Nuclear Industry Calls for More Predictable Reviews at NRC

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By Rebecca Kern

July 26 — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to increase the predictability and efficiency of its regulatory review process, particularly for new advanced reactors in the development stage, representatives from the nuclear and utility industries told the agency.

“Having certainty so you know how your investment is going to play out and what your business model looks like is extremely important to us,” Gary Mignogna, president and chief operating officer at Areva Inc., a nuclear reactor design and fabrication company, told NRC commissioners at a public stakeholder meeting July 26 in Rockville, Md.

Maria Korsnick, chief operating officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear industry, said that a both predictable and efficient review timeline would be helpful for industry. “Let's just not go for an accepted time frame [for review] and not ultimately working towards a goal that is more efficient,” she said.

Likewise, Philip Moeller, senior vice president at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned electric utilities, said regulatory certainty was particularly important for advanced reactors. Advanced reactors such as NuScale Inc.'s small modular reactor, expected to be submitted to the NRC by the end of the year, have the potential to be safer, smaller and transportable compared to the existing light water reactors.

“Anything you can do through the regulatory process to assure that the advanced reactors can come online as soon as reasonably possible, it's going to be important not just for the United States, but for the world to meet this gap of increasing energy consumption,” Moeller told the NRC. “If we want to keep the low-carbon emission aspect in this it's going to require nuclear and advanced nuclear to do it.”

This was the first such public stakeholder meeting that the NRC has hosted since 1998. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has oversight over the NRC, directed the agency to hold this hearing.

Concerns on Closing Nuclear Plants

Moeller, who previously served as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the commission that the agency should be aware of the economic pressures that are facing the U.S. nuclear fleet.

“As the NRC, recognizing that you are primarily safety regulators … I hope you are very cognizant of these economic pressures,” he said at the meeting.

Moeller was referring to the growing number of nuclear plant operators that have announced early retirement of their plants because of difficulty competing in wholesale energy markets against record-low natural gas prices. To date, seven nuclear plants (encompassing nine reactors) have announced they are closing between 2017 and 2025, the majority of which are due to economic challenges.

David Heacock, president and chief nuclear officer at Dominion Resources Inc., said at the meeting that the current fleet of reactors pay approximately $5 million in annual fees to the NRC. Heacock raised concerns in the context of the plants that have announced early retirements, and said that as each plant shuts down, each operating plant's annual fees will increase by $50,000.

Need to Speed Up Decommissioning Rulemaking

Several participants at the meeting urged the commission to act swiftly to issue a narrowly focused rulemaking amending its current framework for decommissioning nuclear reactors, particularly in light of the recently announced early retirements.

An advanced notice of proposed rulemaking was issued suggesting that the agency could develop a codified regulatory framework for decommissioning nuclear reactors in November 2015. Currently, nuclear operators in the decommissioning process have to file exemptions from emergency planning or security requirements. Both industry and environmental advocates say the exemption process for decommissioning reactors has been inefficient and costly to industry and the agency alike.

The Nuclear Energy Institute's Korsnick said, “We see about seven plants are going to be going through decommissioning in the near term. There's about 12 exemptions for every decommissioning process, so we appeal for a focused rulemaking to be performed that would enable a more efficient use of our resources. So it goes once through rulemaking, rather than through 84 exemptions.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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