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Time for a New Mode of Operation: Opportunity to Rethink the Regulatory Framework Ahead of Shutdowns

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The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently received over a 150 comments to its advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) issued in November intended to solicit input on the agency’s development of a “draft regulatory basis” to support modifications to existing regulations affecting nuclear power plant shutdown and decommissioning activities.  The NRC is considering amending requirements to improve the openness of its regulatory process, as well as reduce the need to regulate or “de-regulate” plants moving from operations through decommissioning vis-a-vis regulatory exemptions. Specifically, the ANPR posed a significant number of questions, soliciting input on the process and treatment of related issues and programs, such as Emergency Preparedness, Physical Security, Fitness-for-duty, Fuel Handling, Backfitting, Cumulative Effects, Liability Protection and Trust Funds.

Notwithstanding the call for efficiencies and the need to reduce the level of effort required by agency licensees that are or will be going through the decommissioning process, the NRC’s practices and regulatory framework have come under increasing fire from public interest groups and local stakeholders who have felt alienated from the process.  Many of the comments and suggestions received by the NRC were from interested individuals, as well as a few affected agencies, community and interest groups, looking to improve participation in the process.  Additionally, there were a number very cogent regulatory, safety, risk and policy related comments and suggestions from industry.

Most of those comments suggested requirements and regulations should be clear and consistently applied in order to ensure orderly and safe cessation of operations through decommissioning and final termination of a reactor’s license, including codifying some of the existing regulatory precedence from its exemption practices.  This is all great input and shows progress that there will be some certainty and predictability with decommissioning requirements going forward.  However, the current rules and regulatory process seems inelastic and make it practically irreversible once a decision to cease operations has been made.  It’s a good time to rethink this paradigm and change the modus operandi.

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The NRC should take a serious “out-of-the-box” review of its regulations and give due consideration to construct a regulatory framework that would allow licensees to temporarily reduce or suspend certain activities and place their plant in a protected shutdown or “laid up” state.  A new framework could establish and implement a new operating license “mode”.  Such a mode would allow a safe “pause” in plant operations but not necessarily suggest or require a plant begin taking steps towards decommissioning or being placed in SAFSTOR.  Rather, this new mode would cover an extended or term-limited shutdown case within a particular set of requirements, including newly established standardized technical specifications with limits and conditions for the particular mode, as well as accompanying programmatic and maintenance requirements, commensurate with safety-risk in a “pause” mode condition (i.e. a Mode 6/7 depending on reactor type).  Adopting conforming requirements should be risk-informed and assure continued operations and maintenance of designated or essential systems at levels commensurate with the planned shutdown activities and term. Such a construct could afford plant owners with economic options and generating flexibility without baring prospects for a plant restart later when system demands and/or economics may be more favorable, allowing it to continue through some remaining portion of its licensed term.

Achievement of a more elastic regulatory framework, including a new operating mode, may be very beneficial to some utilities, as well as their ratepayers, local communities and investors, should near-term electric demands, economics and/or other factors change — making it advantageous to do so for period of time.  This of course would be a paradigm shift and require NRC to develop, to some extent, a modified framework that could draw upon analogs and lessons learned from past agency and industry experience. Undoubtedly, authorization of a reactor mode changes to allow refueling, repowering and restart commercial operation should only occur after an agreed upon process, terms and thorough NRC inspections and restart review.

While today’s evolving electricity market is working out its own sort of economic stress-tests and wading its way through a complex labyrinth of state, regional and federal regulatory practices and policy initiatives focused on cleaner energy technologies, nuclear should sustain its current market share and value proposition going forward if properly recognized and credited for its longstanding reliability and safety. In cases where operations may be economically challenged or marginalized due to short-term market, regulatory or policy conditions, it makes sense that our regulators and regulations encourage forward thinking and flexibility to allow for sensible alternatives or options within the regulatory framework that are safe, risk-informed and preserve the opportunity.

Photo Credit: Brad.K via Flickr

Robert Sweeney's picture

Thank Robert for the Post!

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on April 25, 2016

These 1970’s era nuclear plants were built by our parents at great cost; with care, they could last a century. Even if we don’t appreciate them, we’ve no right to deny our kids the choice to use them.

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