In a surprising move, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reversed license renewal approvals for two operating nuclear power plants issued in 2019 and 2020, while the license renewals currently in process for three other nuclear power plants are now unable to be completed. The Commission clearly bowed to pressure from environmental advocates, who insisted the approved environmental impact assessments for already-operating reactors did not consider environmental impacts sufficiently in their license renewal.
This reversal was in response to intervention by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Beyond Nuclear, and Miami Waterkeeper. The intervenors made several claims, many of which were dismissed. Ironically, one of these claims was that climate risk, such as rising sea levels, was not sufficiently considered during subsequent license renewal (SLR). Premature closure of operating power plants would be a huge blow to achieving climate goals, which would manifest itself in hastening climate impacts like sea-level rise, human health impacts and costs. Revoking the licenses for existing nuclear power plants undermines any progress toward achieving carbon emission goals.
Meanwhile, fossil energy production is the only likely alternative to fill the void of decommissioned nuclear facilities, further increasing carbon emissions. These very real environmental and public health impacts are conveniently ignored by both anti-nuclear intervenors, who proclaim to be environmental groups, and the NRC itself. The NRC is the only federal safety regulator that does not consider the potential benefit to society in its decisions, despite its mandate to ensure safe use of nuclear energy for the Nation’s general welfare and the common defense and security.
The Commission’s decision ultimately did not achieve the intervenors’ objective to rescind the license. So what did it do?
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. Functionally, this reverses the renewed licenses but avoids a new application process if the amended EIS is approved.
According to NRC Chairman Hanson, this is not a technical decision on the environmental impact of operating power plants beyond 60 years; it is a legal, procedural decision related to the specific wording of the Generic EIS (or GEIS) for reactor license renewal. The necessary changes outlined by Hanson include adding language that the GEIS should include one term of SLR, and removing “initial” from a specific regulation to include SLR. Presumably, the NRC counsel, which has a history of furthering regulatory inefficiency to drive down litigation risk, advised the Commissioners to make these changes.
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.”
If these legal changes to the language were in fact necessary, it would be a monumental blunder that will cost dearly. The NRC should have implemented these changes when this issue was considered in 2013. In the prior decision, the Commission concluded that this was not an issue and that any changes to the rule would be reassessed on the normal 10-year cycle, due just next year. It is unlikely that a limited scope rulemaking to update this language would proceed more quickly than the existing 10-year timeline.
Where does it go from here?
While the Commission did not rescind the licenses, as intervenors had hoped, its reversal does have other significant impacts. The license is effectively shortened unless (and until) a revised EIS is approved. The revised EIS will undergo a protracted rulemaking in which the same intervenors can submit additional comments and contentions, further delaying the rulemaking process. 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.
The recent decision further shows a willingness of this Commission to overturn the decisions of prior Commissions. In a separate instance, NRC staff recommended that the Commission discontinue a costly rulemaking with no safety benefit that a prior Commission requested. The Commission waited two years to vote on this recommendation and recently voted against it, despite the absence of a cost-beneficial basis for continued rulemaking, because the current Commission did not agree with the limited scope of the rule. This new expedited GEIS rulemaking faces similar uncertainty. Will the Commissioners vote in a timely manner? Will they approve it when they do, even if it does exactly what the Commission has requested the staff to do?
If other SLR applicants do not want to wait years for the new rule, they may submit a revised environmental report. Intervenors can then submit contentions on the NRC’s revised site-specific EIS, further protracting the review and approval process through litigation.
What is the bottom line?
This recent Commission decision has huge potential impacts to nuclear power plants that have renewed operating licenses. The general public will be forced to pay for those impacts in several ways. If the new rule is more complicated or costly, it could then force some power plant owners to reconsider the cost and regulatory uncertainty of applying for SLR.
Licensees will have to pay direct costs in addition to NRC fees associated with updating the GEIS, and all licensees will have to pay for the accompanying rulemaking. The costs would be passed along to the American rate-payer (another cost for the public to bear).
These are not the decisions of a “Climate Agency;” they are the actions of a hubristic and myopic regulator that has not adjusted to the new reality: clean, safe nuclear energy is a vital component of climate change mitigation. The urgency of mitigation can ill afford time and resources wasted on bureaucratic waffling to the detriment of public health and safety and the environment. Moreover, the Administration and Congress must act swiftly to restore the Commission to a full, more balanced quorum.