On July 9, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a Federal Register notice, Systematic Assessment for How the NRC Addresses Environmental Justice in Its Programs, Policies, and Activities. Comments on the notice are due August 23, 2021.
In the notice, the NRC is seeking industry input on the Commission’s handling of environmental justice as well as the adequacy of its prior 2004 Policy Statement on the Treatment of Environmental Justice Matters in NRC Regulatory and Licensing Actions (2004 Policy). The 2004 Policy presents the latest comprehensive statement of the Commission’s policy on the treatment of environmental justice matters in NRC regulatory and licensing actions. It requires, among other things, that environmental justice assessments be conducted in certain environmental assessments as necessary under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also details which factors and persons should be considered in the NRC’s environmental analyses, and directs the NRC to ensure that minority and low-income communities are consulted when considering a proposed action.
In this blog post we discuss the NRC effort, within the context of what the Biden administration has been doing to reexamine environmental justice more broadly. We also discuss how stakeholders within the nuclear power community can contribute to the administration’s effort by considering how and where nuclear power can contribute to the environmental justice discussion, both within the NRC and more broadly.
Why is the NRC reviewing environmental justice?
The NRC’s effort draws on the current administration’s goals surrounding a “whole-of-government approach” to environmental justice. Environmental justice can have slightly different definitions, but generally refers to the concept that all voices, no matter the race, color, national origin, or income, should be treated fairly and meaningfully involved when evaluating different projects and initiatives, and when developing and enforcing laws and regulations. Fair treatment generally means that “no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws regulations, and policies.” Meaningful involvement “requires effective access to decision-makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.” In an Executive Order 14008, entitled Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, President Biden tasked Federal agencies to make environmental justice a goal by developing programs that help address impacts to disadvantaged communities and historically marginalized persons.
The idea of environmental justice is not new. It has been incorporated in the environmental review process as required by NEPA for decades. However, the Executive Order states that, while required, it has often not been given proper attention. Rather than limiting environmental justice reviews to the NEPA process, the Executive Order directs agencies to make it “part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities” that incorporate environmental justice considerations. This presents a significant expansion to the role environmental justice has played for agencies in the past. To ensure the success of such a wide-reaching endeavor, President Biden created the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (WHEJAC) whose membership consists of leadership from agencies across the U.S.
Hand-in-hand with the directive for agencies to flesh out environmental justice programs is Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, also created within the same Executive Order. This initiative aims to deliver 40% of benefits from federal investments in certain topic areas, like clean energy and energy efficiency, to disadvantaged communities; and tracks the performance of this goal through a newly established Environmental Justice Scorecard.
What are the impacts of White House & NRC environmental justice initiatives on nuclear?
Despite an emphasis on clean energy, the full impact of the Justice40 Initiative on the nuclear industry is yet to be seen. WHEJAC issued a report on May 13 that named the procurement of nuclear power as one example of a project that does not benefit the community. However, according to a July 20, 2021 memorandum on the Interim Implementation Guidance for the Justice40 Initiative, benefits of covered programs in the Justice40 Initiative include deployment of clean energy as well as greenhouse gas reductions. While nuclear is not specifically mentioned, it’s conceivable that advanced nuclear, with its ability to replace fossils fuels with zero-emission power generation (not to mention, the creation of a significant number of well-paying jobs for the local community, which is more a factor of economic justice than environmental justice, but a critical consideration nonetheless), may be included in the Justice40 Initiative in the future.
Additionally, statements like those from DOE Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy indicate support for both the existing fleet and advanced nuclear technologies’ role in the climate transition. However, if the interagency group’s recommendation is taken and nuclear procurement is not viewed as “beneficial,” the industry stands to lose investment dollars and resources that in fact can go to help those that are underserved. Stakeholders in the nuclear industry should engage with the White House and agencies on the issue of environmental justice to examine how nuclear power can better contribute to environmental justice, while also ensuring that the environmental benefits of nuclear power are well understood.
Additionally, as the industry strives to create and maintain an accurate public perception of the benefits and safety of nuclear, it is important to encourage conversations surrounding environmental justice. To achieve this, nuclear must be viewed as an area that supports the transition to clean energy while also providing benefits to underserved communities. The July 9 Federal Register notice provides such an opportunity for industry input. The NRC is requesting stakeholder input on a number of questions, including the following:
Comments are due August 23, 2021.