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The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published a notice in the February 7 Federal Register of the availability of its new Regulatory Analysis for Regulatory Basis: Regulatory Improvements for Power Reactors Transitioning to Decommissioning. This update considers comments received on the preliminary draft regulatory analysis that was issued for public comment on May 9, 2017. At nearly 200 pages, the updated analysis presents the costs, benefits, and other economic impacts to industry, government, and society from the NRC staff recommendations considered in the regulatory basis. In the end, however, the staff maintains the course it set several years ago. And importantly, the staff continues to emphasize that it has not identified any safety or security concerns in the current regulatory framework for decommissioning power reactors, but notes that by revising its regulations to achieve a long-term regulatory framework for decommissioning, the NRC can reduce the filing and processing of individual licensing actions and make the decommissioning process less costly and more efficient and predictable. This continues to be an important goal, especially considering that most nuclear plants are being shut down primarily for economic reasons.

The key finding of the analysis is that there continues to be sufficient justification to proceed with rulemaking in the areas of Emergency Preparedness; Physical Security; Cyber Security; Fitness for Duty—Drug and Alcohol Testing; Minimum Staffing and Training Requirements for Non-Licensed Operators, Including Certified Fuel Handlers; Decommissioning Funding Assurance; Offsite and Onsite Financial Protection Requirements and Indemnity Agreements; and Application of the Backfit Rule. The focus on these areas is not surprising as they generally reflect current standard decommissioning practices—implemented now through time-consuming and costly individual licensing actions including amendments and exemptions.

But equally important, the NRC staff concludes in the analysis that regulatory activities other than rulemaking—such as guidance development—should be used to address concerns regarding aging management, the level of NRC review and approval of the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR), options for decommissioning, the timeframe associated with decommissioning, and the role of external stakeholders in the decommissioning process. This means that the NRC is not planning—at least currently—any substantial changes to how the PSDAR is prepared and reviewed or to the 60-year SAFSTOR option. This is common sense, given the NRC’s finding that there are no identified safety or security concerns with the basic decommissioning framework. For this same reason, however, it is not clear that changes to guidance are necessary or appropriate. Although the preparation of guidance on these topics may be preferable to rulemaking, the unspecified content of future guidance raises concerns about an increased burden without corresponding benefits. The sufficiency of the justification for the guidance can only be determined once the guidance content is available.

While this effort has been ongoing for some time (it really began in 2000), the staff appears to be on schedule to provide the draft proposed rule for Commission review in mid-2018 with the goal of providing a final rule for Commission review in late 2019. We will continue to follow this issue closely and provide updates throughout the process.