Feedback from nuclear sector to inform hearing on NRC licensing process

May 31, 2023, 3:00PMNuclear News

Leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last month sent letters to a variety of nuclear sector stakeholders requesting input in preparation for a June 14 hearing titled “Oversight of NRC: Ensuring Efficient and Predictable Nuclear Safety Regulation for a Prosperous America.” (The hearing will be livestreamed at https://energycommerce.house.gov/.)

“We invite you to submit to the committee information and recommendations to improve the licensing review and approval process, as well as the oversight of NRC licensees,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are interested in NRC activities involving the licensing and oversight of today’s operating reactors, as well as the siting, licensing, construction, and oversight of advanced nuclear reactor technologies.” The letter also noted the committee’s interest in “improving NRC efficiency, management of regulatory costs and fees, public health and safety, staff effectiveness and culture, collaboration with the Department of Energy, and international activities.”

ANS answers: In a May 5 response to the committee, the American Nuclear Society’s executive director/CEO Craig Piercy stated, “A clear-eyed recognition of the net positive public health impacts of nuclear energy by NRC does not equate to ‘promotion.’ The modern case for nuclear safety demands a holistic approach, one that operationalizes the urgency of the moment, applies risk assessment in the broadest possible scope, and defines the ‘public good’ as the-most-good-for-the-most-people. This kind of recognition by NRC leadership would not require the agency to make wholesale changes to its regulations or processes, but it would send a powerful signal, both internally and externally, that timeliness in its licensing and regulatory actions is a central tenet of NRC’s mission.”

Stressing the timeliness issue, Piercy continued: “The lack of a bias to action on the part of the NRC can clearly be seen in the agency’s inability to complete rulemaking in anything resembling a timely manner. Periodically, the NRC needs to adapt its regulations to account for new information and changed circumstances, address new regulatory issues, and incorporate lessons-learned in carrying out regulatory activities. However, at the NRC, regulatory changes languish for years or even decades. One example is the sorely needed decommissioning rulemaking which the commission kicked off in 2014, but which continues to churn nearly a decade later.”

Piercy's letter additionally encouraged the committee to review the Senate’s Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act (S. 1111), introduced on March 30, as well as the recent report from another nuclear stakeholder, Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA)—management and operations contractor for Idaho National Laboratory.

BEA weighs in heavily: Serving as BEA’s response to the committee is the 33-page Recommendations to Improve the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Reactor Licensing and Approval Process. (Hogan Lovells nuclear law experts Amy Roma and Stephanie Fishman provide a fairly extensive overview of the report here.)

Authored by BEA senior counsel Stephen Burdick, INL director John Wagner, and INL associate laboratory director for nuclear science and technology Jess Gehin, the report urges the following:

  • Reforms to streamline NRC hearings, including by removing the Atomic Energy Act requirement for the NRC to hold an uncontested “mandatory hearing” for select new reactor licensing actions. This, according to the report, will save approximately six months from the critical path for the actions.
  • Reforms to expedite NRC safety and environmental reviews, including by clarifying the agency’s mission statement from a singular safety focus to include the timely and efficient licensing of new nuclear projects, similar to other safety-focused federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • Reforms to otherwise improve NRC licensing, including by strengthening the requirements for NRC milestones for new reactor licensing activities, such as shorter timelines, more rigid reporting requirements, and accounting for the full duration of licensing activities.
  • Reforms to provide financial benefits to new reactor projects, including by modifying the NRC fee structure for the licensing of new nuclear reactors or otherwise providing financial support for those projects.

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