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Energy and Environment Directorate
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Staff Accomplishments

PNNL permit team re-fuels the nuclear energy industry

April 2004
In our energy-demanding society, nearly 20 percent of the United States’ energy supply is produced from nuclear energy, and the energy demand is growing. Many of the nation’s 100 plus nuclear power plants are half way through their 40-year operating license term. Without the option of license renewal, the country faces losing this important energy supply in less than 20 years. Since the 1970's, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has had many projects where staff members have provided technical support to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on urgent issues related to nuclear power. PNNL assisted with the first environmental impact statements for licensing nuclear plants, helped improve emergency response capabilities following the accident at Three Mile Island, and supported regulatory and licensing actions for many aspects related to safety and the environment. These projects involved multi-disciplinary teams from across the Lab. For assistance in regulatory and licensing activities for nuclear power plants, NRC still relies on PNNL to provide multi-disciplinary managerial and technical expertise in radiological and non-radiological environmental protection areas. In the mid 1990s, forward-thinking NRC staff decided that it was important to update the environmental review process associated with licensing and constructing nuclear power plants. PNNL was asked to assemble a team to update the guidance used by the NRC for reviewing the environmental impacts from nuclear power plant construction and operation. A draft of the updated procedure was issued for public review in 1997. Comments on the draft document suggested that a separate procedure specifically directed toward the review of the environmental impacts of renewal of reactor operating licenses was needed. The Environmental Standard Review Plans were published in final form in March 2000. In response to a looming national energy issue, and because of the quality and experience of PNNL, the NRC asked PNNL to form a team, led by Project Manager Van Ramsdell, to assist NRC in performing the environmental review for the renewal of the operating licenses for the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland and the Oconee Nuclear Power Plant in South Carolina. An environmental review team consists of socio-economists, cultural resource experts, land use experts, health physicists, meteorologists, hydrologists, ecologists, and others. “Our initial review teams consisted of senior experts who were pulled together from numerous PNNL organizations,” said Ramsdell. As the number of reviews has increased, younger PNNL were trained in the NRC environmental review process. Many of the younger team members are now taking leading roles on teams. “We have a unique and flexible group like no other,” Ramsdell said. The environmental review process starts when NRC receives an application for license renewal from a nuclear utility. As soon as the application is received, the team at PNNL reviews the environmental report, which is included as part of the application. Soon thereafter, the team makes a trip to the site to gather data for analysis, and a public scoping meeting is held to obtain any comments relevant to the environmental review. The PNNL staff then makes its analysis and drafts an environmental impact statement, which is published for public comment. Finally, the draft is revised based on comments received and is published in its final form. The environmental review process typically takes about 15 to 18 months to complete; however, PNNL staff members have demonstrated that the process can be completed in 13 months. The environmental impact statement, along with a safety evaluation report, becomes part of the record used by the Commission in deciding whether or not to renew the nuclear power plant’s operating license. The first two license renewal applications were submitted to NRC in 1998, and the next three applications were submitted in 2000. The NRC is currently receiving about six license renewal applications each year. This application rate is expected to continue for another eight to ten years. Initially, the license renewal teams were staffed by PNNL personnel. Recent teams have been composed of personnel from several national laboratories. Following training by experienced PNNL team members, environmental scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory are now participating in the environmental reviews.

Page 865 of 937

Energy and Environment

Core Research Areas