The Relicensing Process

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses new commercial power reactors for 40 years (the last nuclear power plant in the U.S. was built in 1973) and can renew licenses for an additional 20 years. So far, the NRC has granted license extensions for 44 reactors and is currently reviewing eight other applications, with approximately 30 more to be submitted in the next decade.

Contrary to what one would expect or hope, the focus of the license renewal process is extremely limited. Only two aspects are examined: environmental effects and physical plant safety.

The Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants assesses the effects that an extended license would have on environmental concerns such as endangered species, the effects of cooling water systems on fish and ground water quality. The NRC also conducts a review of the environmental impacts a particular plant might have on its surrounding area if the license were renewed.

The safety review requires that the plant identify all physical structures and systems whose aging could affect safety. It must demonstrate that the structures which are considered “passive and long-lived”, such as the coolant system piping or steam generators, can be maintained safely for twenty more years. Because the effects of aging on “active” components, such as motors, diesel generators, and batteries must be allayed through continuous surveillance and maintenance programs, these are not subject to review during the license renewal process.

The public can participate in the license renewal process. Once the NRC receives a renewal application, public hearings are held to inform the public and get its input. Public meeting notices are posted on the NRC’s website (www.nrc.gov). The public may also petition the NRC to consider issues other than those within its narrow scope. When the review is completed, the NRC publishes its assessment and recommendation; the whole process takes about 30 months.

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