Between the national importance of expanding American clean energy generation and the national obligation to clean up sites still impacted from prior uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing in past decades, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) plays an important role in the federal government on environmental justice issues.
On October 19, 2021, the Breakthrough Institute submitted an official comment in response to the NRC’s Systematic Assessment for How the NRC Addresses Environmental Justice in its Programs, Policies, and Activities. In our comment, we assert that an underappreciated yet critical responsibility of the NRC involves upholding distributive justice — ensuring an equitable distribution of the benefits and opportunities associated with projects under its authority.
It is crucial for the NRC to acknowledge key environmental justice lessons from the past, while also looking towards the future and recognizing the potential of a new generation of nuclear technologies to provide considerable environmental justice benefits. Distributive justice considerations regarding positive impacts also reinforce the importance of improving procedural justice at the NRC by strengthening access to stakeholder participation and facilitating the sharing of key documents and information, as widely advocated by other organizations and commentators.
New nuclear designs can provide abundant clean electricity over a long operational lifetime and do so with low land and material use while displacing polluting fossil plants that impact fenceline communities and worsen climate change. Advanced nuclear power plants can generate dependable electricity and heat that safeguards Americans from climate impacts like storms and extreme weather. Small reactors carry the potential to free rural and island communities from expensive fossil fuel shipments that are subject to tenuous transportation networks and global supply chains. Small modular reactors and microreactors can expand the pantheon of energy options that are accessible to poor communities and regional or local utilities.
The potential environmental justice benefits of nuclear projects are not strictly limited to energy access, energy security, and climate and environmental security. From fuel fabrication to reactor operation to fuel recycling, the nuclear supply chain can also support local, long-term, high-skilled, high-paying employment. Communities can also use small modular reactors to convert existing brownfield sites like retiring coal power plants into sites of clean energy generation, helping coal sector workers transition into new local jobs, and even repurposing existing steam cycle and transmission infrastructure instead of scrapping it.
In evaluating projects from an environmental justice lens, the NRC should therefore assess and consider whether positive benefits are equitably shared with and within local communities, in addition to ensuring that developers observe best practices to minimize potential risks and impacts. Will generated power help increase the availability or reliability of electricity for locals, or will the electricity primarily benefit consumers elsewhere? Could road improvements to support plant construction be planned in ways that better serve community needs?
Prioritizing the fair distribution of the potential economic, social, and environmental benefits linked to proposed projects only further validates the importance of a strong commitment at the NRC to procedural justice. As many have argued, expanding stakeholders’ ability to provide input on projects protects environmental justice by allowing local communities to raise important concerns about adverse impacts. However, building better mechanisms for critical feedback only captures half of the true aim of robust procedural justice. Increased public involvement and consultation can help align proposals with local interests, while also improving general understanding of the NRC and its mission. Pursuing healthier public engagement also requires the NRC to streamline its licensing and review process to avoid prolonged delays that put burdens on stakeholder participation and impose added costs that could dis-incentivize the development of projects in rural or underserved communities.
The intersection between nuclear energy and environmental justice in the United States is large, and not all environmental justice concerns related to nuclear issues fall within the NRC’s statutory mission. As a regulatory institution with a limited statutory purview, the NRC’s role is to oversee responsible development, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants, uranium mines, fuel fabrication facilities, waste reprocessing and storage centers, and other activities involving radioactive materials. The NRC does not currently have the authority to perform cleanup operations or compensate communities for harm. Nevertheless, the NRC does help determine where and how to safely store uranium mine tailings, contaminated soil, and spent nuclear fuel.
We recognize that many environmental justice issues, such as cleanup efforts at abandoned uranium mines and inadequate federal practices around official consultation of Native American Tribes, fall under the authority of other federal agencies and/or rely upon Congressional action. While the NRC should do its part to coordinate with and provide input to other federal institutions, it is also clear that such problems require a much broader whole-of-government commitment to environmental justice. In a letter sent to Congressional leaders this week, we urged them to take action and fund the remediation of abandoned mines and to extend compensation to Americans exposed to radiation, as we believe our nation must address injustices caused by Cold War-era nuclear weapons production and testing.
The NRC’s primary focus, given its existing authority and role, will nevertheless be decisive in building a more environmentally just domestic nuclear power sector moving forwards. A holistic perspective on environmental justice at the NRC must include the consideration of equitably shared project benefits alongside compassionate responsiveness to community concerns. With the leap in reliability, versatility, and safety that today’s emerging new nuclear technologies offer, it is crucial for the NRC to recognize that the fair distribution of benefits will represent an increasing share of its future environmental justice obligations.