formula.
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission||3. To further strengthen NRC's oversight of decommissioning funding assurance, the NRC Commissioners should better ensure that licensees are providing reasonable assurance that they will have the necessary funds and improve the consistency of information the agency collects by documenting procedures describing the steps that staff should take in their reviews analyzing licensee documentation and verifying that the amounts licensees report to NRC in their decommissioning funding status (DFS) reports match the balances on their year-end bank statements.|
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission||4. To further strengthen NRC's oversight of decommissioning funding assurance, the NRC Commissioners should better ensure that licensees are providing reasonable assurance that they will have the necessary funds and improve the consistency of information the agency collects by continuing these reviews of fund balances in a way that is most efficient and effective for the agency.|
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission||5. To further strengthen NRC's oversight of decommissioning funding assurance, the NRC Commissioners should consider reviewing a sample of licensees' investments to determine if licensees are complying with decommissioning investment standards and determine whether action should be taken to enforce thesestandards.|