Bill Ostendorff

Former Commissioner
Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Bill Ostendorff’s Start in the Navy

What does it mean to be a Navy nuke, what are the technical challenges?

After graduating from the Naval Academy as a Rickover Air Submarine Nuclear Officer in the 70’s, Ostendorff served on a ballistic missile submarine and five attack submarines during the Cold War. Bill’s career included 16 years of sea duty in the 26 years he was in the Navy. He found it exciting to have the privilege of working with a lot of great sailors and folks during these times.

At the beginning, as a Navy nuke, you learn the engineering fundamentals on how to safely operate and maintain a reactor plant. You also train the sailors that operate and maintain it. You learn how to carry out casualty procedures and emergency procedures so that you can keep the submarine at sea doing its job. This training applies to ballistic missile submarine patrol, as part of the nuclear deterrent mission, conducting carrier battle group operations or independent surveillance reconnaissance operations as an attack submarine. The propulsion plan provides the enduring forward-deployed capability of the submarine. The men and women now that are serving there now are trying to make that happen safely everyday. 

Comparing the submarine and nuclear power plant, you’ll find that the basics of reactor safety and design are very similar but the operating mode is quite different. The operating mode for a commercial nuclear power plant will be more static; after a three week outage, the plant will start back up at a hundred percent power for a long period of time. A submarine is a dynamic environment where you're changing the power because you’re rapidly maneuvering based on your operations and you're operating in the sea environment, which could be under the Arctic ice, the mid-Atlantic Ocean or Pacific Ocean, or even close to another country's coast. The environment of operations is radically different from the two.

Handling Nuclear Processes on Navy Submarines

Who's in charge for the nuclear portion of the submarine? 

What kind of technical issues would arise? 

When problems do arise, how do you tell when to surface?

Who's in charge differs between the United States Navy, the Royal Navy and the French Navy. In the United States Navy, the commanding officer of the submarine has complete responsibility for everything, including the reactor plant navigation weapon systems. In the Royal Navy and the French Navy, they have dedicated engineering officers who are strictly responsible for the reactor plant. So the French and British commanding officers do not have responsibility for the nuclear side. The United States is all one element of about 16 officers on the submarine all of whom (except the supply officers) are trained in nuclear power and are expected to play a role in the operation and maintenance of the plant. Bill had the privilege to command the USS Norfolk Los Angeles-class attack submarine for three years, during which he drove it over 700,000 miles. He used his prior experience as a weapons officer and as an engineer on different submarines to deal with problems as they came up.

The technical issues could be simple, such as a small steam leak on a high-pressure drain trap, which is not a reactor safety issue but would still have to be addressed. On the other hand, you could smell something such as burning insulation that might indicate a potential hot spot in an electrical switchboard, and have to de-energize the switchboard and conduct an inspection.

There are certain times when you might need to have a contingency plan to take the ship to periscope depth and ventilate it by bringing fresh air into the ship. If you had a fire you would get rid of the smoke in the ship by running a blower (a very high-powered fan). There are other circumstances where it might be appropriate to surface, such as if you had a significant flooding casualty. You're always thinking about how to process the information you have, and if there's a casualty, what kind of actions to take to ensure a ship's survivability.

Design of Navy Nuke Submarines

Tell me about the design of these submarines. 

If you think about it from a simplistic level, the submarine is just a great applied physics platform. You're using Archimedes principle when talking about submerging the ship. You're talking about sonar systems that are processing sound waves to analyze where other submarines are and you have the nuclear physics involved with operating the reactor plant. It's just a tremendous physics engineering complex instrument, that’s operated by people.

Back when Bill entered the Navy in the 1970s, the submarines had a Westinghouse design reactor plant and a General Electric design plant. Now, Westinghouse is no longer producing that technology for submarines so just General Electric technology is used. However, between the different submarines, there are a lot of commonalities in the operating features and design characteristics.

There are exciting things to show off and most of the American public is not familiar with or exposed to the technology issues. When Bill was a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) commissioner, he visited a nuclear power plant in Switzerland. By swiss practice every middle school student in Switzerland visits a commercial nuclear power plant to become exposed to technology, to learn more about it and understand a little bit about what's involved in the rigorous design safety. Here in the US, there are a number of utilities who on their own, not as a direct result of any government action, have very innovative visitor centers and encourage school tours and people from the community to come in and see what's going on. So there are some steps to going in that direction informally.

Transition from the Navy to Capitol Hill

So what came after your 26 year career in the Navy?

Bill retired from the Navy as a Captain and then went to work on Capitol Hill with the House Armed Services Committee.  Bill didn't have any connections on the hill, so it took him almost a year to land the job. He was interested in with House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and became the lead staff person for the Strategic Forces subcommittee. The portfolio was about fifty five billion dollars worth of Defense budget at that time (2003 to early 2007) and included all of the atomic energy defense activities that the Department of Energy saw including nuclear weapons, nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear waste clean up and the naval reactors program. It also included the Missile Defense Agency, all strategic and tactical missile defense capabilities, a number of strategic delivery capabilities (such as Air Force submarines) and some of the intelligence programs. Bill had to prioritize what he focused on within this portfolio. His military background was helpful because it made him more comfortable with nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors on the submarine side. Bill hired a couple of great people to work with him on the space programs in this portfolio as he didn’t have much of a background in space. So he leaned heavily on his two employees for their expertise and analytical capabilities.

HASC Program Funding Process

What types of decisions did you make while at the House Armed Services Committee? 

In the nuclear weapons arena, there were discussions about whether to develop a safer, more reliable nuclear warhead. There was a program called the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) that was being discussed and debated around 2005-2007. Bill worked in consultation with the Department of Defense and members of Congress and their staff to draft legislation establishing what the criteria of those programs would be. 


In the missile defense portfolio, there were a lot of investments and different technologies for missile defense after 9/11, such as ground-based versus space-based missile defense, boost phase versus terminal phase, and different logos to describe the type of missile defense capability. Bill looked at the viability, from an oversight perspective, of these programs to see if they were worth a continued investment. One of the programs that Bill established some strict milestones on, from a Congressional standpoint, was the airborne laser. If the airborne laser program did not meet these performance milestones they would discontinue funding for it from the defense budget. The long-run outcome of this program was to terminate it, although Bill doesn’t see the termination of this program as a failure. 


Sometimes you're talking about a new technology that's never been developed, much less ever implemented. Bill had great cooperation with the operational test and evaluation sector of the Department of Defense, the three-star general in charge of the Missile Defense Agency, and the US Strategic Command to determine the capability and design objectives needed. If a program didn’t meet these capabilities, the funding would be terminated. This would ensure that resources aren’t being wasted and can create more opportunities for spin-off projects.

Bill’s Work at the NNSA

During your time working with Congress, were there any problems you struggled to address?

Did you go straight from Congress to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

What’s under the purview of the National Nuclear Security Administration?

The Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) became a little bit politically charged and well-intentioned people on both sides of the aisle had a debate about whether this would be considered a new nuclear weapons capability. People in the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and himself (with some background of nuclear weapons) thought this was not a new warhead capability but rather a more reliable, secure and safer weapon in the event of a terrorist attack. So there was a tough debate over many months. Well-intentioned, well-informed people on both sides of the aisle might come to different decisions on this and Bill respects that.

Bill was doing a lot of the oversight work for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is the semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy that runs the nuclear weapons complex. In the fall of 2006, Bill was asked by Ambassador Linton Brooks, the head of NNSA at the time, to be his deputy number two person. Linton forwarded Bill’s nomination to the President George W Bush White House. Bill was confirmed as the Principal Deputy Administrator.  

Bill was involved in the Department of Energy side of the nuclear weapons stockpile. There were eight different sites around the country. These included nuclear weapons laboratories such as Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia, as well as the Pantex Plant (Texas), the Y-12 National Security Complex (Tennessee), the Savannah River Site (South Carolina), the Kansas City Plant (Kansas City) and the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security site).

These eight sites were operated individually under Management and Operating (M&O) contractors, but fell under the overall management of the Department of Energy through NNSA. Anything with nuclear weapons, nuclear non-proliferation programs, the Russian Federation or other countries, and the Naval Reactors organization was part of Bill’s administration.

Some of the sites are directly involved in Life Extension Programs (LEPs) to determine how to conduct material upgrades for existing nuclear weapons which were designed back in the 1960s, 1970s and the early 1980s. These programs will allow existing systems to take advantage more updated electronics and materials. The Sandia National Laboratory (Albuquerque) has a lead for updating electronics, such as computer chips, and other non-warhead materials. Early on in the history of nuclear weapons, Beryllium and Silicon were a potential environmental hazard for workers. Due to advances in material science over the years, there are now efforts to take advantage of less dangerous materials. The effort to maintain the existing stockpile with some life extension programs is ongoing at many of these sites. Other sites are involved in research & development and computer simulations. Some of the fastest, high-speed computers in the world reside at some of these sites.

The computer simulations are needed in place of weapons testing. The first effort to stop testing was in 1963 with the Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited above-ground testing, which had been occurring in the from the 1940s until 1963. That was followed by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty to outlaw all nuclear weapons testing. The United States has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty but Bill has observed a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in the United States since 1991. In the absence of testing, to see if the actual bomb would go off, modeling and simulation is used as a predictive tool.

Bill’s Transition to the NRC

Tell me about your appointment at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

As Principal Deputy Administrator at the NNSA, Bill visited all of the sites and was in charge of the budgets. Bill also helped develop the annual budget for the Office of Management and Budget and Congress. Bill gave the final decision on any technical nuclear weapons safety issue as Chief Technical Authority.  It’s important to make sure that nuclear weapons are 100% safe until and unless called upon to be used. The safety aspect also included making sure on site operations such as the handling of nuclear waste and subcritical testing was being done safely.

Bill was confirmed in early 2010 to serve the remaining term of the Former NRC Chairman, Dale Kline and ultimately spent six years and three months at the NRC. Bill started at the NRC during the start of the nuclear renaissance and was reviewing license applications for 26 reactors. The new reactor office, which was established a few years earlier by Dale Klein, to handle this influx of applications had hundreds of people. But then the shale natural gas phenomenon, Dale believes, was the key factor in making the economics of commercial nuclear power to be out-competed by those of gas generation plants. From Bill’s perspective, the sole reason for where the nuclear industry stands today in the United States is strictly due to economics.

When Bill was an official at the NNSA he had weekly meetings with Sam Bodman, the Secretary of Energy at the time. In June of 2008, Ward Sproat, the Head of the Office of Civilian Reactive Waste Management, came into the meeting and announced that he would be submitting the formal license application to the NRC for the Yucca Mountain geologic repository. Bill was excited to see that because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 had very clear processes and procedures for site selection.

Less than two years later, one of the first issues Bill handled as an NRC commissioner was the request to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application from the NRC. Bill voted against the Department of Energy because he felt like the law was very clear. Bill consistently spoke out in favor of continuing to review the license application because the law mandated that. Politics played a role in that and over the next several years Yucca Mountain consumed quite a bit of Bill’s time at the NRC. In January 2015, the technical staff at the NRC evaluated that the safety criteria,  approved and in place in the code of federal regulations for geologic repository, were projected to be met to comply with all safety, security and environmental standards for out to one million years.

Storage of Spent Fuel

Why do we need a geologic repository right now?

No one is saying with a 100% certainty that everything can be definitively projected for a million years but using the best modeling simulation projection tools available, they did. Although nuclear plants safely and securely store fuel on site, they were never designed to be intermediate storage facilities. Bill is hopeful that in the near future, there will be progress towards a geologic repository.

The Waste Confidence Rule was a commission decision as to whether or not fuel could continue to be stored safely on-site in dry cask storage. There were expectations and criteria put in place to have ongoing monitoring surveillance of material characteristics of the dry cask,  surveillance to ensure the integrity of the cask and the spent fuel inside it. The waste can stay safely on site, it's safe and secure today the way it is. Most people suggest the industry moves forward with the repository method.

When Bill was a commissioner at the NRC, in 2011 the reactor accident at Fukushima occurred. Bill and the other commissioners quickly made the determination that the nuclear power plants the United States were safe and did not need to be shut down. Bill and his colleagues wanted to, where it was appropriate, incorporate new regulatory requirements based on what they learned from Fukushima. By the time Bill left the NRC in June of 2016, he cast around 26 separate votes Fukushima regulatory actions as a commissioner.

The regulatory process in Japan was different as compared to the United States in that it required each individual plant to obtain permission through a local prefecture. In Japan, there was a non national government process that had to be exercised and implemented to allow a restart to be considered. Under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act and the governing basis for the NRC and its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, federal law preempts state regulation of nuclear issues. After Fukushima there was a loss of confidence in Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). Bill and other NRC commissioners worked with the Japanese government on how to reform NISA into what it’s known as today (the Nuclear Regulation Authority). Although the progress was slow, Japan’s nuclear industry is in a better place than it was before.

Advisory Roles in the Nuclear Community

Have you advised beyond your role as an NRC commissioner?

Bill serves on the advisory council for the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) that was established after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 to provide an industry-led safety organization in the United States. INPO’s Chief Executive Officer, Bob Willard asked Bill to join INPO after Bill left the NRC. Bill also serves on a National Academy of Sciences committee dealing with plutonium disposition pursuant to an agreement with the Russian Federation to get rid of weapons-grade plutonium and to use a dilute-dispose method for disposal of plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The dilute-dispose method is when you mix a chemical formula with existing plutonium to change the chemical and physical structure of the plutonium to ensure it's not usable in a future as a nuclear weapon. Bill’s Committee issued an interim report on this topic which will be finalized and published in the next few months.

Nuclear Energy and National Security

How does nuclear energy play a role in national security?

As an NRC commissioner, Bill looked at physical cyber security and insider threat issues. Bill believes the security of US nuclear power plants is extraordinarily robust; the guard forces are highly trained, robustly tested and evaluated. The other element, cyber security, is very technically complex but the NRC has appropriate rules in place which the industry has done a good job of implementing. There’s also insider threat or fitness for duty, that Bill believes the nuclear industry can learn from to assess the human factor involved in the safety of nuclear. The NRC meets every six months with the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community to reevaluate and assess current events so they are continually learning.

Bill is worried that as the US commercial nuclear industry continues to be in a state of decline, that the ability of the US to influence nuclear security worldwide will be lessened. A lot of nuclear technology started in the US and the US played a major role worldwide in shaping proper standards and criteria for nuclear safety and security. Yet, there’s a decline in the future prospects for building reactors in the United States, which is a concern to Bill.

Russia and China in particular are being somewhat aggressive and marketing their technology for export to other countries. Bill believes the US needs to be a player and that if the US doesn’t build new reactors or operate existing plants, then there's less of a reason for other countries to engage with the US. Bill believes that if US companies are not involved and designing and building plants overseas, then we'll have less of a stake less of a chance to influence proper safety and security practices worldwide. Bill thinks the US still has a lot to offer as they are still the largest nuclear power plant operator in the world.

Economics and Future of the US Nuclear Industry

How do we fix the economic issues associated with nuclear?

This is important as the closing of Entergy's Pilgrim Nuclear Plant in Cape Cod Massachusetts would result in a loss of 50% of the carbon free generating capacity in the state. That carbon free emissions capability is not valued in the marketplace today. Bill believes the market valuation could be affected by federal legislation and should be looked at by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Bill also believes it's worthwhile for the federal government to invest federal dollars in procuring small modular reactors to bring down the cost and make these technologies viable option in the future. This would make it much more likely for private money to come in and drive the overall cost down on a per unit basis. There are steps being made toward this, as the Department of Energy and Idaho National Laboratory have been working with NuScale for a Power Purchase Agreement and Congress has been supportive. There are also other players in Congress, such as Senator Whitehouse and Senator Crapo who are taking some degree of urgency and commitment to make this happen.

Bill is a believer from the energy security standpoint, in an “all the above” approach. Bill believes it's important to have gas, solar, and other renewables going forward. However, if nuclear is to be a viable source of energy in the future then the US needs to be very careful about ensuring that there is continued investment in the industry at some level. Bill believes that if the nuclear industry in the US shuts down for a generation, we wouldn’t be able to regenerate that capability 50 years from now. Therefore, if the US wants to keep all these energy source options on the table 100 years now, we need to invest in them today.

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