The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is deliberating 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”). In January of this year, the NRC staff presented a policy paper to the Commission with four options for addressing subsequent license renewal. In addition to a status quo approach, the staff put forth three rulemaking options. Ultimately, the staff recommended that the Commission approve the most comprehensive rulemaking option, which would make editorial clarifications to the license renewal rule and expand the scope of the rule for current and subsequent license renewals. The recommended rulemaking would also include specific requirements for subsequent license renewal to more explicitly maintain the effectiveness of aging-management activities and to define the timing of subsequent license renewal applications.

The Commission recently held a public meeting to discuss the staff’s proposal. At the meeting, representatives from the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (as well as the NRC staff) described their research efforts in areas such as materials aging and degradation. DOE stated that no technical “show-stoppers” to long-term operation have been identified, while EPRI noted that the existing nuclear fleet is continuously improving based on research and operating experience. Representatives of the nuclear industry maintained that the NRC need not conduct a rulemaking for subsequent license renewal because the current regulatory framework and aging management processes are effective. Research and operating experience are addressed within that framework, whether as a license renewal issue or an ongoing regulatory oversight issue. The industry recommended that the NRC revise its license renewal guidance in lieu of rulemaking. The representative from the Union of Concerned Scientists even noted that there is nothing inherently unsafe about subsequent license renewal (though he took issue with other aspects of the current renewal regulations).

The Commissioners questioned the meeting panelists about the state of the research and how that research is applied at operating reactors. Some expressed concerns about the “unknown unknowns” (aging phenomena that might not yet be identified), and about the ability to explain to the public why allowing a plant to operate beyond 60 years is safe. On the other hand, some Commissioners expressed skepticism for the suggestion that subsequent license renewal applicants should prove the integrity of components for a defined number of years, rather than relying as they do now on aging management programs for the period of extended operation.

On May 19, 2014, the Commission directed the staff to brief the Commission Technical Assistants on: (1) the pros and cons of updating guidance rather than conducting a rulemaking, and (2) how the NRC’s oversight process ensures that licensees maintain their licensing bases throughout the original operating license and any renewal (or subsequent renewal) term. The Commission will provide further direction in a Staff Requirements Memorandum to be issued after voting on the staff’s policy paper is complete. Timely action by the agency is needed – especially if it will involve rulemaking – because the first subsequent license renewal applications are expected to be submitted in 2017.