Nuclear Licensing: Two-step, One-step, Tap-dance

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | January 28, 2014, 6:00 am EDT
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Fission Stories #155

The nuclear power reactors currently operating in the United States were licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission) via a two-step process. In the first step, companies applied to the NRC for a construction permit. The construction permit, when issued, authorized the company to build a nuclear plant, but not to operate it. As construction was completed, companies took the second step by applying to the NRC for an operating license. An operating license authorized the company to start up the nuclear plant.

Each of these two steps was a legal process that provided an opportunity for those who did not want an operating nuclear plant to contest it. The nuclear industry became less and less enamored with this two-step licensing process as more and more people found reasons to challenge nuclear plant licensing. The companies had to “win” both steps in order to operate their reactors and generate electricity—and revenue. The opponents only had to “win” either step in order to prevent reactor operation.

The nuclear industry found drawbacks in the two-step process other than the multiple intervention opportunities. Even without any one opposing issuance of an operating license, companies still had to get the NRC’s approval. After having invested billions of dollars building a nuclear plant, they might still have to pay millions more for “extras” the NRC demanded before they’d issue an operating license.

In the early 1990s, the NRC revised its licensing regulations to the one-step process recently used to authorize new reactors at Vogtle and Summer. Now, companies apply to the NRC for a combined operating license that, when issued, authorizes them to build and then operate a nuclear power reactor. In the acronym-rich nuclear environment, the companies submit and the NRC reviews COLAs—Combined Operating License Applications.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The adage “be careful what you wish for” applies in this case.

In the olden days, companies could modify the design of their plants under construction without the NRC’s express permission. After all, the NRC’s permission was deferred until after construction was completed and the agency determined whether the reactor could operate. So, the companies had free reign during construction to re-route piping or cables to resolve unanticipated interferences and to incorporate start-of-the-art equipment brought to market since construction began.

In the current daze, companies are limited in the changes they are allowed to make during construction without NRC’s formal approval. After all, the NRC’s permission to operate the reactor was given before construction even began. So, before companies revise something the NRC has already reviewed and approved, they must first seek NRC’s review and its formal approval that the proposed change is still permissible.

Because an operating license has already been issued, the means for companies to obtain NRC’s approval is via the license amendment process. The license amendment process allows opponents to legally challenge issuance of the amendment, and hence operation of the reactor. The license amendment process also allows the NRC to insist on more changes before it approves the amendment request. And finally, the NRC charges companies for the time it takes reviewing and approving the license amendment requests. The NRC charges $272 per hour and they read real, real slow because there’s lots of big words and tricky phrases in the requests.

Last year alone, the owner of the new reactors being built at Vogtle in Georgia submitted more than a half dozen license amendment requests to the NRC. For example, they sought NRC’s permission to change how they installed electrical penetrations and how they built the plant’s foundation. Under the old process, they could have made these changes on their own without opportunities for opponents to legally challenge them or for the NRC to impose additional requirements.

Our Takeaway

The two-step to one-step licensing process conversion actually resulted in tap dancing.

Quoting Nelson Muntz on The Simpsons, “Haw! Haw!”


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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  • Richard

    Thanks for explaining the process.

    In doing a remodel on a home one has the option of obtaining permits, etc. If one does that with the initial plans, one is then required to gain approval for the actual implementation of the plans at different steps along the way. This is done to ensure that the finished product, which in all likelihood will be at least somewhat different than was initially intended, is in compliance with safety standards, etc. This is more costly than if one does the job without such permits. But it generally ensures better, safer construction and thus better re-sale value.

    When it comes to nuclear power plants, it seems to me that the potential hazards are much greater than one might encounter in the construction of a home. Thus, seems sensible that oversight should be required.

  • Sean McKinnon

    Yeah… It is real funny that intervenors funded by oil and natural gas companies (look up the tax filings of these groups) and a ineffective regulator have driven up the cost of the only reliable virtually carbon free way to generate base load electricity much higher than it has to be. Access to clean, abundant power not only improves quality of life but it saves lives. Look at countries with limited access to reliable power, look at the health effects of coal combustion. The NRC should be ashamed of itself that it can’t find a way to better balance safety and regulation with the need for drastic effort to reduce the damage of climate change without resorting to a standard of living from the 1800’s

    Would anyone buy a car if they couldn’t take their license test until after they bought it? The COL makes sense. Equivalent changes in materials or construction methods especially ones that improve safety and reliability should be encouraged.

  • Den

    > The NRC charges $272 per hour and *they read real, real slow*

    This is the real problem. Any self-respecting bureaucrat needs many months to read a 15-page report.