Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What Does the NRC’s Order on Waste Confidence Mean for New Plant Licensing?

Dry cask storage
It is not every day that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advises everyone to “take a deep breath,” but when it comes to people misconstruing the facts about new plant licensing activities following a recent order, that is exactly what happened.

In a nutshell—last week, the NRC issued an order saying that it would not issue final reactor licenses or license renewals until the agency addresses a recent federal court ruling on waste confidence. Many people and some news articles mistakenly reported that this means all current licensing reviews and proceedings will come to a screeching halt, which is simply not the case. The order basically means that licensing reviews will move forward, but that final licensing will be put on hold.

The NRC clarified its position in a blog post late last week:
Let’s be clear: Tuesday’s Order was not a “Full Stop” to NRC’s licensing process. The Commission stated that licensing reviews should move forward—only final licensing was put on hold.
NEI’s Vice President and General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg weighed in:
The commission’s order is helpful in that license applicants can continue to pursue their licenses. Although there may be some delay in issuing some renewed licenses, NRC regulations provide that plant operation can continue beyond the original license term and until there is a decision on the renewal application, so long as it has been filed in a timely manner.
A level-headed article in Forbes’ over the weekend provides further background on the NRC’s order and how it relates to new plant licensing activities (bolded text added by me for emphasis):
There has been some fist-bumping this week in the anti-nuclear sector over the recent vacating of two NRC rules by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in June; the waste-confidence decision and the storage rule. The judges felt that the agency had failed to conduct an environmental impact statement, or a finding of no significant environmental impact, before ruling that it is safe to store nuclear waste in wet pools and dry casks without a permanent solution in sight. But it was just that the initial NRC rule was too vague, not that this type of storage is unsafe (platts NRC Ruling).
In response, the NRC this week voted unanimously to delay final approval of licenses for new nuclear plants, or renewing the licenses of existing facilities, until the agency responds with a more complete ruling and addresses the dilemma of long-term nuclear waste storage across the country.
The 24 environmental groups that petitioned NRC to respond to the court are acting like they actually stopped all action on nuclear licensing (Marketwatch NRC Ruling). While no final decisions will be made in issuing licenses, the process for licensing new and existing plants will continue as before, the NRC said, which means the impact to the industry will be minimal.
Also, reactors can operate even after their present license expires as long as it is the NRC that is dragging it out. And most reactors have already been relicensed in the last ten years.  Only 18 out of 104 reactors are not and primarily because they have to operate beyond 20 years before they can apply. The four new GenIII plants being built at Vogtle (Georgia) and V.C. Summer (South Carolina) are also not affected at all since their licenses have already been issued.
The NRC’s blog post continues:
Essentially, the Order represents a regulatory agency taking a deep breath while trying to decide the best way to satisfy the Court.
So, let’s all follow the NRC’s advice: inhale, exhale.

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