NRC ruling revises subsequent licence renewal process

01 March 2022

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has reversed its earlier decision on subsequent licence renewals for Turkey Point units 3 and 4 in a legal, procedural decision related to the specific wording of some of the documentation in the renewal process. The regulator's decision means an amended environmental impact statement will be needed for subsequent licence renewals.

Turkey Point was the first plant to receive an SLR approval (Image: NRC/FPL)

The reversal followed the consideration by the NRC's three commissioners of petitions against their earlier decision brought by Beyond Nuclear, Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council, and Miami Waterkeeper. As part of that process, the regulators decided that the Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants - or GEIS - did not specifically cover the extended operation period.

"As a result, the environmental review of the subsequent licence renewal application at issue in this case is incomplete," NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson said in his published views on the most recent decision.

"Overturning a recent decision by my colleagues on the Commission, whom I deeply respect, is not something I have undertaken lightly. After much consideration, I believe this is the best course of action. My decision is based on a legal conclusion and does not reflect a policy position on the merits of SLR [subsequent licence renewal] or a determination that properly supported generic environmental findings cannot be applied to SLRs. I am committed to assuring that the agency provides clear direction to licensees regarding pending applications," he said.

The NRC's December 2019 approval of Florida Power & Light's application for a 20-year subsequent licence extension for the Turkey Point units was the first instance of the US regulator authorising reactors to operate for up to 80 years, to 2052 for unit 3 and 2053 for unit 4. The memorandum of the commissioners' latest decision, issued on 24 February, now directs NRC staff to modify the licence expiration dates for Turkey Point 3 and 4 to 2032 and 2033 respectively. Exelon's Peach Bottom units 2 and 3, which had received SLRs in 2020, are likewise affected, with their licence expiration dates reverting to 2033 and 2034 respectively.

The NRC is authorised under the US Atomic Energy Act to issue licences for commercial power reactors to operate for up to 40 years - a time period based on economic and antitrust considerations, rather than limitations of nuclear technology. Licences can be renewed for an additional 20 years for an operating lifetime of 60 years: almost all of the USA's currently operating nuclear reactors have already renewed or applied to renew their licences for up to 60 years of operation.

Subsequent licence renewals cover a further 20 years of operation beyond 60 years and focus on the management of plant ageing during the 60-80 year operating period, especially the effects of extended operation and high radiation exposure on reactor parts, concrete containment structures, piping and electrical cables, among other things.

In addition to Turkey Point and Peach Bottom, the NRC is currently considering SLR applications from Duke Energy Carolinas for Oconee units 1, 2, and 3; Nextera Energy Point Beach for Point Beach units 1 and 2; and Virginia Electric and Power Company for North Anna units 1 and 2, for which it had also received environmental contentions. It has told all the licensees involved that licensing reviews should continue to move forward, but the regulator will not issue any further licences for subsequent renewal terms until NRC staff has completed "an adequate NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] review for each application".

The SLR for the two-unit Surry plant, which the NRC approved in May 2021, does not appear to be affected by the reversal.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News