Clarity provided on nuclear power license freeze

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry, on August 8 responded to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) August 7 order stating that the regulators would not issue final reactor licenses or 20-year license renewals for existing plants until the agency addresses a recent court ruling on waste confidence. Waste confidence, according to the NRC, is a generic finding that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored at reactor sites for decades in either spent fuel pools or dry casks, and that a repository will be available for final disposal of the spent fuel.

The order from the NRC, though, also said current licensing reviews and proceedings “should continue to move forward.”

“The commission’s order is helpful in that license applicants can continue to pursue their licenses," said Ellen Ginsberg, NEI’s vice president and general counsel. “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.”

On June 8th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit threw out the NRC’s 2010 rule that permitted licensing and re-licensing of nuclear reactors based on the supposition that the NRC will find a way to dispose of spent reactor fuel to be generated by reactors at some time in the future when it becomes “necessary" and, in the meantime, spent fuel can be stored safely at reactor sites. The NRC was confident that used nuclear fuel could be stored at reactor sites for 60 years beyond the expiration of reactors’ operating licenses, NEI said.

NEI also said the June 8 decision found that the agency’s environmental analyses were “insufficient” to support that generic finding. Specifically, the court said that the NRC had not adequately considered the environmental effects of the federal government’s failure to establish a repository for the final disposal of used fuel, or of longer-term storage of used fuel at reactor sites.

NRC spokesperson David McIntyre on August 9, via a blog post on the NRC website, provided some clarity to the order.

“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,” McIntyre wrote.

NRC’s spokesperson went on to say the potential impact is enormous as the order affects licensing reviews for as many as 21 new reactors and 12 license renewals for existing reactors. It does not affect licenses already issued or renewed.

“Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both,” the Commission said in the order. “We have not yet determined a course of action.”

In the meantime, “we will not issue licenses dependent upon [waste confidence] until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.” Licensing reviews and proceedings should continue, the Commission said.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) did not seem optimistic.

“We have had half a century to find a good solution to the problem of nuclear waste, and we are no closer now than we were in the 1960s. That is because there is no ‘good solution.’ We will never be able to find a risk-free method of storing nuclear waste,” Kucinich said in a press release.

Kucinich also cited the economics of nuclear power as a challenge in the U.S.

“Wall Street and banks have turned away from nuclear power plants. Not even proposed, massive government loan guarantees could change the economics,” he said. “We should not be wasting money on extremely expensive nuclear reactors. We should not be taking chances on re-licensing the aging reactors that already exist.”

While there is not a timeframe in place, as of yet, for a Commission vote, McIntyre said the industry must now wait for the commission to decide on a course of action to satisfy the Appeals Court’s ruling.
The order does not impact the COLs for the Plant Vogtle and V.C. Summer station expansions taking place in Georgia and South Carolina.

“The earliest potential final licensing decisions were the Levy County COL and the Indian Point license renewal, but both of those still have a hearing to go through in any case,” said NRC's McIntyre in an email. “Those hearings aren't expected to be finished until sometime next year.”


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