GAO report outlines issues with NRC license renewal process

While making no recommendations, a Government Accountability Office report released July 10 said there are perceived flaws in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) license renewal process.

The report, asked for by members of Congress and officially dated May 2013, said the license renewal process focuses on managing the effects of aging on a reactor and its associated systems, structures, and components (i.e. safety) and assessing certain potential environmental impacts of extending a reactor’s operating-life. As a result, reviews done as part of this process are not required to address as many topics as reviews for initial licensing, which include security and emergency planning.

NRC has regularly updated the safety review guidance it uses in the license renewal process but has not revised most of its environmental review regulations and guidance since they were first issued, GAO noted. NRC has revised its safety review guidance twice—in 2005 and 2010—and has issued interim updates for selected safety issues between those revisions.

In contrast, NRC has not revised most of its environmental review regulations and guidance since they were first issued starting in 1996. NRC regulations state the agency’s goal is to review its environmental findings every 10 years and update its license renewal regulations and guidance, if necessary. Consistent with this goal, NRC initiated the revision process in 2003. In December 2012, the NRC commissioners approved draft regulations, but they directed agency staff to make additional changes. As of March of this year, NRC staff were working on these changes.

According to NRC officials, the reasons for the lengthy revision process include limited staff resources and competing demands on those resources as well as an unusually large number of technical issues to be addressed.

“NRC requires applicants and expects agency staff to consider new and significant environmental information in the license renewal process, but its use of regulations and guidance originally issued 17 years ago has created the impression among some that the agency is using outdated information and has caused uncertainty for some license renewal applicants about what guidance will be used to evaluate their application,” the GAO report said.

NRC generally followed its procedures when reviewing selected safety and environmental elements in eight license renewal applications GAO examined.

NRC’s safety reviews were generally consistent with the agency’s procedures for evaluating both an applicant’s identification of components within the scope of the license renewal process and proposed buried piping and tanks inspection and fire protection programs for aging management. NRC’s environmental reviews were also generally consistent with agency procedures for evaluating:

  • new and significant information for two generic environmental issues;
  • applicants’ assessments of two site-specific environmental issues; and
  • applicants’ analyses of alternatives for mitigating severe reactor accidents.

Parties find pluses and minuses in NRC review process

“Knowledgeable stakeholders interviewed by GAO identified various perceived strengths and weaknesses and potential improvements to the license renewal process,” GAO added. “Stakeholders most often identified NRC staff’s technical knowledge and the thoroughness of the agency’s reviews as perceived strengths of the process. Stakeholders also identified a range of perceived weaknesses in the license renewal process, including claims that its scope is too narrow and that its public hearing process is flawed and inhibits meaningful public participation.”

Some stakeholders suggested potential changes to improve the license renewal process, including broadening the scope of NRC’s reviews and modifying aspects of the public hearing process.

U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors generated nearly 20% of the nation’s electricity in 2012, but many of them are reaching or have reached the end of their initial 40-year operating period. NRC allows reactor owners to apply for renewal of their operating licenses for up to an additional 20 years, and owners may apply to renew licenses more than once. Since 2000, NRC has renewed operating licenses for 73 of the nation’s nuclear reactors.

As of May 2013, NRC was reviewing license renewal applications for 14 reactors and expected to receive renewal applications for 15 more reactors in the next five years.

In recent years, NRC’s license renewal process has received increasing public scrutiny. In 2007, NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that NRC had developed a comprehensive process for reviewing license renewal applications, but agency staff had not consistently reviewed or independently verified applicant-supplied operating experience information.

In 2011, following the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, more than 40 public interest groups and individuals called for a moratorium on license renewal decisions until NRC completed its review of lessons learned from the disaster and issued any regulatory decisions and environmental analyses based on those lessons. In May 2012, NRC held a public meeting as it prepared for future reviews of applications to renew reactor operating licenses for a second time. Renewing an operating license for a second time would allow a reactor to operate for a total of up to 80 years.

In August 2012, the NRC commissioners suspended all pending license renewal decisions until the agency addresses a federal appeals court decision vacating NRC’s Waste Confidence Decision and Temporary Storage Rule, which embodies the agency’s generic determination on the environmental impacts of continued storage of spent nuclear fuel beyond the licensed life for nuclear reactor operations and prior to its ultimate disposal in a geologic repository.

There is a modestly shrinking need for license renewals, GAO noted. In February, the owner of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant in Florida, Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), permanently shut down that site’s reactor, and in May, Dominion Resources (NYSE: D), the owner of the Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin, permanently shut down that site’s reactor. These actions reduced the number of operating commercial nuclear power reactors in the U.S. from 104 to 102. The Kewaunee reactor was one of the 73 reactors with an operating license renewed by NRC. As a result, as of May 2013, there are 72 commercial nuclear power reactors with renewed operating licenses operating in the U.S.

Also, since the report was written, Southern California Edison said in early June that it won’t try any longer to restart the two units at the San Onofre nuclear plant in California.

The requesting members of Congress for the GAO report were: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a vocal San Onofre critic who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Chairman, Senate Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Environment and Public Works; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.