As with any industrial facility, nuclear power plants have a limited lifespan. With respect to commercial nuclear power plants, these facilities are initially licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a 20-year period. As reliability improves along with an increasing demand for low-carbon energy, it is likely that the lifespan of nuclear plants can, and will, be extended.
Who can use this whitepaper?
- Local elected officials
- Municipal planners
- Economic development managers
- Community representatives
A variety of market dynamics and policy initiatives at the state and federal levels have recently served to prolong the operational life of commercial nuclear power plants. As the national shift to renewable energy places pressure on existing energy grids and increases the need for reliable carbon-free energy options, nuclear power is facing a revival. Government initiatives such as the Civil Nuclear Credit Program1 (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, 2021) and the Zero-Emission Nuclear Power Production Credit2 (Inflation Reduction Act, 2022) have been established to support the extended operation of existing nuclear plants. As a general result, plants that may have been scheduled to close upon the expiration of their existing NRC license are routinely seeking 20-year license renewals. In this context, many nuclear power plants are planning for extended operational timeframes approaching 60 years or more.
The license renewal process
License renewal is a federal regulatory process that takes place when a licensee chooses to extend a plant’s NRC operating license instead of letting it expire, with each renewal extending the plant’s operational life by 20 years.
The primary goal of the license renewal process is to ensure that during its extended period of operation, a plant is able to maintain an adequate standard of safety. To that end, the licensee must submit documentation to the NRC that evaluates the plant on factors such as:
- The effect of aging on plant infrastructure, and the licensee’s ability to mitigate this aging
- The potential environmental impacts that may occur as a result of license renewal
- The overall ability of a plant to adhere to its “licensing basis,” a set of rules and standards that evolves throughout a plant’s lifetime3
There are several opportunities for public involvement throughout the license renewal process (which generally takes approximately two years) including public meetings and documents open for public comment. Members of the public are also able to petition the NRC for consideration of additional factors in the renewal application and in some cases are able to request an adjudicatory hearing before an NRC board.
Host community participation in license renewal
Given the public nature of the license renewal process, these proceedings may provide an opportunity to open more productive pathways of communication between the utility (licensee) and the host community. For example, in the event of conflicting interests between the host community and the utility, the public can request an adjudicatory hearing if they feel they “could be adversely affected by the renewal.” This could result in relicensing delays for the utility. However, if a host community felt they could effectively communicate and negotiate with the utility more directly, they may lend support to the license renewal proceedings, resulting in a more efficient and less costly renewal process. Under this approach, the community would endorse the license renewal in exchange for utility consideration or support for community initiatives.
While the license renewal process already includes some opportunities for public involvement through public meetings and documents open for public comment, more meaningful discussion related to the economic health of the community may be facilitated by:
- The creation and support of a Community Advisory Board (CAB)
- Although CABs are typically associated with decommissioning nuclear plants, establishing a body through which community concerns can be effectively communicated to the utility could be a useful tool while the plant is still operational. Creating a CAB while a plant is still operational allows for better preparedness in the event of a closure announcement, and allows communities where plants are not at risk of closure to actively plan for the future.
- While evaluating the relationship between itself and the utility, the host community should think about ways in which the utility may be able to contribute more directly to the community’s long-term economic goals. Some initiatives a host community may want to advocate for include:
- Economic synergistic projects and industry attraction – data centers, other support industries, etc.
- Alternative use/redevelopment projects where the host community and utility work together to determine potential development projects that could be implemented either after plant closure, or on undeveloped buffer land while the plant is still operational. Buffer land is land that falls outside of a plant’s industrial footprint, but is still owned by the utility. Potential projects include leasing property for agricultural use or installing solar panels on undeveloped property.
Community-based initiatives in parallel with license renewal
License renewal for a nuclear power plant gives communities the opportunity to bargain for public benefits to be included in the updated license. This negotiation process takes place between the utility that operates the plant, the owner of the facility, and the community that hosts the plant. During license renewal, a nuclear power plant is required to assess the integrity and longevity of its systems and structures, as well as its impact on the surrounding environment. This time period provides an opportunity for host communities to consider conducting similar evaluations of their own systems and structures. This process could be divided into two distinct sections:
1. Assessment–community evaluates its economic reliance on the plant by:
- Determining which areas of the community are directly or indirectly funded by its operation;
- Measuring and evaluating anticipated economic impacts through various technical and qualitative studies.
2. Planning–community uses findings to inform long-term economic planning by:
- Establishing a planning committee or working group that can analyze findings and work toward incorporating solutions and responses into their Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), a strategic blueprint for regional economic collaboration;4
- Integrating mitigation measures into planning strategies around land use and fiscal/financial policy, and into its CEDS.5
This resource is part of the Community Economic Diversification Roadmap, a new tool created by Smart Growth America and the Nuclear Communities TA team, to support communities in planning for the challenges and opportunities that stem from hosting energy infrastructure.