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US nuclear regulators move forward on new decommissioning rules for reactors

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has finished its regulatory basis in support of establishing new regulations for decommissioning commercial nuclear reactors. The federal agency expects to release a proposed new rule for public comment in 2018.

In the regulatory basis, which was published in the Federal Register on Nov. 27, NRC staff concluded that sufficient justification exists to proceed with new regulations for emergency preparedness, physical security, cybersecurity, drug and alcohol testing, training requirements for certified fuel handlers, decommissioning trust funds, financial protection requirements and indemnity agreements, and application of the NRC's "backfit rule" that allows new or revised safety requirements to be applied to licensees of existing reactors.

According to the federal agency, many of the proposed decommissioning regulations would formalize steps in transitioning nuclear power reactors from operating status to decommissioning, without the use of exemptions and license amendments.

NRC staff said no new safety and security requirements are needed as shuttered nuclear reactors present a significantly low risk of "an offsite radiological release." Instead, "there is a need to align the requirements in decommissioning with the reduction in risk that occurs over time," the regulatory basis said.

"The decommissioning process can be improved and made more efficient, open and predictable by reducing the reliance on licensing actions (i.e., license amendment and exemption requests) to achieve a sustainable regulatory framework during decommissioning," according to the regulatory basis.

NRC staff recommended requiring further clarification on a range of topics, including spent fuel management and environmental reporting. In particular, staff said some matters, such as the role of state and local governments in the decommissioning process, staffing requirements, and managing of aging plant systems and components, can be addressed through updated guidance or inspection procedures in lieu of rulemaking.

The NRC first issued an advanced notice of proposal rulemaking for the decommissioning regulations in November 2015 before following up with a draft regulatory basis in March.