A Win for Proper Nuclear Safety

The agency took a single vital step in ensuring that the environmental and safety risks of the aging nuclear fleet are taken into account before approving license extensions. 

Credit: Applicant’s Environmental Report Subsequent Operating License Renewal Stage, Turkey Point Nuclear Plant Units 3 and 4, Appendix E (Jan. 2018)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) took a momentous step in favor of the environment, health and public safety, as it ruled to reverse course and said it will require a full environmental review before allowing the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant to operate for as long as 80 years.

Turkey Point sits just south of Miami, Florida, in between the natural wonders of Biscayne Bay and the Everglades. In 2018, the operators of the plant, Florida Power and Light Company (FPL), applied for a subsequent license renewal—permission to operate Turkey Point for 20 years past its current 60-year operating approval, or until the 2050s. The request was the first of an expected long line of aging reactors seeking to remain operating until mid-century and beyond. With its recent order, the NRC will now require all of these reactors to complete a full analysis before getting an extended lease on life.

NRC staff and FPL had tried to squeak approval through for Turkey Point’s unprecedented license extension with an inadequate generic environmental review that had been prepared in 1996 and revised in 2013. This review only looked at environmental impacts of operating a reactor from 40 years through 60 years. That means the analysis didn’t consider the further aging of the reactors or how increased climate impacts like sea level rise or increased storm strength could affect specific reactors. Given the way rising seas and stronger storms are affecting southern Florida, getting this analysis right is crucially important.

NRDC partnered with Friends of the Earth and Miami Waterkeeper to argue against this inappropriate reliance on a generic, fundamentally weak scientific and technical analysis. And while the case of the Turkey Point Plant was so important because of the intense climate risks, it was also an important precedent to ensure a thorough safety and environmental review for all aging reactors across the country.

The NRC Staff and FPL had argued that the further extension of the license based on the out-of-date environmental analysis did not offend the National Environmental Policy Act, but the NRC’s order on Feb. 24 rejected that view. The Commission has now committed to evaluating the unique risks of further extending the operation of nuclear reactors.  

The timing of this decision could not be better. The Department of Energy just called for operators of reactors to apply to the new civil nuclear credit program—a program established by the 2021 Infrastructure Act designed to keep aging and uneconomic nuclear power plants online in recognition of their low carbon energy. With the support of this and similar state programs, many of the operators of the 93 reactors online today in the United States will no doubt seek to extend their operating licenses to 80 years.

Supporting and expanding nuclear power should not be the leading strategy for diversifying America’s energy portfolio and reducing carbon pollution -- unless and until the major environmental and safety risks associated with the nuclear fuel chain are properly mitigated. Meanwhile, the changing climate will affect the safety and environmental risks of continuing to run these plants. There are still many unknowns about the safety of running the reactors out so many years and in a world with growing stresses from climate change. We cannot take chances with nuclear power, and a complete environmental review will help to shed light on how these aging plants are operating and the risks they will face.

If nuclear power plants are going to keep operating, it is vital that they operate right.

With its recent order, the NRC acknowledged that it had failed to do the necessary environmental review and has set itself on a course to fix this mistake. The agency took a single vital step in ensuring that the environmental and safety risks of the aging nuclear fleet are taken into account before approving license extensions. The Commission decision will hold aging reactors to a necessary higher standard of review for safety and environmental impacts. With this decision, the NRC has restored the level of accountability we sought through our lawsuit.

Now comes the next important step: We will be working hard to ensure these environmental reviews thoroughly examine the safety risks and impacts of climate change.

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