Legal & Regulatory

NRC Dramatically Reconsiders SLR Approvals, Sets New Conditions for Nuclear Life Extensions

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission  (NRC) in a dramatic reversal on Feb. 24 threw out a key environmental review that staff applied to subsequent license renewal (SLR) approvals for units at Turkey Point and Peach Bottom nuclear plants in 2019 and 2020, deeming their applications “incomplete.”

In a series of orders, the federal regulatory agency’s three commissioners also halted all SLR license issuances until deficiencies can be addressed and adequate environmental reviews can be completed. The decisions pose substantial new hurdles and delays for at least 20 U.S. reactors that have so far set out to seek lifetime extensions of up to 80 years.

Commissioners: GEIS Not Applicable to SLRs

Responding to challenges from environmental groups the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Beyond Nuclear, and Miami Waterkeeper, the commissioners in one memorandum and order (CLI-22-02) reversed a 2020 ruling referred from the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and revoked staff’s reliance on the “Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants” (GEIS) for SLRs.

Established in 1996, the GEIS essentially identifies 78 environmental impact issues for consideration in license renewal environmental reviews, 59 of which have been deemed generic to all plant sites. Last revised in 2013, the GEIS incorporates knowledge gained from the NRC license renewal reviews of about 70 reactor units at about 40 nuclear plants.

But commissioners last week held that 10 CFR 51.53(c)(3)—federal code that applies to license renewals—is relevant only “to an initial license renewal applicant’s preparation of an environmental report.” Significantly, it also held that the GEIS does not address SLRs, which constitute the NRC’s second-round of license renewals, permitting reactor operation beyond their first renewal period of up to 60 years. “As a result, the environmental review of the subsequent license renewal application at issue in this case is incomplete,” the order said.

A Freeze on SLR Issuances

In a separate order (CLI-22-03), the commission said it would not issue “any further licenses for subsequent renewal terms” until NRC staff corrects what it called a “National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) deficiency” and completes an “adequate” NEPA review for each application. While the commission allowed licensing reviews “to move forward,” it limited progress to matters that “do not challenge the contents of the GEIS” or which involve a “site-specific environmental impact statement.”

The NRC instead directed staff to review and update the 2013-GEIS so it will cover the SLR period. “We believe the most efficient way to proceed is to direct the Staff to review and update the 2013 GEIS, then take appropriate action with respect to the pending subsequent license renewal applications to ensure that the environmental impacts for the period of subsequent license renewal are considered,” it said.

“Nevertheless, we understand that an applicant may not wish to wait for the completion of the generic analysis and associated rulemaking. In that case, the applicant may submit a revised environmental report providing information on environmental impacts during the subsequent license renewal period,” the NRC said. “In such a case, petitioners or intervenors will be given an opportunity to submit new or amended contentions based on new information in the revised site-specific environmental impact statement.”

Big Implications for U.S. Reactors Seeking Second Renewals

The ruling will have immediate implications for Florida Power and Light’s (FPL’s) Turkey Point 3 and 4 units, and Constellation Energy’s Peach Bottom 2 and 3 units, reactors to which the NRC issued SLRs in December 2019 and March 2020, respectively. Essentially, “The SLRs for Peach Bottom and Turkey Point will remain in effect but shortened to the end date of their first license renewal—early 2030’s instead of the SLR expirations in the early 2050’s,” explained Breakthrough Institute experts Adam Stein, director for Nuclear Innovation, and Rani Franovich, senior policy advisor for the Climate and Energy Team, in a Feb. 25 blog post.

More direction from the NRC, meanwhile, is expected in “a subsequent order to provide additional direction, if any, to the parties regarding the status of the licenses,” after parties—including the power generators, staff, and intervenors—provide their input on the decision. The NRC, specifically, directed parties to provide “views on any practical effects on the current licenses remaining in place with the modified end dates as well as any practical effects if the previous licenses were reinstated” by March 21.

SLRs for Dominion Energy’s Surry 1 and 2, which the NRC granted in April 2021, were not directly contended in the environmental groups’ challenges, but the NRC’s decision last week may presumably still affect that plant’s second renewal periods.

In addition, the order could also affect at least nine other nuclear reactors that have so far applied for SLRs: NextEra Energy’s Point Beach 1 and 2; Dominion’s North Anna 1 and 2; FPL’s St. Lucie 1 and 2; and Duke Energy’s Oconee 1, 2, and 3. According to the NRC, another five reactors are poised to submit SLR applications: Xcel Energy for Monticello 1, Tennessee Valley Authority for Browns Ferry 1, 2, and 3; and Dominion Energy for V.C. Summer 1.

Plant Name and Unit(s) Application Received Renewed License Issued Date Entering Subsequent Period of Extended Operation
Turkey Point Units 3 and 4 01/31/18 12/04/19
07/19/32 (Unit 3)
04/10/33 (Unit 4)
Peach Bottom Units 2 and 3 07/10/18 03/05/20
08/08/33 (Unit 2)
07/02/34 (Unit 3)
Surry Units 1 and 2 10/15/18 05/04/21
05/25/2032 (Unit 1)
01/29/2033 (Unit 2
St. Lucie Plant, Units 1 and 2 08/03/2021
Oconee Nuclear Station, Units 1, 2, and 3 06/07/2021
Point Beach, Units 1 and 2 11/16/2020
North Anna, Units 1 and 2 08/24/2020

NRC staff has defined subsequent license renewal (SLR) to be the period of extended operation from 60 years to 80 years. This table shows completed applications and applications that the federal regulatory agency is currently reviewing as of March 2022. Source: NRC

A Significant Reversal Based on a ‘Technicality’

When the NRC granted its first SLR for Units 3 and 4 at FPL’s Turkey Point Nuclear Generating plant in Miami-Dade County, effectively extending their lifetimes to 80 years, industry hailed the milestone as a crucial triumph that could ensure nuclear power’s continuity.

According to industry group Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), half the nation’s nuclear fleet will need to obtain SLRs by 2040 to continue operating or be forced to retire. NRC records show 85 of the 93 reactors operating in the U.S. today have already renewed their operating license once, extending their lifetimes from 40 to 60 years. According to the NEI, the majority of these will be “nearing the end of that 20-year extension by 2029 and will be seeking to renew their license a second time, for another 20-year period.” In a statement to POWER on Feb. 25, the NEI said the NRC’s decision to delay SLRs for the nation’s nuclear reactors was “very disappointing.” 

A prominent point of contention is the NRC’s legal, procedural decision—as opposed to a technical one—related to the specific wording of the GEIS for reactor license renewal. NRC Chairman Chris Hanson highlighted the issue in a response last week when he suggested that among necessary changes, proposed language for 10 CFR 51.53(c)(3) should remove the word “initial” to clarify its applicability to SLR.

Overturning a recent decision by my colleagues on the Commission, whom I deeply respect, is not something I have undertaken lightly. After much consideration, I believe this is the best course of action,” Hanson wrote. “My decision is based on a legal conclusion and does not reflect a policy position on the merits of SLR or a determination that properly supported generic environmental findings cannot be applied to SLRs. I am committed to assuring that the agency provides clear direction to licensees regarding pending applications.”

The technicality has drawn the industry’s disdain. “Due to an apparent technicality in the wording of the rule, the license renewals for a number of reactors may be delayed, including applications that have already been through rigorous technical review and approved by the NRC,” NEI’s Chief Nuclear Officer Doug True told POWER last week.

True said industry is urging the NRC to “address the issue with a practical and timely solution to minimize the impact on the applications currently before them and those to come in the future.” He also highlighted potential delays. “Given NRC’s processes, new rulemaking could delay license renewals for three or more years. The U.S. has the safest, highest-performing commercial nuclear fleet in the world, providing 50% of the nation’s carbon-free energy. It is critical that they remain operating if we are going to meet our climate goals,” he said.

Regulatory Inefficiency on Display

Experts at the Breakthrough Institute also underscored the regulatory inefficiency, suggesting that these changes to the language could have been implemented during the 2013 GEIS revision. “Presumably, the NRC counsel, which has a history of furthering regulatory inefficiency to drive down litigation risk, advised the Commissioners to make these changes,” they wrote.

“While these changes may provide more clarity and limit potential legal quagmires for licensees, they ignore the prior Commission decision. Commissioner Wright, who dissented from the decision, acknowledges that the reversal is ‘arbitrary, inconsistent with the Principles of Good Regulation,… contrary to the agency’s goals of clear communication and transparent decision-making,… based only on information and arguments previously considered and rejected, [and] undermines the NRC’s role as an effective and credible regulator’,” they noted.

Now the revised GEIS will need to undergo “a protracted rulemaking in which the same intervenors can submit additional comments and contentions, further delaying the rulemaking process,” the Breakthrough Institute experts said. “After all of that is settled and finalized (again), licensees must then apply the updated rule in a revision to their site-specific subsequent license renewals. Further delays could arise if the NRC commissioners do not vote on the rulemaking in a timely manner, of which there is a long history.”

A Triumph for Nuclear Watchdogs

The decisions are, however, a big step for environmental groups that challenged the adequacy of the GEIS. One intervenor, Beyond Nuclear, hailed the NRC’s actions as a renewed opportunity for safety and environmental scrutiny.

“The decision is a tremendous advance for nuclear reactor safety and environmental protection, because it commits NRC to evaluate the unique risks of renewing reactor licenses for a second term,” said Diane Curran, attorney for Beyond Nuclear. “Before today’s decision, the NRC was relying on a GEIS prepared in 1996 and revised in 2013, that addressed only the environmental impacts of extending reactor license terms from 40 years out to 60 years,” she noted. “NRC researchers have acknowledged, however, that operating a reactor beyond 60 years poses unique safety and environmental issues related to the age-related degradation of safety equipment. This decision paves the way for a hard look at those significant concerns.”

Paul Gunter, director of Reactor Oversight at Beyond Nuclear, meanwhile, highlighted a possible scope of environmental issues that have arisen since GEIS was revised in 2013. “The NRC will have to examine whether the seismic design of the North Anna reactors should be upgraded to minimize environmental risk, in light of the 2011 Mineral Earthquake that exceeded the reactors’ design basis. With today’s decisions, NRC has effectively acknowledged that it can no longer use the outdated GEIS as a shield against this important inquiry,” he said.

Caroline Reiser, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who represented the environmental group in the proceeding for the Turkey Point reactors, echoed that sentiment, noting climate change–related risks could also factor into future environmental reviews. “Increased flooding caused by climate change poses serious risks to the safe operation of Turkey Pointand greater risks in the decades ahead,” she said. “But the NRC has failed to address it up until now. With this decision, the NRC has restored the level of accountability we sought through our lawsuit.”

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

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