The NRC commissioners unanimously approved on January 23, 2023 the publication of a proposed rule to update the NRC’s environmental regulations in Part 51 and issue a draft update to the NRC’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants (the GEIS) to encompass both initial and subsequent license renewal (SLR). This rulemaking, when complete, will resolve the dispute about whether 10 CFR 51.53(c)(3) and the GEIS apply to SLR, and will allow the environmental review of pending SLR applications that rely on the GEIS to resume. The proposed rule will soon be published in the Federal Register to allow for public comments on the proposed rule and draft GEIS.
In approving the proposed rulemaking and issuing the draft GEIS update for comment, a majority of the Commission directed the NRC staff to amend the proposed rule to explicitly limit its scope—and the scope of the draft GEIS update—to apply to initial license renewal and just one term of SLR. While this approach was criticized by Commissioners Wright and Caputo, the other commissioners suggested that the NRC staff should analyze the environmental impacts of additional terms of SLR as part of the regular 10-year GEIS update cycle.
In a previous post, we discussed the Commission’s 3-1 decision, reached in April 2020, to allow applicants for SLR to rely on the NRC’s findings on Category 1 issues. Six months later, the Commission (in a 3-2 decision) reaffirmed its decision. In February 2022, a newly composed Commission reconsidered the issue and found that the GEIS and its applicability to SLR were “ambiguous.” The Commission reversed its earlier rulings and held that the GEIS can only apply to initial license renewal applications—not SLR applications—until the GEIS is updated. As a result of this reversal, the Commission revised the expiration dates for the certain subsequent renewed licenses and delayed the environmental review of pending SLR applications. The Commission then directed the NRC staff to expeditiously prepare an update to the GEIS and a rulemaking to codify any updates and make the GEIS applicable to SLR.
Proposed Rulemaking and GEIS Update
In December 2022, the NRC staff sought Commission approval to publish a proposed rule to amend the NRC’s environmental regulations in Part 51. The NRC staff also submitted a draft GEIS update to the Commission. The staff stated that if the Commission approved the proposed rule’s publication, then the staff would also publish the draft GEIS update (and its appendices) and seek public comment on both the proposed rule and the GEIS update.
On January 23, 2023, the Commission approved the publication of the NRC staff’s proposed rule in the Federal Register with some modifications.
As approved by the Commission, the proposed rule would make the following changes to the NRC’s environmental regulations:
- Remove the word “initial” from 10 CFR 51.53(c)(3) in reference to license renewal
- Revise the title of Appendix B, Table B-1 and the introductory paragraph to make clear that the environmental assessment summarized in Table B-1 “applies to applications for initial or subsequent license renewal”
- Revise 10 CFR 51.95(c) to remove the date NUREG-1437 was issued so that the regulation always refers to the latest edition of the GEIS
For the draft GEIS update, the NRC staff identified and analyzed 80 environmental issues associated with operations and refurbishment during the period of extended operations and subsequent period of extended operations. This is a slight increase from the 78 issues identified in the 2013 GEIS. Of these 80 environmental issues:
- 59 were identified as Category 1 issues for which applicants could rely on the findings in the GEIS update
- 20 were identified as Category 2 issues that cannot be evaluated generically and must be evaluated by the applicant in its environmental report and by the NRC staff in the draft SEIS using plant-specific data
- One issue, “Electromagnetic Fields (EMF),” was not categorized because studies of 60-Hz EMFs have uncovered no consistent evidence linking exposure to them to harmful effects
As part of the GEIS update, the NRC staff identified and analyzed three new environmental issues:
- Greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on climate change (Category 1)
- Climate change impacts on environmental resources (Category 2)
- National Marine Sanctuaries Act sanctuary resources (Category 2)
The NRC staff also changed the categorization of some environmental issues identified in the 2013 GEIS. First, the NRC staff consolidated “Groundwater quality degradation (cooling pods in salt marshes)” (a Category 1 issue) with “Groundwater quality degradation (cooling ponds at inland sites)” (a Category 2 issue) into a single issue. As a result, the draft GEIS update has a new combined issue: “Groundwater quality degradation (plants with cooling ponds)” (a Category 2 issue).
Second, the NRC staff reclassified “Severe accidents” from a Category 2 issue to a Category 1 issue. The NRC staff noted that this was a Category 2 issue only to the extent that a licensee had not performed a severe accident mitigation alternatives (SAMA) analysis for the plant. Because most, if not all, initial license renewal and SLR applicants will have completed a SAMA analysis, the NRC staff believes this issue can be resolved generically.
In addition, the NRC staff’s review of new information determined that the overall risk posed by a severe accident is less than originally stated in the 1996 GEIS by “a significant margin.” Thus, they concluded that probability-weighted consequences of severe accidents during the initial license renewal or SLR terms are small.
Commission Limits Scope of the GEIS Update and Rulemaking
In approving the publication of the proposed rule and draft GEIS update, Chairman Hanson and Commissioners Baran and Crowell directed the NRC staff to amend the proposed rule and draft GEIS update to explicitly state that they only apply to initial license renewal and one term of SLR. According to Chairman Hanson, this change conforms Part 51 with the scope of the GEIS because neither the 2013 GEIS nor the draft GEIS update analyzed the environmental impacts of a second SLR term, i.e., a plant operating for more than 80 years.
Chairman Hanson also observed that as additional operating experience is gained by plants operating beyond 60 years, the NRC staff should consider whether to expand the scope of the GEIS to cover additional SLR terms as part of the regular 10-year review and update of the GEIS. This 10-year review cycle will restart after the NRC issues the final revised GEIS. Thus, the applicability of the GEIS to a second SLR term would not be addressed until the early to mid-2030s.
Morgan Lewis represents licensees seeking SLR and will continue to monitor developments in this area.