Nuclear Reactor Licensing Renewals

Bobby Zarubin
March 7, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

Committees Responsible for Licensing and Regulation

Fig. 1: License Renewals Granted for Operating Nuclear Power Reactors. [1] (Courtesy of the NRC)

The Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) is responsible for reviewing operating license applications from nuclear reactor sites across the country. Typically, the NRC receives about 10 separate license changes from each power reactor licensee requests every year. In 2011, the NRC completed more than 1,000 separate reviews. There are currently approximately 4,600 NRC- licensed reactor operators that conduct these license reviews. Each operator must re-qualify every 2 years and apply for license renewal every 6 years to remain certification. The NRC not only reviews currently operating reactors, but reviews applications for proposed new reactors and is developing an inspection program to oversee reactor construction as well. In a typical year, the NRC issues about 15 to 20 escalated enforcement actions to operating reactors for violations such as having a reasonably high level of licensed activities affecting public health and safety. The NRC also currently oversees the decommissioning of 14 nuclear power reactors. Enforcement actions consist of, depending on the severity, notices of violation, civil penalties, and orders.

Reactor License Renewal

Once the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was amended, the NRC began issuing licenses for commercial power reactors to operate for 40 years. Under the current regulations, licensees have the ability to apply to renew their licenses for up to 20 years. Under the original 40-year term for reactor licenses, economic and antitrust considerations, not limitations of nuclear technology, determined the length of term. Because of these originals selected terms, some nuclear systems may have been engineered and constructed with an expected 40-year service life in mind. As of June 2012, over 80 percent of the 104 licensed reactor units either have received, or are under review for license renewal (31 units operate under their original license). Of these, 73 units (at 44 sites) have received renewed licenses (see Fig. 1). Nuclear power plant owners possess he decision to seek license renewal and the decision is typically based on the plant's economic situation and whether it can meet NRC standards and requirements.

Fig. 2: New Reactor Licensing Process. [1] (Courtesy of the NRC)

The license renewal review process instates an assurance that the current licensing basis will continue to maintain an acceptable level of safety for the period of extended operation. The NRC will only renew a license if it determines that a currently operating plant will continue to maintain and operate with the required level of safety and security. Over the reactor's life, safety levels are enhanced through maintenance of the plant and its licensing basis, and through appropriate adjustments to address new information from industry operating experience. The NRC regulations establish clear requirements for license renewal to ensure safe plant operation for extended plant life.

The review of a renewal application proceeds along two paths shown in Fig. 2: one for the review of safety issues and the other for environmental issues. A renewal applicant must provide the NRC with an evaluation that addresses the technical aspects of the aging of the plant and describes the ways those effects will be managed and prevented. The plant owner and applicant for a renewal must also prepare for and evaluate the potential impact on the environment if the plant operates for up to an additional 20 years.

New Commercial Nuclear Power Reactor Licensing

Fig. 3: Locations of New Nuclear Power Reactors Applications. [1] (Courtesy of the NRC)

Since 2012, the NRC has been reviewing new reactor applications using a new licensing process that substantially improved the system used through the 1990s. The NRC issued the first combined construction and operating licenses, called a combined license or COL, under the new licensing process. The NRC estimates to increase their efficiency, being able to review approximately 10 additional COL applications for approximately 16 new reactors over the next several years and has in place the infrastructure and staff to support the necessary technical work.

As of 2012, the NRC had suspended or cancelled six COL application reviews because of changes in applicant business strategies (Grand Gulf, Callaway, Nine Mile Point, River Bend, Victoria County Station, and Bellefonte). As of June 2012, the NRC had 10 COL applications for 16 units under active review. Fig. 3 shows the locations of the potential new reactor sites. [1]

© Bobby Zarubin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "2012-2013 Information Digest," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "NUREG-1350, Vol. 24 , August 2012.