On December 15, 2016, the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (NRR) at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a renewed license to DTE Electric Company. The license authorizes 20 additional years of operation at the Fermi Unit 2 Nuclear Power Plant in southeast Michigan. Because this was the 87th unit in the United States to be issued a renewed license, it would not usually warrant special mention outside the licensee, the agency, and the public near the plant. However, a last-minute filing by a group opposed to relicensing Fermi 2 had delayed issuance of the license, which had been scheduled for late-November.

On November 21, 2016, a local anti-nuclear group filed a motion to reopen the record of the previously terminated hearing on Fermi 2 license renewal. The Commission referred the motion and request to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board for resolution. The pendency of the motion and hearing request created the possibility that issuance of the renewed license would be delayed until the motion could be resolved. The Commission, however, had confronted this circumstance before. In CLI-08-13 and in a Staff Requirements Memorandum (SRM), dated March 4, 2015, the Commission authorized the NRC Staff to issue a renewed license to an applicant upon making the appropriate findings on safety and environmental matters, despite a pending motion to reopen a hearing. This approach is consistent with 10 C.F.R. § 2.1202(a), which states that the NRC Staff is “expected to promptly issue its approval or denial of the application” upon making the necessary safety and environmental findings. If a renewed license is subsequently set aside on appeal, the previous operating license would be reinstated.

The precedent and regulatory context meant that the NRC Staff could issue the renewed operating license to Fermi 2 prior to the resolution of the motion and any appeals. But, because the authority for the Director of NRR to issue a renewed license without Commission authorization was limited to uncontested matters, the NRC Staff sought Commission authorization to issue the renewed license. In SECY-16-0138, dated December 6, 2016, the NRC Staff requested Commission approval to issue the license. Only 8 days later, on December 14, 2016, the Commission authorized issuance of the renewed license. (The Commission expressly noted that its approval did not reflect judgment on the pending motion to reopen or proposed new contention.) And, a day later, the Director issued the renewed license to DTE.

This was remarkably quick action by an agency that has a reputation, deserved or not, for being slow to make licensing decisions. While it is true that there were no controversial safety or environmental issues that would have hindered action by the Commission, this nevertheless shows that the Commission is capable of acting promptly under appropriate circumstances. And, as much as anything, the Commission’s decision acts as a deterrent to intervenors in other proceedings who might have considered filing similarly late motions to reopen in the hope of derailing licensing at the last minute.

Score this as a win for the NRC’s Principles of Good Regulation and the agency’s goal of making regulatory decisions without undue delay.