Commission Decision on Environmental Reviews. On April 19, 2022, the Commission voted against a formal rulemaking to revise the NRC’s environmental review process, and instead voted to continue using the existing regulations at 10 CFR Part 51 to conduct environmental reviews (see Staff Requirements Memorandum and voting package). In taking this position, the Commission directed the NRC staff to revise corresponding National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidance and to “continue to set scheduling goals and timeliness metrics” for NEPA reviews, while “avoid[ing] set-in-stone schedules and page limits” in order to “preserve meaningful public participation.”
The Commission chose this option—to retain the NRC’s NEPA-implementing regulations under the current Part 51 while revising the accompanying guidance—over two alternatives that were presented by the NRC staff in SECY-21-0001, a staff position paper sent to the Commission in December 2020. The alternative options provided by the NRC staff were to (1) take no action and have the staff continue to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) for all new reactor applicants and reactor license renewals, or (2) conduct a full rulemaking to revise the Part 51 regulations. The staff had recommended to the Commission a full rulemaking to revise Part 51 “to enhance the efficiency and flexibility of the agency’s environmental review process, create consistency across rulemaking efforts, and provide technology-inclusive language suitable for the environmental review of advanced reactors.”
Commissioner Baran tweeted his support for not pursuing the rulemaking option, which he said would “weaken” the NEPA review process, asserting that an outcome of the proposed rulemaking would be to decrease the number of full EISs conducted for major licensing actions such as license renewals and instead substitute less thorough environmental assessments (EAs) for these actions. The NRC has recently made a greater effort to address environmental justice issues, including the staff’s submission of SECY-22-0025 to the Commission on March 29, 2022, with environmental justice-related policy recommendations, as detailed in our prior post, “NRC staff concludes review of Environmental Justice policy, makes recommendations to the Commission.”
The Commission also directed the NRC staff to streamline the environmental review process and make certain administrative changes through existing revision processes to Part 51, including the Categorical Exclusion rulemaking and retrospective review of administrative requirements. The Commission left open the option for staff to “further explore” the idea of preparing EAs for certain advanced reactor applicants, but only after the staff completes “several” advanced reactor environmental reviews.
NRC Staff Action on SLR GEIS. Separately, as outlined in our post from March 2, 2022, the NRC had issued three orders reversing the already-approved SLRs for reactors at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant and Peach Bottom nuclear power station, and provided guidance to conduct environmental reviews for various pending SLR proceedings. By issuing these orders, the Commission reversed its prior decisions and determined that the GEIS and regulations at 10 C.F.R. § 51.53(c)(3) on required environmental reports only apply to initial license renewal (i.e. from 40-60 years of a plant’s operating life), not subsequent license renewal (i.e. from 60-80 years).
The Commission therefore directed the staff to conduct a rulemaking to update the GEIS process for subsequent license renewal. On March 25, 2022, the NRC staff submitted SECY-22-0024 to the Commission, proposing three alternative timelines for the required rulemaking, differing based on the degree of acceleration from a total of 24 months to 38 months to complete the rulemaking and issue the final rule. The Commission responded on April 5, 2022, directing the staff to use the most accelerated schedule proposed—24 months for issuance of the final rule. It also instructed the staff to “seek opportunities” to further accelerate the schedule. The Commission may feel pressure to accelerate the rulemaking due to industry’s response to its initial SLR reversals.
For more information on these developments, please contact blog authors Amy Roma, Partner, Rob Matsick, Associate, or Stephanie Fishman, Associate.
Authored by Amy Roma, Rob Matsick, and Stephanie Fishman.