NRC approves proposed decommissioning rulemaking

November 4, 2021, 12:00PMRadwaste Solutions
Wisconsin’s Kewaunee nuclear power plant, which shut down in 2013, is being transitioned to decommissioning. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday approved a proposed rule to amend its regulations for nuclear power plants that are transitioning from operations to decommissioning. After changes requested by the NRC commissioners are made by agency staff, the proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register, initiating a 75-day comment period.

In December 2014, in response to the growing number of nuclear power plant closures, the commissioners directed the NRC staff to develop a rulemaking on power reactor decommissioning.

The rulemaking is intended to take into account the reduced radiological risks associated with power reactors that have been permanently shut down and defueled. Current regulations make little distinction between an operating reactor and one that is shut down and has been defueled, requiring licensees to seek exemptions and license amendments on a case-by-case basis as they transition to decommissioning.

New rule: The proposed decommissioning rule has been before the commission since May 2018, when the NRC staff, in response to the commissioners’ rulemaking request, issued a paper (SECY-18-0055) outlining the rule changes. The staff said that the goal of the changes is to “provide for a safe, effective, and efficient decommissioning process; reduce the need for exemptions from existing regulations and license amendment requests; address other decommissioning issues that the NRC staff considers relevant; and support the principles of good regulation, including openness, clarity, and reliability.”

In approving the proposed rule on November 3, the commission disapproved two proposals put forward by the NRC staff regarding the management of spent nuclear fuel. It disapproved the staff’s recommendation to generically allow plant operators to use decommissioning trust funds to manage and decommission their independent spent fuel storage installations (ISFSIs). The commission also disapproved the staff’s recommendation to remove preliminary approval and final NRC review of a licensee’s irradiated fuel management program.

He said it: “Several nuclear power plants have begun decommissioning over the past decade, and at least three more reactors are expected to cease operations within the next four years,” said NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson. “This regulation incorporates lessons learned from plants that have already transitioned to decommissioning and will establish clear and transparent requirements for the future. I am convinced that the proposed approach will provide adequate protection while improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the decommissioning regulatory framework.”

ANS response: “The American Nuclear Society is pleased to see the NRC take action on this rulemaking, which has been a long time coming,” said ANS President Steven Nesbit. “We are looking forward to reviewing the proposed rule and providing comments, where appropriate, after it has been published in the Federal Register.

NEI response: Rod McCullum, senior director of spent fuel and decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said of the proposed rule, “It is a positive step in the right direction, and we are happy to see it come forward. We are going to be looking at it closely before commenting on it.”

The vote: One of the three current NRC commissioners, David Wright, voted to approve the publication of the rulemaking in full (subject to edits and comments), while Jeffery Baran disapproved the proposed rule. Hanson approved the rule but disapproved the staff’s recommendations regarding the use of decommissioning trust funds for ISFSI management and the removal of requirements concerning a licensee’s irradiated fuel management program.

In his comments approving the rule, Wright said, “This proposed rule represents the culmination of many years of hard work by the staff to address a set of complex issues cutting across multiple disciplines, including emergency preparedness, physical security, decommissioning funding assurance, environmental considerations, and license termination plan requirements.”

In voting to disapprove the rule, Baran said that the proposed rule does not adequately balance the interests of licensees and stakeholders, including states and local communities. “The draft proposed rule is too focused on reducing industry ‘burdens’ and providing licensees even more ‘flexibility’ and not focused enough on the interests of other stakeholders,” he said.

The commission’s staff requirements memorandum approving the rule, along with an enclosure detailing the edits directed by the commission, and the commissioners’ voting records are available on the NRC website.

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