Legal & Regulatory

NRC Advances Rule to Streamline Advanced Nuclear Reviews

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has voted to codify proposed changes to streamline a key environmental review process for advanced nuclear reactors. Nuclear advocates lauded the measure as one of the regulator’s most important actions in 2024.   

The NRC on April 17 approved its staff’s recommendation to publish a proposed rule that would amend Part 51 of Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations, “Environmental Protection Regulations for Domestic Licensing and Related Regulatory Functions,” and begin the process to codify the regulator’s findings of its draft Advanced Nuclear Reactor Generic Environmental Impact Statement (ANR GEIS).

The measure last week marks progress for the ANR GEIS, which is intended to streamline the NRC’s environmental review for advanced reactor applications received as part of the regulator’s Part 50 and 52 process. In the Generic Environmental Impact Statement rulemaking, NRC staff indicated it anticipates the ANR GEIS could also be available for use with Part 53 rulemaking, which the NRC is working to finalize by 2027

The draft ANR GEIS essentially uses a technology-neutral framework alongside a set of plant and site parameters “to determine which potential environmental impacts would be common to the construction, operation, and decommissioning of most advanced nuclear reactors, and thus appropriate for a generic analysis, and which potential environmental impacts would be unique, and thus require a project-specific analysis,” the NRC explained.

The approach would cover “different reactor designs” as well as “any new nuclear reactor application meeting the parameters used to develop the GEIS,” the NRC said. “The proposed GEIS would streamline the environmental reviews for future new nuclear reactors by presenting generic environmental impacts for those designs that fit within certain site and plant parameters.” If the proposed rule is finalized, “new reactor license applications would supplement applicable generic environmental findings with an evaluation of project-specific issues,” it said.

Acting to Ensure More Stability, Predictability

A key driver for the NRC’s approach has been to minimize environmental impacts as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but also to improve costs and benefits for advanced nuclear applicants, securing more stability, predictability, and clarity to the licensing process.

The regulatory body’s draft regulatory analysis suggests that if compared to a no-action alternative, assuming eight applications over the next decade, the proposed rule alternative and associated guidance “would result in undiscounted total net savings for the NRC and applicants up to $14.5 million or $2.0 million per application if the ANR GEIS is fully utilized.”

However, while the NRC received a proposed ANR GEIS rule from its staff in November 2021, its decision “was stalled in part due to disagreement about whether the GEIS should be a rule or guidance,” Dr. Adam Stein, director for Nuclear Energy Innovation at the Breakthrough Institute noted on X last week.

Commissioners approved its staff’s recommendation to publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register contingent upon certain key provisions. These include expanding the rule’s applicability from just “advanced nuclear reactors” to all new nuclear reactor applications that align with existing plant and site parameters. In addition, the rule should mandate a review of the ANR GEIS every ten years, aligning with the process established for license renewal.

Other key changes include excluding references to fusion reactors, in line with directives to regulate near-term fusion systems under a different framework. Additionally, the update emphasizes the need for site-specific environmental reviews, ensuring that individual reactor contexts are adequately addressed.

The NRC said it will now seek public comment on the proposed rule following its publication in the Federal Register.

A Change That Could Help Accelerate Advanced Nuclear

The measure has been received by the nuclear industry, which has advocated for timely rulemaking by the NRC to ensure predictability for the burgeoning advanced nuclear industry. This updated rule will establish a consistent, effective, technology-inclusive, and risk-informed process for advanced reactor licensees,” said think tank Third Way. “The change will be felt throughout the industry as it will help accelerate the expansion of nuclear energy in the U.S. for years to come.”

The Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) agreed. NIA Executive Director Judi Greenwald told POWER the proposed rule builds on agency best practices for environmental reviews and will enable the more effective, efficient, and predictable licensing of advanced reactors. “The ANR GEIS will enable applicants and staff to use generic staff findings on 100 of 121 environmental issues in the ANR GEIS generally applicable to advanced reactors as the basis for their project-specific environmental reviews,” she noted.

It means that the proposed rule would enable applicants, NRC staff, and the public to focus on project-specific environmental issues for future environmental reviews for advanced reactors, she explained. It also translates to dramatic cost savings, she suggested. “NRC staff estimate that the use of the ANR GEIS could reduce the costs of environmental reviews for new advanced reactors by between 20% and 45% depending on the project,” she said.

Commissioner statements published alongside the measure in the NRC’s docket echoed these points. Commissioner Bradley Crowell underscored the update’s importance in relation to the NRC’s broader regulatory obligations. “The agency is proactively adjusting for new potential workload scenarios, including the high likelihood of reviewing a significant number of license applications—often simultaneously—for a variety of new non-light-water reactor technologies,” he noted. “To do so, the agency must begin implementing efforts to facilitate more efficient and effective license reviews while maintaining the NRC’s primary responsibility to protect public health and safety and to promote the common defense and security.”

Without a GEIS, an EIS for each application would “require development of detailed, site-specific information about the environmental effects of building and operating a certain reactor, despite increasing recognition that many sites often share numerous common or overlapping environment characteristics and related considerations,” Crowell added.

However, several commissioners noted the decision to codify the GEIS—as opposed to making the GEIS available for use as guidance—was difficult. “Codifying the GEIS (rather than treating it as guidance) has several key benefits, including improved stability and predictability for applicants, equal treatment for parties seeking a hearing from the NRC, and consistency with prior Commission direction,” Commissioner David Wright argued in a statement. 

“The most notable corollary to the ANR GEIS is the License Renewal GEIS, NUREG-1437. Since codification in 1996, the staff has relied on its findings approximately 60 times to evaluate the environmental impacts of license renewal,” he noted. The NRC notes that since the publication of that GEIS, which is focused on the renewal of nuclear plant operating licenses, approximately 40 plant sites (70 reactor units) have applied for license renewal and undergone environmental reviews.

The License Renewal GEIS has resulted in added value by focusing resources for license renewal on the site-specific impacts of individual license renewals instead of simply repeating generic analyses,” Wright said. “Similar to the License Renewal GEIS, I believe the ANR GEIS has the ability to simplify our environmental reviews by providing a durable and predictable analysis of the generic environmental impacts of these projects.”

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

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