GAO excoriates NRC for abandonment of climate crisis licensing and oversight at US reactors


On April 2, 2024, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released an extensive report, “NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS: NRC Should Take Actions to Fully Consider the Potential Effects of Climate Change” (GAO-24-106326). U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), both devout supporters of nuclear power expansion, asked GAO to review US energy infrastructure and specifically the resilience of nuclear power plants to climate change.  What the Senators got may have surprised them. The report thoroughly examines (1) how climate change is expected to adversely affect nuclear power plants and (2) what actions the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has taken to address the risks to nuclear power plants from the adverse impacts and consequences of climate change. After completing extensive interviews with officials from federal agencies, including the NRC, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and knowledgeable stakeholders from industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations, the GAO recommends that the NRC needed to do more than look at the reactor operation impacts on climate change: NRC needs to begin analyzing the adverse impacts climate change on nuclear power plant operations.

In fact, the findings and recommendations of the new report confirm what Beyond Nuclear and its co-intervenors at the Sierra Club are still litigating with the NRC and nuclear industry for more than several years, now: the agency cannot continue to ignore the risks and hazards that nuclear power plants face from the worsening climate crisis.

GAO recognizes that these risks include a worsening of six natural natural hazards that encompass heat and cold, drought, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and sea level rise, all of which, according to the GAO findings could seriously jeopardize the safe operation and surrounding communities of the nation’s current fleet currently going through extreme license renewals — and any future new — nuclear reactors if not properly safeguarded.

Beyond Nuclear further recommends the inclusion of  intensifying tornadic storms (producing multiple funnels),  intensifying straight line winds (derechos), and  seiches.  Dams and Probable Maximum Precipitation uncertainty are referenced but the significance of the combined impact on nuclear power stations from an unprecedented Probable Maximum Flood and the increased risk of a dam breach and reactor inundation is not (the Oconee Nuclear Station Syndrome).

The NRC has resumed relicensing proceedings for applications requesting the second 20-year extension 60- to 80-years. This comes after a two-year delay forced by successful intervenor appeals that won a set of Commission Orders. On February 24, 2022. In a two-one Commission vote, the two Democrat Commissioners Baran and Hanson rescinding several approvals by the previous Republican controlled Commission for 60- to 80-year renewals with “an error of law” that violated National Environmental Policy Act. The Orders further required staff to reanalyze rewrite and codify relicensing environmental reviews (Generic and Site-Specific). Those draft rewrites are out now and now explicitly claim that “climate change impacts on reactor operations are out of scope of staff environmental reviews.”   The NRC is proceeding with the resumption of the license extension process relying upon this “Draft” environmental impact statement. Nevertheless, the NRC is impaneling Atomic Safety Licensing Boards on these renewed  operating licensing applications.

The three-unit Oconee nuclear power station precariously sits ten miles downstream and 300 feet below the top of the water level of Lake Jocassee behind the large rock filled earthen dam that holds back more than one million acre-feet of water. All regions of the US are already experiencing recurring and increasingly extreme precipitation events, including prolonged atmospheric rivers of severe precipitation as evidence of climate change. And yet, the NRC staff argues in their latest Draft Site-Specific Environmental Impact Statement that “the effects of climate change on Oconee Station SSCs [systems, structures and components] are outside the scope  of the NRC staff’s license renewal environmental review.” This is disingenuous and  dangerous.

Beyond Nuclear is preparing to file another legal intervention in the NRC’s Oconee license renewal proceeding on April 29, 2024. Beyond Nuclear and co-intervenors just re-filed to request a hearing on the North Anna nuclear power station in Mineral, VA on March 28, 2024. The GAO report provides “new information” for Beyond Nuclear to reopen these previously closed relicensing proceedings while the NRC staff redrafted Site-Specific Environmental Impact Statements..

Jeff Mitman, a retired NRC senior risk analyst and expert witness supporting Beyond Nuclear litigations points to a damning revelation in the GAO report, perhaps an NRC obfuscation to shield a vulnerable industry from costly safety retrofits caused by worsening climate change. GAO interviewed NRC staff who acknowledge that the agency is shying away from using site-specific climate change hazards data in its licensing analysis, they claim,  because of the challenges presented by uncertainty. To that point, the GAO states,

However, NRC regulations do not preclude NRC from using climate projections data, and new sources of reliable projected climate data are available to NRC. In 2023, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued guidance to federal agencies on selecting and using climate data to assess risks and their potential impacts. This guide provides information on climate models and projections to help federal agencies understand exposure to current and future climate-related hazards and their potential impacts.

“Without incorporating the best available information into its licensing and oversight processes, it is unclear whether the safety margins for nuclear power plants established during the licensing period—in most cases over 40 years ago—are adequate to address the risks that climate change poses to plants.

The GAO further points out that even closed and decommissioning nuclear power plants are vulnerable due to climate change-induced weather extremes. The report cites the closed Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York, where fire hazards are very high along with flooding risks, and Palisades in Michigan, also at risk of flooding and now looking to reopen. The hazard risks come from the highly radioactive waste inventories still on site.

Given the many examples of risk that the GAO report has uncovered through extensive interviews, the report concludes that the NRC is not doing enough to “fully consider potential climate change effects” projected three decades and farther into the future. As the GAO frames it, “NRC primarily uses historical data in its licensing and oversight processes rather than climate projections data.”

It’s like the NRC is driving its nuclear power ambitions through the fog of uncertainty with its high beams on, blinded to what’s ahead.  The GAO is rightly concerned that the NRC cannot serve public safety by viewing climate data only through its rear view mirror. There are simply too many unpredictable hazards now faced by an inherently dangerous industry.

Beyond Nuclear applauds the GAO report for providing three reasonable recommendations to the NRC Commissioners that regard what GAO found to be inadequate or missing in the NRC’s oversight and licensing process:

1) NRC should assess whether its licensing and oversight processes adequately address the potential for increased risks to nuclear power plants from climate change.

2) NRC should direct its staff to develop, finalize, and implement a plan to address any gaps identified in its assessment of existing processes.

3) NRC should direct its staff to develop and finalize guidance on incorporating climate projections data including what sources of climate projections data to use and when and how to use climate projections data.






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