Jaczko sees delays in nuclear license renewals

Speaking at a Platts Energy Podium event, the departing chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said Thursday that the agency may not be able to renew licenses for operating nuclear plants for “a few years” because of a federal court ruling, but the practical impact will be limited.

In his final news conference as chairman, Gregory Jaczko said he expects reactors that have applied for 20-year renewal of their operating licenses will be able to continue to operate while the agency addresses the ruling.

In addition, Jaczko urged the agency to continue to make post-Fukushima improvements to nuclear plants mandatory and warned that there are signs of nuclear industry “pushback” against some of the measures proposed in the wake of the tsunami-induced shutdown of the Japanese nuclear facility.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last month told the NRC to revisit rules governing the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the nation’s 104 operating reactors. The commission, the court said, failed to conduct an environmental review when it updated its so-called “waste confidence rule” in 2010.

Although no license renewals will likely be issued until a new environmental impact statement is complete, the effect on the industry may be slight, Jaczko said. Existing reactors that have applied for renewal of their operating licenses could probably continue to operate past their original license expiration, he said.

Applicants for licenses to build and operate new reactors may see a delay, but very few have decided to build those units in the near term, Jaczko said.

The NRC has renewed the original 40-year operating licenses of 73 of the 104 U.S. reactors for 20 years, and operators of the remaining units have filed license renewal applications or are expected to do so.

Jaczko also said he remains concerned that post-Fukushima recommendations may not be fully implemented in “an effective timeframe.”

“The last thing that we can allow to have happen is for some lessons to go unimplemented and have some type of incident that could have been prevented,” he said.

There is no agreement among current commissioners about whether the new requirements should be mandatory or simply an enhancement to safety subject to a cost-benefit analysis, Jaczko said. If such an analysis is allowed, there could be a delay in making the improvements.

The nuclear industry has proposed to focus more on mitigation of the consequences of an extended station blackout, or the loss of all power like that which contributed to the Fukushima accident, than on preventing the blackout, Jaczko said.

Jaczko said the NRC “performed exceedingly well” following the Fukushima accident, both in assisting people in Japan and in developing lessons learned from the incident.

Jaczko will be replaced by Allison Macfarlane, a geologist and professor of environmental policy.