Today the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and request for comment on categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires that federal agencies conduct environmental reviews for any “major Federal action” that significantly affects “the quality of the human environment.”

As a background to NEPA, for major federal actions that may impact the quality of the human environment, an environmental review is conducted either in the form of an Environmental Analysis (EA), when it is unclear if a project will have a significant environmental impact or as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) when it is evident the environment will be significantly impacted. An EA can either necessitate an EIS, which is a longer, more exhaustive analysis of environmental impacts, or it can conclude in a Finding of No Significance. This latter result means an environmental analysis in the form of an EIS is not necessary.

However, neither an EA nor an EIS is required if that action is listed under a Categorical Exclusion (CE). The 1978 regulations implementing NEPA allow for agencies to determine which class of actions can be exempt from an environmental review when that agency finds there is no significant effect with that type of action. As the most utilized option under NEPA, CEs are popular mechanisms amongst agencies and more than 2,000 CEs have been developed over the past forty years. According to the NRC notice and comment publication, CEs “streamline the NEPA process, saving time, effort, and resources.” NRC’s review of CEs is an important endeavor as EISs (and even some EAs) often pose overly cumbersome requirements at the front-end of projects, resulting in smaller companies bleeding out their resources at this early stage and never achieving project deployment. It is imperative that environmental impact is considered but in an efficient and effective way.

For additional information on potential project development roadblocks under NEPA, please review Partner Amy Roma’s written testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020, and a paper issued by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, Nuclear Innovation and NEPA, which the blog authors supported.

The NRC is seeking comment on a variety of areas it proposes to be categorically excluded from the NEPA process.  Most of the NRC’s focus for this effort is on decommissioning and back-end fuel cycle activities, but advanced reactor vendors should also explore where the NRC may want to consider CEs that could benefit their licensing activities.  The NRC is also taking comment generally on other areas it should consider.  To list a few areas the NRC mentioned in their notice that could have an impact on new reactor activities (or could be expanded upon to have an impact):

  • Actions authorizing licensees to delay implementation of certain new NRC requirements, for example, where the new requirements were previously found to not result in an environmental impact.
  • Approval of relief and alternative requests under 10 CFR 50.55a, “Codes and standards.”
  • Authorizations to revise emergency plans for administrative changes such as reduction in staffing.

The NRC is receiving input on additional actions to be considered as a CE. NRC is also considering revision of and seeking comments on various components in current CEs.

For more information on what areas NRC is seeking comment, please reference the advance notice of proposed rulemaking.

Comments are due roughly 75 days from today, and we recommend our blog community consider submitting their input on this important rulemaking.

For additional guidance, please contact blog authors.