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Under the assumption that the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency (PHE) will continue into 2021, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Staff hosted a public meeting via teleconference on October 15 to discuss future requests for relief from regulatory requirements. The meeting focused generally on exemption requests the NRC received in 2020 and, more specifically, the information licensees should provide when submitting future requests for relief.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently held a public stakeholder meeting to discuss its Whistleblower Protection Program and how it can improve its administration of the 20-plus whistleblower protection provisions it is responsible for enforcing, including Section 211 of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (ERA). As we reported, OSHA is holding these stakeholder meetings in lieu of the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee due to the administration’s reduction in advisory committees. This call followed a similar call OSHA hosted in May, on which we also reported.

The suspense is over. The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced yesterday that it had awarded $80 million each to TerraPower and X-energy under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) for them to build two advanced nuclear reactors that can be operational within seven years. “The awards are cost-shared partnerships with industry that will deliver two first-of-a-kind advanced reactors to be licensed for commercial operations.” The $80 million is initial funding for what could be a total of $3.2 billion over seven years.

The ARDP also included two to five “Risk Reduction for Future Demonstrations” (Risk Reduction) projects and at least two “Advanced Reactor Concepts-20” (ARC-20) projects. DOE expects to announce these awards in December 2020.

The commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved almost all of the staff’s proposed approach for adding a new part to its regulations, 10 CFR Part 53, to govern licensing of advanced nuclear reactors. The commissioners directed the staff to expedite finalizing the rule by October 2024—three years earlier than the staff had proposed—and to report back with any “key uncertainties” that would affect finalizing the rule by that date. The commissioners also asked the staff to report back with options regulating fusion (vs. fission) reactor designs.

Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders along with Representative Peter Welch recently introduced the Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2020. The bill, if enacted, would provide grants to local communities affected by the closure and decommissioning of a nuclear plant. One grant would provide funds to support local decommissioning advisory boards, which would eventually be paid for by a filing fee for Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Reports (PSDARs). The other grant would provide economic development funds to local communities affected by plant closures. Along with these two grant programs, the bill would also establish direct payments to communities where spent nuclear fuel is stored during and after decommissioning at a rate of $15 per kilogram of spent fuel.

The NRC staff published Regulatory Issue Summary (RIS) 2020-02 on August 31 requesting potential advanced reactor applicants to provide information on their plans for engaging with the agency during fiscal years (FYs) 2023 through 2025. The NRC’s stated goal in the RIS is to “promote early communication between the NRC and potential applicants” that will assist the NRC in planning for “focus area reviews, acceptance reviews, licensing reviews, and inspection support” for new advanced reactors.

The NRC also issued the RIS “to communicate to stakeholders the agency’s process for scheduling its reviews.” The onus is now on applicants that expect to need NRC licensing support to proactively engage with the regulator. Companies that intend to engage with the NRC sooner than FY 2023 should consider using methods other than responding to the RIS to communicate those plans to the NRC.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) published a final rule in the September 4 Federal Register updating IRS regulations under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 468A. The final rule adopts most of the changes from the notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR), which was released for comment in December 2016. That said, the IRS and Treasury made a few important changes to the final rule, as discussed below.

In a recent lawflash, our colleagues in the litigation and environmental practice analyze the implications of the recent DC Circuit ruling in favor of the EPA’s national priorities listing (NPL) decisions. Meritor, Inc. challenged the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) listing of one of their facilities on the NPL under recent regulatory revisions that allowed the agency to consider “subsurface intrusion.” The DC Circuit rejected Meritor’s arguments, concluding that EPA’s decision was reasonable and consistent with the governing regulatory provisions. This decision will likely have a significant effect on the evaluation and remediation of contamination beneath manufacturing, chemical, and other industrial facilities around the country.

Read the full LawFlash

A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Kentucky issued an indictment against an individual for transportation of radioactive material generated from fracking activities without compliance with US Department of Transportation hazardous materials regulations. The indictment comes on the heels of increasing focus at the state and federal levels on the safe disposal of so-called “TENORM” wastes, i.e., technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material wastes that are generated as a result of certain mining and manufacturing activities, including hydraulic drilling or “fracking.” The indictment highlights the need for companies to plan for the disposal of TENORM generated during their operations, including performing appropriate due diligence on any contractors they may engage to assist with disposal.

The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently published in the Federal Register a final rule, Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. The final rule is the latest in a series of actions taken by the Trump administration and the CEQ to “modernize and clarify” the CEQ’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementing regulations to “facilitate more efficient, effective, and timely NEPA reviews by Federal agencies in connection with proposals for agency action.”

The CEQ’s NEPA regulations were first published nearly 40 years ago. In the ensuing decades, the scope and duration of federal agencies’ NEPA reviews have grown substantially. Accordingly, stakeholders have pushed to streamline the NEPA review process. In January 2020, CEQ published a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public input on potential updates to its regulations. In response, CEQ received more than 1.1 million comments. The vast majority of these were form-letter submissions, but CEQ did receive 2,359 unique, substantive comments on the proposed rule. Key similarities and differences in the final rule, and potential implications for NRC license applicants, are summarized below.