Improving Regulation at the NRC

Last month, President Obama issued Executive Order 13653, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.” While this executive order does not apply to independent regulatory agencies such as the NRC, you may be interested to learn that the NRC put in place many of these improvements long before the order was issued.

For instance, the order encourages agencies issuing proposed rules “to afford the public a meaningful opportunity to comment through the Internet” for “at least 60 days.” The NRC already offers opportunities to comment on proposed rules through e-mail and the website http://www.regulations.gov/. (All of NRC’s rulemaking dockets are accessible here.) The NRC usually gives the public 75 days to comment on proposed rules.

In addition, the order encourages agencies to consider the costs and benefits of regulatory actions. To the extent it is allowed under the Atomic Energy Act, the NRC does this for new or modified requirements for certain regulated facilities as part of its “backfitting” analyses. We consider whether the costs of modifying facilities to comply with new requirements are justified by a substantial increase in the protection of public health and safety or the common defense and security. We should point out that cost is not considered if we decide the modifications are absolutely necessary to keep the public safe and secure.

The order also says that agencies should adopt specific performance objectives, rather than specifying the actions that must be adopted. The NRC already does this through its performance-based regulations. In performance-based regulation, the agency sets the goal, but lets those regulated decide how to accomplish that goal.

The White House also issued a memorandum accompanying the order that directs agencies to “develop plans for making information concerning their regulatory compliance and enforcement activities accessible, downloadable, and searchable online.” The NRC already provides access to this kind of information through www.nrc.gov and our public ADAMS system. In fact, the NRC website provides the daily Status Report, Event Notifications, a Safety Performance Summary, inspection reports, enforcement actions, press releases, and public meeting information for each plant.

Recently, the NRC also created an Open Government website, which provides links to high-value data sets and other information that may be of interest to you.

Sean Croston
NRC Attorney

A Level of Confidence

The Commission’s recent update to the Waste Confidence Decision and Rule, published December 23 in the Federal Register, has been in the news lately. Many of the reports have misstated or misunderstood the meaning of the update and how it affects nuclear power plants. This post will provide a short history of Waste Confidence, a summary of the changes and a brief response to some of the most common misconceptions.

Waste Confidence generally refers to two documents: the Waste Confidence Decision and a corresponding Rule. The Decision provides the basis for the Rule and includes a number of generic safety and environmental findings. The Rule is a generic finding by the NRC that there will not be significant environmental impacts from storing spent fuel after a nuclear power plant’s operating license expires. (The term “generic” here means that it is not site specific.)

Waste Confidence stems from two federal court cases that set out the NRC’s obligations for safely storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The AEA requires the NRC to establish standards governing the civilian use of nuclear material and facilities; NEPA directs federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of major federal actions, such as licensing a nuclear power plant.

The 1984 Waste Confidence Decision included five findings that evaluated the technical feasibility of a repository and the long-term safety and feasibility of storing spent fuel. These findings satisfied the decisions in the cases mentioned above and formed the basis for the Waste Confidence Rule.

The Waste Confidence Decision and Rule have been amended twice since 1984. The most recent revision removed a date when a repository would be expected to be available for long-term disposal of spent fuel and evaluated the environmental effects of “at least 60 years” of spent fuel storage after the end of a reactor’s license.

A common misconception is that the update authorizes the continued licensing of nuclear power plants and the long-term storage of spent fuel. Rather, the update looks at only a small part of the NEPA analysis that needs to be completed before the Commission can decide on an application for a new nuclear power plant or spent fuel storage facility. Any licensing decision issued by the Commission must be based on a comprehensive NEPA analysis, and the update alone is not sufficient to meet this obligation.

Another common misconception is that the NRC has approved extended storage of spent fuel at reactor sites for the next 100 years or so. The update says the NRC has made a generic finding that the spent fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years, if necessary. This generic finding is needed to respond to the NRC’s legal obligations under the AEA and NEPA and does not make any site-specific findings or authorize storage at any specific location. Individual sites would still need to apply for approval to construct and operate storage facilities.

I hope that this helps provide some background on the Waste Confidence update and its history. I look forward to responding to your comments and questions on this complicated issue.

Tison Campbell
NRC Attorney