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Up & Atom

The Commission recently approved the NRC Staff’s recommendation to pursue a 24-month schedule for updating the agency’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants (LR GEIS). The Commission’s decision signifies an ambitious push forward to make the LR GEIS applicable to subsequent license renewal (SLR) applications.

Background

The NRC’s environmental review process for nuclear power plant license renewals has long relied, in part, on a generic evaluation of certain environmental issues, as documented in the LR GEIS and codified in the agency’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations in 10 CFR Part 51. Most plants already have gone through one initial license renewal to extend their original 40-year operating licenses for an additional 20 years, and several plants have requested SLRs to operate for an additional 20 years beyond the initial renewal period.

As noted in our posts from April and November 2020, the Commission previously held that the LR GEIS is applicable to both initial and subsequent license renewals. However, on February 24, 2022, in a series of adjudicatory decisions (CLI-22-02, CLI-22-03, and CLI-22-04), the current Commission found that the scope of the previous LR GEIS rulemaking was ambiguous, as a legal matter.

Thus, the Commission “reversed” its earlier rulings and held that the LR GEIS can apply only to initial license renewal applications—not SLRs—until the ambiguity is corrected. Consequently, the Commission determined that the Staff needed to hit the “reset” button on its NEPA analyses in several SLR proceedings to account for this change in policy.

Additionally, the Commission directed the NRC Staff to update the LR GEIS to explicitly cover the SLR period, and engage in a corollary rulemaking to confirm that the analyses therein (i.e., the updated LR GEIS) apply both to initial license renewals and one SLR period.

As noted in our previous post from July 2021, the NRC Staff was already working to update the LR GEIS as part of a recurring 10‑year update cycle, and had proposed a rulemaking plan to the Commission (SECY-21-0066). Based on the Commission’s policy reversal, it rejected that proposal and directed the Staff to prepare two fresh rulemaking proposals: one to confirm applicability of the LR GEIS to SLRs, and a second to pursue the normal 10-year LR GEIS update (SRM-SECY-21-0066).

The NRC Staff submitted the first plan to the Commission on March 25, 2022, proposing three alternatives with different resource and timing implications, ranging from 24 months to 38 months (SECY-22-0024).

The Commission’s Preferred Alternative

Perhaps in response to industry concerns regarding the reversal, the Commission acted quickly on the Staff’s proposal, issuing SRM-SECY-22-0024 on April 5, 2022. The Commission chose Alternative 3, which was the most compressed schedule option of the three alternatives and would rely on a dedicated “tiger team” to complete the review.

Under this option, the rulemaking is to be completed, and the final rule issued, within 24 months. However, the Commission suggested there may be room for further efficiency, directing the Staff to "seek opportunities to accelerate the schedule" while still maintaining the review's integrity.

Looking Ahead

The Staff is expected to submit a proposed rule package to the Commission by the end of 2022. The schedule assumes the Commission will act quickly—within one month—to approve its publication.

After publication, the agency will collect public input on the LR GEIS update and associated rulemaking during a 60-day comment period. Thereafter, the staff will have seven months to address public comments and submit a final rule package for the Commission’s consideration.

Following Commission approval, the final rule would be published and SLR applicants could, once again, rely on the LR GEIS. (Notably, SLR applicants are not required to wait for this process to conclude; applicants can elect to proceed with their applications by performing their own site-specific analyses of the Category 1 issues analyzed in the LR GEIS.)

Also, later this month, the staff is expected to provide the second rulemaking plan to the Commission (to address the routine 10-year LR GEIS update cycle). As Morgan Lewis continues to advise current and prospective SLR applicants on these ongoing efforts, we will continue to track these issues.