As point man in charge of day-to-day operations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
William Borchardt isn’t afraid to buck tradition. With public safety on the line, he says, he will do whatever is necessary “to make sure that all the trains are running on schedule.”
Three years ago, when Borchardt, 55, assumed his current position as NRC’s executive director for operations—its chief operating officer—he challenged the agency’s hierarchy, introducing the principle of “situational leadership,” that the most qualified available person should lead, regardless of title, rank or salary.
“I don’t care where you’re at in the organization chart,” Borchardt says. “If a Grade 11 person is the best person to head up a project, it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s a good thing if we have a senior executive reporting to that Grade 11. What’s wrong with that?”
He introduced the concept expecting a few noses to be bent out of joint, so he braced himself.
“I was waiting for outrage from the [senior executives],” he recalls. It never materialized. “They said ‘That’s absolutely right.’
“You have to give yourself and the organization permission to operate in the way that most of us would like to operate. Some organizations seem trapped in [the mindset of] ‘You can’t do that. There’s some rule.’
“My job is to say: ‘There’s no rule. Do this.’”
Serious About Safety
Borchardt graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, in 1978, with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and served five years in the Navy’s nuclear submarine force. He married in 1982 and decided to pursue a civilian career, taking a position at NRC in 1983 as a reactor inspector at the Region I office, King of Prussia, Pa. He planned to stay just long enough to get a feel for the civilian work world. His intention was to “jump off from there and start my career.”
He never left. Over his 28 years at the NRC, he has had “12 or 15 different jobs.” He served as inspector at the Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, in the late 1980s. One of the last nuclear plants built in the country, Hope Creek began operating in 1986. He also was an inspector at two operating reactors in New England, posts that provided “a great foundation of what this industry is all about and how seriously everybody involved with it takes nuclear safety.”
More recently, following enact-ment of the 2005 Energy Policy Act and the licensing activity it was expected to spur, he created the NRC’s Office of New Reactors.
“The NRC turned out to be such a highly motivating place to work . . . I never seriously considered leaving,” explains Borchardt.
The NRC’s culture, he says, offers chances for people like him, who know the agency inside out, to challenge conventional wisdom. But as much as he is comfortable disrupting hierarchy, Borchardt enthusiastically upholds what he refers to as the agency’s “first principles,” the guidelines and touchstones that undergird organizational cohesion and sharpen mission focus.
Standing up the Office of New Reactors, for example, was done in accordance with the most inviolable of NRC’s institutional tenets: preserving the health and safety of the American people.
“The fact that we created that office is reflective of the way the NRC operates. We’re all about first principles,” Borchardt says. “Clearly, the most important thing we do and what this agency is all about is the safety of the operating reactors. Rather than dilute the attention of the people who have responsibility for oversight of operating reactors, we created a whole new organization to do the new reactor work.”
The Office of New Reactors has regulatory authority over siting, licensing and oversight for new commercial power reactors. The creation of that office reflects the importance of getting in front of trends that can affect the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission. The NRC cannot afford to be reactive, Borchardt says.
“The Energy Policy Act of 2005 really gave a shot of energy to the industry to create new designs for the next generation of nuclear plants,” he says. “The NRC recognized that there would be a significant workload [increase], and we moved to create a new office to do those design reviews. . . . I was able to form this office before we even got the first operating license application, so we didn’t start off behind the eight ball.”
The cooperative way the agency stood up the office illustrates how mission trumps the concerns of component organizations at the NRC, he says. “The staff that was used to form the nucleus of this new organization—no pun intended—had to come from the existing NRC,” explains Borchardt. “You would think that managers of all the other offices would have created fences around their protected staff, but there was none of that.
“We had this very open exchange of what was best for the agency,” he says. “I was able to seed this new organization with people of the highest caliber.”
‘A Sense of Trust’
Maintaining communications and credibility is a key driver of NRC’s success, Borchardt says. “We have always strived to be open with all stakeholders—with the public, with our employees, with the industry we regulate,” he says.
Congress is a key stakeholder. When the NRC sought to expand from 3,000 to 4,000 people to keep up with demand for regulatory services beginning in 2005, it needed a bigger budget. Even though the nuclear industry covers about 90 percent of the NRC’s operating expenses through licensing fees, Congress must approve spending plans.
Lawmakers “authorized an appropriate increase in our budget,” says Borchardt, who attributes the approval, in part, to “a sense of trust. We didn’t go crazy with the request. We only asked for what we really needed to do the job, and they gave us what we asked for.”
Similarly, the agency has worked to increase trust through modified public hearings, reviews and license-application processes that encourage public involvement. Licensing used to be a two-part process: The NRC would grant a license to build a facility and then, years later, a license to operate it. The process incorporated most public input at the end of the process, at times leading to unfortunate consequences. For example, the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, built on Long Island, N.Y., at a cost in today’s dollars of $6 billion between 1973 and 1984, never produced commercial electricity. Legitimate emergency preparedness concerns weren’t considered until far too late in the license-application review, Borchardt says.
“Now, public participation is more appropriately spaced at different points in the process,” Borchardt says.
Equally important are productive working relations with the nuclear power industry, he says. “It’s the industry and the regulators working together to create a safe industry. They realize that the absolute worst thing they could do is cut a corner and cause a serious accident. They would devastate their own company as well as the whole industry.”
Indeed, the nuclear energy industry “has spoken relatively favorably about the work we’re doing on the new reactor design reviews,” says Borchardt, even though they can take several years to complete. Regulated companies aren’t dissatisfied with the pace because “it’s more important that it be done correctly and be done thoroughly than be done fast,” he says.
Flipping the Pyramid
Borchardt has broad oversight of agency employees, including people in the headquarters organization, four regional offices, resident inspectors who work at every operating nuclear facility, and a training center in Chattanooga, Tenn. “I view my job as one of enabling the success of individuals within the agency to accomplish the agency’s mission,” he says.
To illustrate, he refers to the standard model of hierarchical organization, the pyramid. Then he flips it. “I think of myself as being at the bottom, supporting the success of the inspectors in the field. It’s my job to make sure that they have the tools, the skills, the training and the information they need to be successful. I see my job as being a clay layer to keep all the political noise from getting to them.”
Borchardt says he relies on “a handful of core values” to empower NRC’s workforce. Those values include trusting his people, operating as much as possible like a flat organization, eliminating intra-agency stovepipes and promoting a culture of trust.
“My premise is that every one of the 4,000 people who come to work here want to work hard. They want to accomplish something and they want to go home at the end of the day feeling good about having done something,” Borchardt says. “My job is to clearly define what it is we’re trying to do and to help them succeed through whatever mechanism I can utilize. I’ve yet to be disappointed using that logic.”
Those mechanisms take many forms. The NRC is an aggressive user of flexible schedule programs, Borchardt says. More than 49 percent of its workers telework, according to a recent Office of Personnel Management report. The use of those tools has earned the agency a reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.
William Borchardt, Executive Director for Operations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (L), and Dr. Gregory B. Jaczko, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testify about the nuclear situation in Japan on Capitol Hill on March 16, 2011.
“We’re not a perfectly flat organization, but we try to operate with a flat mentality, with a lot of information sharing and no bureaucratic barriers. Anybody can come in here and talk to me, in the hallway or downstairs when I’m eating lunch. There’s very little bureaucracy.”
His big focus last year was promoting a more collaborative work environment. Currently, Borchardt is emphasizing cultivation of a more interdependent mindset, one in which “you trust your colleagues to do their job [in order] to help you be successful, so your success or failure isn’t perfectly under your control.”
He promotes open, collaborative work environments and interdependence during all-hands meetings, through videos disseminated throughout the agency, and by way of his leadership team.
“It takes a lot of faith in your coworkers and the organization for that to happen, but that is where we’re going,” says Borchardt.
John Pulley is a veteran journalist in the Washington, D.C., area and founder of The Pulley Group, an editorial services agency.