Addressing Challenges on The Path to Efficient Nuclear Licensing

Removing Unnecessary Mandatory Hearings and Adapting Environmental Review Processes for Modern Needs

Addressing Challenges on The Path to Efficient Nuclear Licensing

Nuclear reactors are necessary in order to effectively tackle climate change, but the current licensing regime makes building new reactors a daunting venture. Licensing must be made more efficient without compromising environmental and public health or safety.

Two specific topics that we have recently engaged on are:

  • Streamlining or removing mandatory uncontested hearings at the NRC

  • Implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) recommendations in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA)

Mandatory Hearings:

The Breakthrough Institute (BTI) supports removing or streamlining the uncontested mandatory hearing process for nuclear reactor licensing, mandated by the Atomic Energy Act (AEA). These hearings, though uncontested, are currently overly formal and burdensome, causing unnecessary delays and costs. An NRC task force previously recommended eliminating the mandatory hearing requirement, but this has not been implemented by Congress. Therefore, the NRC must improve the process within existing laws.

The NRC’s Chair requested that the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) revisit the hearing process. In response, the OGC provided five options for reforming these hearings, ranging from relying solely on written materials to delegating responsibilities to senior officials or panels. We submitted a letter to the NRC in response to the recommendations from OGC. BTI agrees with the OGC and endorses a blend of the proposed options, particularly favoring written submissions for hearings on new reactor designs and delegating other hearings to senior officials or specialized panels. BTI highlights the need for careful delineation between first-of-a-kind and nth-of-a-kind applications to ensure efficiency and avoid unnecessarily overburdening the Commission.

Kairos Hermes 2 Draft EA:

The Breakthrough Institute also commented on the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Kairos Hermes 2 reactor. We support the staff’s decision to start the environmental review with an EA instead of a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This approach aligns with regulatory efficiency and reflects the lower environmental impact of advanced reactors. The EIS from Hermes 1 reactor showed minimal environmental impacts, and Hermes 2 will be built on the same site. As such, the NRC’s draft FONSI for Hermes 2 retrospectively supports the decision to start with an EA.

BTI also notes that recent amendments to NEPA, which we discussed in detail last summer, now require consideration of the negative impacts of not proceeding with proposed actions, such as prolonging fossil fuel use and delaying decarbonization efforts. While the NRC acknowledges some of the implications of not building Hermes 2, BTI argues that the analysis should further address the broader environmental consequences of impeding nuclear technology development.

By addressing the burdensome and outdated mandatory hearing process and implementing the recent NEPA amendments, the NRC can greatly improve its regulatory framework. These steps are crucial for advancing safe, clean nuclear energy.

Read Our Letter to the NRC Read Our Comment on NRC's Draft Environmental Assessment