Nuclear power is in a period of transformation, and so is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On Jan. 23, President Joe Biden appointed NRC Commissioner Christopher Hanson, a Democrat, as the new chairman of the agency. Hanson replaces Kristine Svinicki, a Republican who was designated by President Donald Trump to lead the commission days after his 2017 inauguration, and left Jan. 20, ending a 3-2 Republican majority on the commission.
The shift comes amid a time of significant opportunities for the nuclear power sector, along with considerable challenges, including plants that are still struggling to turn profits in competitive electricity markets, difficulties building new nuclear to replace retiring reactors, and the threat of climate change impacts.
And now, while the industry faces an administration that sees nuclear as an important source of carbon-free power, the NRC under Biden is not likely to have the same regulatory approach as the commission did under Trump.
As chairman, Svinicki focused on transforming the NRC into a "more modern, risk-informed regulator," including through proposals to streamline environmental and safety reviews for new non-light-water reactor designs.
Environmental groups say NRC has been too deferential to a nuclear industry eager to reduce the cost of operating nuclear plants while keeping aging plants online. Jeffrey Baran, the sole remaining Obama appointee on the commission, has echoed these criticisms across a number of issues, such as the new safety rules for reactors based on lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima incident and the process for evaluating advanced reactors.
Hanson does not have as extensive of a record as commissioner. He joined the NRC in June 2020, appointed by Trump in accordance with federal law mandating that the commission cannot have more than three members of the same party.
Hanson has at times joined Baran in dissenting votes, but other times voted with the Republican commissioners. The new chairman is "clearly not in lockstep with Baran," according to Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a group that has accused the NRC of being too conciliatory to industry on safety regulations. But compared to Svinicki, he has "more of a pro-safety bent," Lyman said.
At the same time, Biden enters the White House with one of the most explicitly pro-nuclear agendas of any president. His climate plan calls out nuclear as a zero-carbon technology that has a role to play in addressing climate change, and says his administration will look at ways to overcome the cost, safety and waste disposal challenges for nuclear power.
Based on his campaign's policies, Biden's presidency "bodes well" for nuclear power, Doug True, the chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the main advocacy organization for the industry, said in an interview. True does not expect the NRC under Biden to deviate from its current work creating a new regulatory framework that will allow nuclear power to help meet carbon reduction goals. "It doesn't make sense that we would not have a commission in support of [Biden's agenda on nuclear] moving forward," he said.
During Svinicki's tenure, there were a number of important issues for the future of nuclear power where the NRC was divided, with the Republican majority typically getting its way. These issues will continue to be a significant focus for the NRC, but the commission's new makeup could lead to different results.
Subsequent license renewal
A top priority of the nuclear industry continues to be extending the lifetime of existing nuclear plants, a necessary step to maintain nuclear power's position as a major source of electricity generation. Many reactors have retired for economic reasons, with several more expected to close in 2021, and the construction of new reactors to replace them remains a herculean task.
Over the past several years the NRC started accepting applications from nuclear plants to remain open for 80 years. The commission is also considering whether it should begin developing a framework for licensing plants to run for up to 100 years, holding the first public meeting on that topic on Jan. 21.
No U.S. nuclear plant had ever been licensed to operate beyond 60 years until Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point reactors received a second license renewal from the NRC at the end of 2019, allowing operation for 80 years. Exelon's Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania got permission to operate up to 80 years a few months later. These approvals came despite objections from environmental groups that the NRC was failing to do its duty by not requiring these plants to undergo more extensive reviews of the potential environmental and safety risks from 80 years of operation.
The NRC rejected a challenge to the Turkey Point relicensing process filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth. Baran dissented, saying the commission should evaluate the groups' position that Turkey Point cannot rely on a review of the environmental impacts of relicensing the reactors that was from 2013 and not specific to the site, and that the plant must instead perform a new review.
NRDC and Friends of the Earth have appealed the NRC's decision on Turkey Point, and that challenge is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear brought a similar challenge against the Peach Bottom relicensing, and Baran once again dissented when the NRC released its order in November 2020 rejecting the group's claim, but this time, he was joined by Hanson, who had been appointed to the commission after the Turkey Point decision.
The dissent of Baran and Hanson "conveys that a Democratically-led commission is at least more open to taking the hard looks at these license extensions that [the National Environmental Policy Act] demands," said Paul Gunter, reactor oversight project director at Beyond Nuclear. A "hard look" would mean performing new environmental assessments of issues related to the aging of a nuclear plant, such as whether components of the plant have been embrittled by exposure to radiation over the course of decades, according to Gunter.
Dominion's North Anna and Surry reactors in Virginia are next in line to potentially receive 80-year licenses. In addition, last November, NextEra Energy applied for license extensions up to 80 years for both of its reactors at the Point Beach plant in Wisconsin, and Duke Energy has told the NRC it intends to apply for similar extensions for the three reactors at its Oconee plant in South Carolina later this year.
Beyond Nuclear is still reviewing whether or not it will file more challenges to the environmental reviews of plants going for 80 year licenses, according to Gunter. An NRDC spokesman said that given the group's active litigation on the mater, it cannot comment on how the change in the NRC leadership could affect future relicensing challenges.
The future of nuclear technology
Another priority for the NRC that will continue under the Biden administration is the consideration of new types of reactors that are intended to represent a leap forward for nuclear technology and be cheaper to build and safer to operate than the existing nuclear fleet. These include advanced reactors, which use technologies fundamentally different from the current light-water reactors to produce power.
The commission is wrestling with the question of how much of the safety requirements that apply to existing power reactors, such as the need to maintain evacuation zones, strict security procedures and more, should apply to advanced reactors. It also recently announced it is seeking public comments on how the process for licensing new reactors can be made overall more efficient.
The NRC regulates research reactors used at universities, and those reactors typically are subject to a fraction of the rules that govern power reactors because of the much smaller risk of a dangerous release of radiation. "Advanced reactors fall in between" existing power reactors and research reactors in terms of the potential scale of a radiological release that could occur from an accident, said Jeffrey Merrifield, who served as an NRC commissioner from 1998 to 2007 and is now a partner at the law firm Pillsbury.
The NRC has been developing ways to create a more efficient process for approving advanced reactors that accounts for their unique position where they do not neatly fit into the commission's existing rules. An example is a September 2020 decision authorizing NRC staff to develop a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) that would apply to different types of reactors, potentially reducing the amount of extensive environmental studies an individual project must conduct.
The GEIS "lets you reduce the financial and technical burden of each reactor. The EIS process is massive," Merrifield said. The NRC has scheduled the completion of the GEIS for later this year.
Baran, however, rejected this GEIS approach, saying it could become "a check-the-box exercise of limited value rather than a meaningful evaluation of environmental impacts." But in an example of how views on nuclear do not break down on strict partisan lines, Hanson voted with the other commissioners to approve the GEIS approach.
The NRC is expected to make many future decisions about the extent to which advanced reactors should be subject to existing regulations. One issue that has not been decided yet but could be voted on by the new commission, according to Merrifield, concerns the security measures that advanced reactors must follow, such as how much security staff a reactor must maintain.
The commission is under pressure to transform its treatment of advanced reactors — under the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, by this summer, the NRC must report to Congress on how it has established a "technology-inclusive regulatory framework" that eases the path to approval for advanced reactors.
Another area where opposing views inside and outside the NRC have clashed is over nuclear plant safety and whether or not the commission is mitigating the risk of severe accidents at the existing nuclear fleet to a reasonable level.
"A general trend toward deregulation and streamlined regulation...accelerated under Svinicki, for sure," according to Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a group focused on creating "a nuclear-free, carbon-free world." He said "the industry is desperately trying to reduce regulation to reduce operating costs."
Nuclear plants have a financial incentive to reduce the amount of inspections because "they are billed for every hour that inspectors are on site," said Lyman, of UCS.
Baran has also expressed concern that the NRC is easing off safety regulations. One of his most strident dissents came in 2019 when he said that a decision approved by a majority of the commission "guts" the U.S. safety response to Fukushima because the majority did not require plants to prepare for Fukushima-level disasters based on the most recent evaluations of the earthquake and extreme weather threats posed to individual plants.
The Nuclear Energy Institute defended the NRC's safety approach under Svinicki, saying reactors are already prepared to deal with a range of contingencies. "We have seen numerous examples over the past several years of nuclear plants comfortably weathering extreme storms that have had devastating effects on nearby communities," NEI's True said, adding that U.S. plants have spent more than $4 billion on procedures, training and additional equipment post-Fukushima.
"These investments have established a robust network of nationwide resources that provides plants with onsite capabilities and the ability to share capabilities with nearby sites, supported by two national response centers with extensive supplementary resources," True said. "The result has been the creation of an additional level of defense from extreme events that substantially enhances safety in the event of extreme natural phenomena."
It is possible that, under new leadership, the NRC could revisit this Fukushima debate, according to Lyman. "If there was a voting majority…Baran would be in a good position to make a new rule" regarding Fukushima, he said.
Lyman cautioned, however, that such a rule "couldn't be done quickly."