August 26, 2019

Entering the Era of Commercial Nuclear Power Plant Subsequent License Renewal

Taylor Mayhall

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent federal agency that, among other responsibilities, licenses and regulates commercial nuclear power reactors. In six decades, over 125 nuclear power plant operating licenses have been issued, and 94 of those have been renewed once. The NRC now faces for the first time the task of reviewing applications to renew existing operating licenses more than once.

I.  Introduction to License Renewal and Subsequent Renewal       

Congress granted licensing authority to the NRC under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA). Pursuant to the AEA, a commercial nuclear operating license may be issued for a period of up to 40 years and “renewed upon the expiration of such period.” The 40-year period was selected as a compromise between government and electric cooperatives’ antitrust concerns and electric utilities’ amortization concerns.

Neither the AEA nor NRC regulations restrict how many times a license may be renewed. The AEA also does not specify how a license may be renewed, although NRC regulations provide instruction on that point. For example, 10 C.F.R. § 54.31 states that an original operating license may be renewed for a term not to exceed 20 years beyond the expiration of the existing license. After the first 20-year renewal period, the subsequent license renewal (SLR) provision within NRC regulations states that a license may be “subsequently renewed in accordance with all applicable requirements.” Renewal is not automatic; the licensee must apply for a renewed license and the NRC must determine whether the application meets certain safety and environmental standards.

II.  The NRC’S Framework for Subsequent License Renewal Applications

NRC regulations governing the renewal of nuclear power plant operating licenses are located in 10 C.F.R. Part 54. As mentioned above, the SLR provision in that part instructs the NRC to evaluate SLR applications (SLRAs) using “applicable requirements.”

As early as 2008, the NRC was already contemplating reactor operations beyond 60 years. In 2009, the NRC recognized the imminent possibility of receiving SLRAs. In 2014, the NRC staff recommended that the Commission initiate a rulemaking to update the regulatory framework in Part 54 to prepare for SLRAs. However, the Commission did not approve the rulemaking and instead instructed NRC Staff to “continue to update license renewal guidance.” Thus, the NRC applies its existing Part 54 license renewal requirements when reviewing SLRAs.

In accordance with Commission instruction, the NRC staff did update guidance documents. It worked with the Department of Energy, the Electric Power Research Institute, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and other relevant entities to research and compile the technical information necessary to evaluate the safe operation of commercial nuclear plants beyond 60 years. As a result of those efforts, the NRC published two companion reports in July 2017: the Generic Aging Lessons Learned for Subsequent License Renewal (GALL-SLR) Report and the Standard Review Plan for Review of Subsequent License Renewal Applications for Nuclear Power Plants (SRP-SLR). The GALL-SLR provides guidance to SLR applicants by establishing the technical basis for the adequacy of aging management programs. The SRP-SLR provides guidance to NRC staff reviewers by establishing the basis by which to evaluate applicant programs and activities for the subsequent period of extended operation. Both of these reports address the safety aspects of an SLRA.

The NRC must also conduct an environmental analysis of any SLRA under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NRC regulations implementing NEPA are located in 10 C.F.R. Part 51. In 2013, the NRC revised its 1996 Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for License Renewal, to improve the efficiency of the license renewal environmental review process. A GEIS enables the NRC to categorize actions that would result in essentially the same environmental impacts at all nuclear power plants, and therefore can be analyzed generically, versus actions that require plant-specific supplemental analysis.

III.  Subsequent License Renewal Applications under Review

To date, three SLRAs have been submitted to the NRC: Florida Power & Light Company’s application for Turkey Point Units 3 and 4; Exelon’s application for Peach Bottom Units 2 and 3; and Dominion Energy’s application for Surry Units 1 and 2. The NRC provided an opportunity for members of the public to submit a petition to intervene and request for a hearing on these applications, in accordance with section 189a of the AEA. Three petitions were filed challenging the Turkey Point SLRA and one petition was filed challenging the Peach Bottom SLRA. No petitions were filed to challenge the Surry SLRA. The secretary of the Commission referred these petitions to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, an independent adjudicatory body within the NRC.

The petitions raised application-specific environmental and safety concerns, such as contentions about the Turkey Point cooling canal system and its impact on American crocodiles and sawgrass habitat. The petitions also raised general concerns that could apply to other SLRAs, namely an issue of first impression regarding the application of the environmental regulations in Part 51 to SLR applicants. Specifically, petitioners in both the Turkey Point and Peach Bottom cases pointed to the language of 10 C.F.R. § 51.53(c)(3), which provides that certain environmental issues categorized by the GEIS need not be analyzed by “applicants seeking an initial renewed license” in their environmental reports submitted to the NRC.[xxvii] Petitioners argued that “applicants seeking an initial renewed license” are different from applicants seeking a subsequent renewed license, and therefore 10 C.F.R. § 51.53(c)(3) does not apply. Petitioners in Turkey Point raised it as a threshold issue for contentions challenging the environmental report’s discussion of an alternative cooling system, cumulative impacts of continued operation, and the foreseeable affected environment during the renewal period. Petitioners in the Peach Bottom case raised it in the context of a contention challenging the environmental report’s discussion of accident risk posed by operating aging reactor equipment.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board presiding over the Turkey Point proceeding found it necessary to rule on the issue as a threshold matter to reach the sufficiency question for petitioners’ contentions. The Turkey Point Board ruled that 10 C.F.R. § 51.53(c)(3) applies to SLR applicants, based on regulatory language, structure, purpose, and history.  In other words, the Board found that SLR applicants need not analyze certain environmental issues in their environmental reports submitted to the NRC, because those issues are already discussed in the 2013 GEIS. “Given the significance of this legal issue of first impression,” the Turkey Point Board referred its ruling to the Commission. The Peach Bottom Board acknowledged the 10 C.F.R. § 51.53(c)(3) interpretation issue but did not reach a conclusion on it, because the Board found the contention insufficient for other reasons.

The petitioner in the Peach Bottom proceeding also raised a challenge pertaining to the safety of operating a nuclear power plant beyond 60 years, arguing that the applicant’s aging management programs do not adequately address a potential decline in the rate of accumulation of external operating experience as other nuclear plants permanently cease reactor operations. The Peach Bottom Board ruled that the petitioner’s challenge was not specific to Exelon’s SLRA, as required by NRC regulations; rather, the Board found that the petitioner had impermissibly raised an overarching complaint with the SLR licensing framework in general. This matter is now on appeal to the Commission.

IV.  Looking Ahead at Subsequent License Renewals

Coming up next in the era of SLR: The NRC staff expects to issue decisions on the Peach Bottom and Surry SLR applications by March 2020 and June 2020. The NRC staff will issue a decision on the Turkey Point SLR application after the issuance of the Board’s initial decision or the termination of the adjudicatory proceeding, whichever comes first. The NRC anticipates another SLR application for Dominion Energy’s North Anna Power Station to be submitted during the end of 2020.

    Taylor Mayhall

    The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission or any other person or organization.


    Taylor Mayhall graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2018. She is currently a judicial law clerk for the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.