NRC rescinds reactor license extensions

Peach Bottom_NRC

A legal appeal filed by Beyond Nuclear to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has yielded a landmark February 24, 2022 decision and agency orders (CLI-22-02, CLI-22-03, CLI-22-04) rescinding the federal agency’s second 20-year operating license renewal of US reactors (60- to 80-year period) without first creating and applying an updated environmental analysis for reactor operations into the extension period. 

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires all major federal actions, in this case the “Subsequent License Renewal” of US nuclear power stations, to go through an extensive review of the associated risks, cost, and consequences as compared to the reasonable alternatives with less harmful impacts.  

The NRC Commissioners’ recent 2-1 decision now requires plant owners and the agency’s staff to go back to the drawing board and update their review of the potential impacts of a worsening climate crisis, such as rising sea levels, and to provide an updated analysis of age-related degradation of the reactor systems, structures and components before approving operating extreme license extension requests. 

As importantly, the ruling opens the reactor license extension process to a NEPA comparative review with more reliable, less harmful and least cost energy alternatives.

The NRC order affects all pending and prospective subsequent license renewal proceedings, including North Anna Units 1 & 2 (Virginia), Peach Bottom Units 2 & 3 (Pennsylvania, pictured), Oconee Units 1, 2 &3 (South Carolina), Point Beach Units 1 & 2 (Wisconsin), and Turkey Point Units 3 & 4 (Florida). 

All of these reactors had already been granted the 60- to 80-year license extension which is now rescinded pending the development of a more in-depth and inclusive environmental review. It suspends further the acceptance of applications until that updated generic environmental review is completed.

As an Associated Press story noted, “The reversal gives environmental groups a chance to reiterate concerns that federal regulators didn’t adequately consider the risks of climate change and flooding from sea level rise when granting the last extension. The NRC plans to hold hearings after staff completes a new site-specific environmental impact statement.”

Diane Curran, the attorney who contested license extensions on behalf of Beyond Nuclear, heralded the reversal as a major breakthrough. 

“The decision is a tremendous advance for nuclear reactor safety and environmental protection, because it commits NRC to evaluate the unique risks of renewing reactor licenses for a second term,” she said.

Paul Gunter, Director of Reactor Oversight at Beyond Nuclear said: “This decision requires that the NRC and the nuclear industry take the necessary hard look into the climate crisis future that they had deliberately avoided. As importantly, it will require a NEPA comparative analysis of extending nuclear power plant operations to an extreme versus ramping up renewable energy, energy efficiency, and conservation as the most reliable and deployable alternative to provide a greater carbon reduction at less cost.”

Beyond Nuclear and the other groups had challenged the Generic Environmental Impact Statement used to justify the license extensions at the five nuclear sites (11 units), as being out of date by nearly a decade and failing to consider dramatically different circumstances brought on by the climate crisis. The GEIS used had been left unchanged since 1996 and lightly amended in 2013 without factoring present day and future projected climate conditions such as sea-level rise, increased precipitation and flooding, contrasted by severe drought and more frequent wildfires and more frequent, more severe storms. More

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