Under a proposal in the U.S. House, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would be barred from starting to consider a 20-year license renewal for a power reactor until that unit is within 10 years of having its current license expire.
The Nuclear Reactor Safety First Act, H.R. 6554, was announced Sept. 26 by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
The legislation was evidently sparked by the late 2010 license renewal application filed by NextEra Energy (NYSE: NEE) for the 1,244-MW Seabrook plant in New Hampshire. The plant began commercial operation in 1990.
While the Seabrook operating license does not expire until 2030, the plant has applied for a 20-year extension to its current 40-year operating license, the lawmakers noted. This would mean that Seabrook would be given the all-clear until 2050, even though it is already experiencing aging-related safety problems a mere 22 years into its operating license, they said.
“It seems crazy that the NRC would even consider relicensing aging nuclear plants more than a decade before its license expires,” Tierney said in a news release issued along with Markey. “As these facilities age, safety concerns inevitably arise. This bill will simply ensure that licensees, like NextEra, the operators of the Seabrook facility, are evaluated for renewal within a reasonable time frame and not 20 years before a license expires,” Tierney said.
“Allowing the NRC to give a 60-year long clean bill of health to reactors that are in their nuclear adolescence, especially one with documented safety issues such as Seabrook, is like allowing a doctor to assure a twenty year-old smoker they will never get lung cancer,” Markey said.
Lawmakers cite concrete concerns
Introduction of the bill comes after the NRC announced additional inspections for the Seabrook Nuclear facility in Seabrook, N. H. The NRC announced Sept. 14 that it wanted to investigate concrete degradation discovered in safety-related structures at the plant.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and the C-10 Research and Education Foundation called on the NRC to begin a complete structural integrity evaluation of Seabrook during its September 23 refueling outage.
When contacted Sept. 26 a NextEra spokesperson said the concrete issue at Seabrook should not be compared to the more significant concrete cracking at the idle Crystal River 3 nuclear plant in Florida, which is owned by Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK).
NextEra: Companies need certainty
In a statement, NextEra argued that companies need long-term assurances that a plant can continue to operate before planning multi-million-dollar capital expenditures.
The Florida-based company also said that NRC has considered and rejected a more compressed timetable for plant reviews.
As recently as May of this year, after an extensive review, the NRC rejected a request to shorten the time in which license renewal applications can be filed to 10 years, ruling that the 20-year timeframe is appropriate as it allows operators of nuclear plants “a reasonable and flexible timeframe to perform informed business planning,” the company said.
The NRC staff expects to complete license renewal reviews within 30 months if a hearing is required or within 22 months from receipt if no hearing is required. A few nuclear plants in the Northeast, including Indian Point and Vermont Yankee units owned by Entergy (NYSE: ETR) have seen license renewal cases run much longer than 30 months.