The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held two public meetings on November 15th and 20th to solicit feedback as to whether to compile a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the construction and operation of advanced reactors. GEISs have the potential to materially reduce the licensing burden on NRC advanced reactor applicants, given that environmental reviews can take up to a third of agency resources involved in licensing the construction of an advanced reactor. We advocated that the NRC turn to GEISs for advanced reactors in our recent article co-authored with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, entitled Nuclear Innovation and NEPA.
This immediate NRC effort is the result of a request from Senators Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Braun (R-In.), both Members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In a letter sent on June 25, 2019, the Senators stated that a GEIS “will reduce cumbersome regulatory barriers, expedite the environmental review process, and enable market deployment of innovative nuclear technologies.” During the recent meetings, the NRC acknowledged the benefits of a GEIS, including reducing administrative costs to applicants, streamlining the environmental review process, and encouraging innovation in reactor technologies. A copy of the meeting slides can be found here.
The NRC is requesting interested stakeholders to provide information to help the agency make its decision. In the meetings, the NRC requested basic advanced reactor design information, such as where reactors could be sited, dimensions and power output, fuel requirements, radiological release characteristics, and construction requirements. However, the agency staff also mentioned that they would consider any input.
This is an important effort, and one for which the advanced reactor community should communicate its support—along with actionable recommendations for the agency to consider. As we emphasized in our paper with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, GEISs can streamline the NEPA process. There are a number of environmental review issues that are common to a large selection of advanced reactor applicants, such as with modular construction, responses to accidents, use of higher-enrichment fuel, and placement below-grade. All of these and more would be better addressed now through a generic process, rather than being left to hold up individual license applications.
As for next steps, the NRC stated that it will hold a workshop in January on possible approaches. In February, the agency plans to release a report summarizing the findings of the comment process and making a recommendation on whether to proceed with a GEIS.