Nuclear Regulatory Commission Changed Nuclear Relicensing Rules

Critics of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the powerful industry it oversees continue to question its process for issuing license renewals at aging plants.

A single document from 1992 might well shed some light on how that process came to be.

It's worth noting that the NRC's staff has roughly doubled over the last decade, to some 4,000 employees today. Many have been hired to handle a wave of applications from nuclear power plant operators seeking permission to operate for 20 years beyond the 40 years granted by their original licenses.

A number of those original licenses will be expiring in the next 10 years.

So far, 63 of the nation's 104 operating nuclear power facilities have received a license renewal. Virtually none have been turned down since the agency granted the first renewal in 2000.

Critics have long argued that this seemingly acquiescent processing only became possible after the NRC essentially "gutted" its own rules for relicensing at the prodding of the nuclear industry.

The NRC, of course, disputes such a harsh characterization. But in redrafting its relicensing rules, a key concession was indeed made.

Two plants, Monticello in Minnesota and Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts, were offered up in the late 1980s as test cases for relicensing by an industry keen to demonstrate that its aging fleet could operate well beyond its original licensure.

NRC's rules for acquiring a license extension were twofold. First, an operator had to demonstrate that it was in compliance with its existing license; then it had to present an adequate plan for managing its aging equipment.

The first part of the equation undid Yankee Rowe, as reviewers found serious problems in its containment vessel, precipitating the plant's closure even before its original license was expired. As a result, Monticello's operators -- and the wider industry -- went on the offensive.

In 1992, Northern States Power Company, the operator of Monticello, submitted to the NRC a document called "Perspectives on the License Renewal Process." In a nutshell, the document argued that the NRC examined aspects of plant operation beyond the scope of what was necessary for license renewal, and the agency therefore ran the risk of making license renewal uneconomical.

Three years later, the NRC rewrote the rules, essentially taking it as a given that applicants were in compliance with the their current licenses and focusing solely on the aging management plans -- precisely what Northern States Power Company had been asking for.

Indeed, the Northern States Power Company, and even its law firm, were invoked in the Federal Register when the new rule was promulgated.

Why the change? According to the agency, it provided a “more stable and predictable regulatory process for license renewal.”

But according to critics, including David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and nuclear watchdog group, the motivation was simpler. "They didn't want to find anymore show-stoppers like they found at Yankee Rowe," he said.

The application process still takes years and costs millions of dollars to complete. And Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for the NRC, said the agency does kick back applications for more work by licensees.

But since the change was made, no application has been ultimately rejected.