Ed Baker | New growth for nuclear power

Interview with Ed Baker, director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Information Services Office

Ed Baker, NRC information services director

Rick Steele

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been out of the spotlight for a while, as the industry and the 103 nuclear power plants it oversees have remained static. But with some 27 new plants now in the planning stages, NRC is gearing up for expansion of its systems resources and IT staff.

The industry had languished in the wake of cost overruns, the largest municipal-bond default in history (at the Washington Public Power Supply System) and the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. But concern over greenhouse gases has revived the prospects of nuclear power.

GCN met with Information Services Office director Ed Baker, who oversees the agency's central IT operations, planning and policies at NRC's Bethesda, Md., headquarters.

GCN: What experiences led you to your position overseeing the agency's IT? Did you come in from industry?

Baker: I have been with the NRC now 26 years. I started out as an engineer'mechanical engineering is my background. I have been an inspector in the area where we did inspections of vendor facilities'everything from people who make nuts and bolts to people who make reactor pressure vessels. It was a four-year stint in my career, and it was not on site.

My next step was as a licensing project manager for River Bend [nuclear station in Francisville, La., now owned by Entergy Corp.] for two years. I spent seven years running our allegation program, where we take concerns from the public and the industry and get those resolved. That's where I picked up system development. We built a new system for tracking that, and also records management. I did a short stint of two years in international programs and then went from there to here.

GCN: How will NRC adjust its systems operations to maintain connectivity while its staff is located in several buildings, as part of the agency's expansion?
Baker: Basically, we are expanding our seat management. All of our IT is contracted out in terms of desktops. ...

GCN: Who is the contractor?
Baker: LMIT. [Lockheed Martin Information Technologies of Bethesda, Md.] We are growing, as you know. We have hired 400 people this year, as an agency. We will probably lose 150 or so to retirement, so it's a net gain. It's a significant growth for the agency.

GCN: Of this new cadre of employees, how many will be heavy-duty power users of computing resources?

Baker: Most of them are going to be engineers. That's the primary focus. The other group would be the folks who are supporting them. We have folks in IT, folks in HR, folks in administration, and so forth. But the majority of those [new hires] are hard-core technical types, engineers and scientists.

GCN: What impact will the expansion of NRC's capabilities for licensing plants have on system resources, and plans for increasing federal and contractor staff?

Baker: Our ultimate goal is to serve the customers we have. So we are increasing the staff ... from about 161 staff members in this office in [fiscal] '05 to about 180 in '07.

There are a number of things we are doing that will require that [workforce expansion]. We're automating processes that weren't automated in the past. A good example is the comments we are receiving on the early site permits. In the North Anna [permit action for the power station near Richmond, Va.,] we received 4,000 comments. The agency was not prepared for that. They still had a manual process in place where the comment was read by a staff member and read by a technical reviewer. We've now automated that, so it comes in, gets automatically entered in our records system, automatically transmitted to the reviewer.

GCN: Did you take lessons from the Environmental Protection Agency's comparable system for managing comments? I understand that even other agencies go to them for help.

Baker: We actually didn't go out and contact another agency. The NRC has been dealing with public comments as long as it has been doing licensing. This was an extraordinary volume, though. The Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, which does that licensing, asked us to develop a new way to process the comments. We had the talent in-house to do that. So we set forth to do that with our own electronic-records system.

GCN: What types of project management tools did you use on that project?

Baker: This was a fairly simple project, but we did use Microsoft Project to manage it in terms of building out a work breakdown and a schedule, and applying resources to that.

For bigger projects, we apply earned-value management, which is a requirement from [the Office of Management and Budget]. One of the tools that we use is the Rational suite [from IBM Corp.]. We use that for maintaining our configuration management, for our IT security documents. We also use [Rational] for assistance in preparing the documents we submit for our investments to OMB, which is the Exhibit 300.

GCN: I have heard there is a potential for using BlackBerrys or other wireless devices to maintain connectivity among your field, regional and headquarters staff. How are you approaching wireless security?

Baker: Very slowly. The commission, prior to chairman Dale Klein coming in, did not feel that it needed to move to something like BlackBerrys. He came from the Defense Department, and one of the first things he asked about was BlackBerrys. And we have implemented BlackBerrys in an initial phase for him and senior managers in the agency. We limited extremely the set of functions that you have on a BlackBerry. Right now, we are not allowing Bluetooth, we are not allowing the Web enablement. We have a combination device, which is wireless phone and text.

GCN: What are you using for an e-mail system?

Baker: We currently are using [Novell] GroupWise as our e-mail system. The chairman has asked us to come up with a plan to migrate to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

GCN: Has he asked for evaluations of any other potential IT initiatives?

Baker: Yes. We are, in fact, moving to Microsoft Office. We have been using the Corel WordPerfect suite. The agency [had been considering] Microsoft Office for a number of years, but it never became a priority because we felt we could survive with WordPerfect, even though most of our licensees use Office.

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