NRC Commission Approves GEIS for Advanced Nuclear Reactors

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On September 21, 2020, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to develop and codify a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the construction and operation of advanced nuclear reactors through a technology-neutral, plant parameter envelope (PPE) approach.  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.

The Commission decision results from a number of NRC staff meetings with interested stakeholders and members of the public (as discussed in our previous blog) leading to a February NRC staff paper to the Commission on the viability of a GEIS for advanced nuclear reactors.  In the paper, the NRC staff recommended that a GEIS is viable and that it plans to use a PPE approach for small-scale advanced nuclear reactors projects. While the exploratory process in the paper focused on small-scale advanced reactors, the staff determined that a GEIS would be applicable to other advanced reactor technologies, like fusion facilities.  After its exploratory process, which involved fielding stakeholder comments and gathering information on a potential advanced nuclear reactor GEIS, the NRC staff concluded that the GEIS would improve efficiency of environmental reviews and would “provide predictability for potential applicants in developing their applications.” In its recommendation, the NRC staff suggested to engage in a GEIS rulemaking at a later date. However, the Commission disagreed and proposed to codify the GEIS into Part 51 as soon as possible.

The Commission memorandum accompanying the votes instructs the NRC staff to prioritize site-specific National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews and to use that experience to inform the GEIS. Additionally, the Commission requires that the PPE is technology inclusive and that stakeholders have an opportunity to comment.  In developing the GEIS, the staff should also provide the Commission information on cost, and the number of resource areas and types of reactors the staff expects to disposition generically.

As Commissioner Svinicki noted in her comments, codifying would enhance “the efficiency of the licensing process through the procedural finality such codification would afford.”  Commissioner Wright, in his comments, suggested that codification of generic findings would result in “predictability, clarity, and reliability.”  In support of a GEIS in general, he also emphasized that “the length of a given environmental document does not necessarily equate to a higher quality analysis”—a nod to Partner Amy Roma’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ hearing on the discussion draft bill for the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020.

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