A Full and Fair Hearing

An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel hearing.

The public can become involved in the NRC’s licensing process through many different paths. One of these is through hearings in front of the judges of the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel (ASLBP). The ASLBP reports to the Commission and is independent of the NRC staff.

The NRC offers hearings for the granting, suspending, revoking, or amending of any license. These licenses could be for nuclear power reactors or for the manufacturing, treatment, use, disposal, or storage of certain radioactive materials. Any individual or group whose interests are affected by an NRC licensing action may seek to participate in our hearings. These hearings are an avenue for the public to get a full and fair opportunity to raise concerns related to the licensing action.

There are a few ways that members of the public can become involved in a licensing hearing. One of these is to submit a written request to intervene in the licensing action. Because this is a formal way to participate, there are a number of requirements that must be met before an individual or group can become involved in this way. For instance, an individual or group will have to explain their interest in the proposed NRC licensing action and also state their specific concerns and the reasons for those concerns.

If a member of the public would like to be involved more informally, Licensing Boards often provide an opportunity either to make an oral statement or to submit a written statement on issues being considered at the hearing.

Although these statements are not considered testimony or evidence, they can still help the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board make a decision. Finally, subject to some limitations, individuals and groups may sit in on, or in some instances watch, a live web stream of an NRC licensing proceeding.

For some major NRC actions, even if there is no public participation, the NRC will still hold licensing hearings because of a “mandatory” hearing requirement under our governing statutes. This means that even without public involvement, the ASLBP or the Commission will conduct a hearing that evaluates whether the NRC staff has performed an adequate review and reached logical and factual conclusions. The ASLBP or Commission’s review explores the staff’s conclusions by asking questions and requiring additional information when needed.

The Commission itself has decided to conduct the mandatory hearings on uncontested issues on applications for combined licenses (COL) for new reactors. The mandatory hearing process will begin after the NRC staff has finished its final environmental impact statement and the safety evaluation report. The Commission has set a four month objective for completing the mandatory hearing. The Commission will focus these hearings on the non-routine matters associated with each specific COL, such as unique features of the facility or novel licensing review issues.

One recent mandatory hearing was held on January 25, 2011. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board held the first part of a two-part mandatory hearing on an application by AREVA Enrichment Services, LLC, to construct and operate a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility in Idaho. Members of the public were invited to attend the proceeding in person in the court room in our headquarters facility in Rockville, Md., or to watch via web stream. There are a number of other mandatory hearings expected to take place in 2011. Stay tuned to our public website for information on dates, times, and places for those hearings: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/aslbp/2011/ and http://www.nrc.gov/public-involve/public-meetings/schedule.html

For more information on how to participate in hearings, please see our NRC regulations that govern the hearing process at 10 CFR Part 2, the “Rules of Practice for Domestic Licensing Proceedings and Issuance of Orders.”  The NRC recently proposed changes to Part 2 that are designed to promote greater fairness, efficiency, and openness in NRC adjudicatory proceedings. Those changes may be viewed at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-02-28/pdf/2011-4345.pdf.

Kimberly A. Sexton
Attorney, Office of the General Counsel

Analyzing Cancer Risks Around Nuclear Facilities

Nuclear facilities licensed by the NRC routinely release very small amounts of radioactivity during normal operations. Even though the NRC closely monitors the plants and assures that these releases are well below regulatory limits, some community members remain concerned about potential health risks from these facilities.

To address the concerns, the NRC has asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) – an independent group of experts chartered by Congress to carry out transparent, objective and detailed studies independent of the government — to examine how best to perform a state-of-the-art study on cancer risk for individuals living around NRC-licensed nuclear facilities. The NAS effort will study nuclear power plants that generate electricity and certain plants that create the nuclear fuel used in the power plants.

The NRC is seeking the expertise of the NAS to update the 1990 report by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). This report, “Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities,” found that cancer mortality rates were not elevated in these populations. The NRC staff uses the NCI report as a primary resource during public discussions of cancer risk in communities that are near or around nuclear facilities.

The NRC is interested in having NAS examine whether it is technically feasible to determine if cancer risks in the vicinity of a nuclear facility are greater than the cancer risks in similar areas without a nuclear facility. The NRC also expects the NAS panel to determine if we can reduce the study areas around the facilities to something smaller than the counties used in the NCI report. (This would provide data more specific to localities.) Phase 1 will determine whether there is a scientifically sound approach that can meet the goals of the study request. If so, the approach will be developed using acceptable methods for evaluating cancer risk that could be associated with nuclear facilities.

In January, the NAS formed a committee of 20 experts —chaired by Dr. John E. Burris. The committee has already held public meetings in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, with additional meetings planned for Atlanta and Los Angeles in the future. The meetings will allow committee members to collect data and stakeholder input in developing their conclusions on the first phase of the study.

The phase 1 report is due to be publicly released in December 2012. A 60-day comment period will allow stakeholders an additional opportunity to provide input on that phase. The NRC will review the phase 1 report and consider the stakeholder comments before deciding on if and how to proceed on phase 2 of the study. Depending on what’s decided for phase 2 a final report would be expected by the middle of 2013.

More information on the study is on the NRC website here: http://http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/fs-analys-cancer-risk-study.htmlor on the National Academy of Sciences website here: http://dels.nas.edu/global/nrsb/CancerRisk.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer