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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.
Riverkeeper has joined regional and national nuclear watchdog groups in petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to suspend current license renewal proceedings for the Indian Point, Oyster Creek, Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee nuclear power plants until an objective and independent investigation is conducted into the current license renewal process.
This petition is in direct response to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audit in September 2007 which found:
1)The NRC staff failed to verify the authenticity of technical safety information in over 97% of the renewal applications audited by OIG; and
2)NRC staff reviewers routinely ‘cut and pasted’ whole sections of the renewal application text into their own safety reviews, rather than write their own evaluations.
At the Ginna nuclear power plant in upstate New York, the Inspector General found that NRC staff had copied 100% of the safety review data provided by the nuclear operator into its own safety evaluation, without providing any evidence that the information in the application had been properly verified.