Last spring, we blogged about a policy question pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regarding the regulatory framework and technical justification for allowing licensees to extend the operating life of a nuclear reactor beyond 60 years (known as “subsequent license renewal”). The Commission has now acted, disapproving the NRC staff’s recommendation that the agency undertake a comprehensive rulemaking that would have expanded the scope of the rule governing both current and subsequent license renewals. The recommended rulemaking would have added specific requirements for subsequent license renewal to explicitly require maintaining the effectiveness of aging-management activities and to define the timing of subsequent license renewal applications.

Instead of rulemaking, the Commission directed the NRC staff to continue updating license renewal guidance, as needed, to provide additional clarity on the implementation of the regulatory framework. The Commission also instructed the staff to use “alternative vehicles,” such as generic communications and industry initiatives, to address emerging technical issues and operating experience relevant to aging management.

When considering the proposal, the Commission held a public meeting to hear from various stakeholders (and the NRC staff). At that meeting, the Department of Energy noted that it had not identified any technical barriers to long-term operation. DOE’s research efforts – as well as those of the Electric Power Research Institute – are ongoing, and include areas such as materials aging degradation. The Commission’s decision requires the staff to keep the Commission informed on the progress of these and other research activities addressing technical issues in several areas, including concrete and containment degradation, and electrical cable qualification and condition assessment. 

With respect to resolving technical issues, the Commission directed the staff to emphasize to the nuclear industry “the need to strive for satisfactory resolution of these issues prior to the NRC beginning a review of any [subsequent license renewal] application.” Clearly, resolving technical issues is an important aspect of ensuring that applications for subsequent license renewal can be submitted and reviewed efficiently. But this direction leaves room for interpretation, and could raise issues if the NRC staff and an applicant hold different views of whether an issue has been “satisfactorily resolved.” Compliance with the Commission’s direction will be put to the test when the first subsequent license renewal applications are submitted, currently projected for 2017.