Washington, D.C., July 5, 2012 — In his final news conference as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko said the NRC may not be able to renew licenses for operating nuclear plants for "a few years" because of a federal court ruling, but the practical impact of this will be limited.
Jaczko said he expects nuclear reactors that have already applied for 20-year renewal of their operating licenses will be able to continue to operate while the agency addresses the ruling.
Jaczko, who announced his impending resignation in May 2012, will likely be replaced by President Barack Obama's nominee, Allison M. Macfarlane, a geologist and professor of environmental policy. Pending her approval by the U.S. Senate, she will fill out the rest of Jaczko's term as NRC chair.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the NRC in June 2012 to revisit rules governing the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the nation's 104 operating reactors. The commission, the court said, failed to conduct an environmental review when it updated its so-called "waste confidence rule" in 2010.
Although no license renewals will likely be issued until a new environmental impact statement is complete, the effect on the industry may be slight, Jaczko said. Existing reactors that have applied for renewal of their operating licenses could probably continue to operate past their original license expiration, he said.
Applicants for licenses to build and operate new reactors may see a delay, but very few have decided to build those units in the near term, Jaczko said.
The NRC has renewed the original 40-year operating licenses of 73 of the 104 U.S. reactors for 20 years, and operators of the remaining units have filed license renewal applications or are expected to do so.
There is no agreement among current commissioners about whether the new requirements should be mandatory or simply an enhancement to safety subject to a cost-benefit analysis, Jaczko said. If such an analysis is allowed, there could be a delay in making the improvements.
The nuclear industry has proposed to focus more on mitigation of the consequences of an extended station blackout, or the loss of all power like that which contributed to the Fukushima accident, than on preventing the blackout, Jaczko said.
Jaczko said the NRC "performed exceedingly well" following the Fukushima accident, both in assisting people in Japan and in developing lessons learned from the incident.