The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel (ASLBP) is the independent trial-level adjudicatory body of the NRC. Acting on behalf of the Commission, individual Licensing Boards conduct (1) public hearings concerning contested issues that arise in the course of licensing and enforcement proceedings regarding nuclear reactors and the civilian use of materials in the United States; and (2) uncontested hearings regarding matters such as the construction of uranium enrichment facilities. As such, the ASLBP fulfills both the NRC's obligation to afford the public and those subject to agency enforcement actions an opportunity to challenge proposed licensing and enforcement activities as required by Section 189(a) of the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and its responsibility under AEA Sections 189(a) and 193 to conduct a public hearing regarding the construction of certain types of facilities, even if there is not a challenge by any affected person or entity. These hearings are conducted in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act and the Commission's implementing regulations, set forth at 10 CFR Part 2.
A unique feature of the ASLBP that distinguishes it from similar federal regulatory or administrative tribunals is that each Licensing Board ordinarily is comprised of three administrative judges, usually consisting of one attorney skilled in the conduct of administrative hearings and two experts in scientific or technical areas relevant to the subject matter of the dispute. This scientific enhancement of the adjudicatory function is statutorily mandated by Section 191 of the AEA.
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Conduct of ASLBP Proceedings
The NRC practice and procedure rules provide a variety of hearing procedures ranging from the relatively informal to something comparable to a federal or state civil trial. As a practical matter, most cases regarding contested issues, or contentions, involve typical pleading and motions practice, including summary judgment (called summary disposition in NRC practice), mandatory document disclosure, and evidentiary hearings. As in many administrative proceedings, pre-filed written testimony is used extensively. With few exceptions, evidentiary proceedings consist of public hearings with sworn witnesses or panels of witnesses subject to questioning by the three Licensing Board members. Under certain circumstances, there will also be cross-examination by opposing counsel. Evidentiary proceedings are followed by detailed written decisions that, depending on the number and complexity of the contentions, can be quite lengthy. Licensing Board decisions can be appealed to the NRC Commission. Review of Commission decisions is available in the United States Courts of Appeals and, ultimately, in the Supreme Court of the United States. Significant Licensing Board decisions are published in "Nuclear Regulatory Commission Issuances" and available on LexisNexis and Westlaw.
Location of ASLBP Hearings
The ASLBP's primary hearing room is at the NRC headquarters complex in Rockville,
Maryland. However, it is NRC policy that important aspects of Licensing Board proceedings be held, when practical, near the proposed nuclear facility or material at issue. This means early in the proceeding oral arguments concerning a petitioner's standing and the legal adequacy of its petition to intervene may be held in the vicinity of the proposed project. Evidentiary hearings on the merits of the admitted contested issues are another instance in which the Licensing Board may conduct a proceeding locally. Hearings that involve classified or safeguards information are generally held in the ASLBP's Rockville hearing room due to security considerations.
To handle large, complex proceedings efficiently and effectively, the ASLBP's Rockville hearing room uses state of the art audio visual capabilities that include multiple computer video inputs and high definition (HD) displays for in-room evidence display, on screen annotation, a HD document camera, and voice-activated HD pan/tilt/zoom cameras. Audio and web/video conferencing are available to allow parties and witnesses to participate from multiple remote locations. Listen-only telephone audio and webcasting systems are also available for members of the public. This system provides for the electronic tracking of evidentiary material provided by the parties prior to or during the hearing, which can then be incorporated into the digital, public record of the proceeding.
Issues for Adjudication
The ASLBP considers issues that arise from the operation of U.S. commercial nuclear power plants, dozens of research and test reactors, and programs related to several thousand nuclear materials licenses. ASLBP proceedings address such diverse matters as licensing new reactors, reactor license extensions, decommissioning, reactor operator licenses, reactor and materials license amendments, spent fuel storage, uranium enrichment and other fuel cycle facilities, and enforcement actions.
Broadly speaking, the issues in contested NRC licensing adjudications fall into two generic categories:
- safety/technical issues arising under the Atomic Energy Act; and
- environmental issues arising under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
For example, if a nuclear power plant's owner files an application to renew the facility's operating license for an additional 20 years beyond its original 40-year license, that application must include detailed analyses of the potential safety issues and environmental impacts of the additional 20 years of operation. Members of the public, state and local governments, Native American tribes, and citizen organizations opposing the application can petition to intervene to contest the adequacy of the application's safety and/or environmental analyses.
The NRC technical experts (entirely separate from the ASLBP) conduct a thorough review and analysis of the technical and safety aspects of the application. The NRC subsequently issues a Safety Evaluation Report (SER) that describes the staff's review and related findings. The staff also conducts a similar review on the environmental side, which typically results in the preparation of a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Because major licensing actions generally require an EIS, Licensing Board cases regarding such activities usually have a significant NEPA component in addition to safety issues. By contrast, for uncontested hearings, the issues litigated are identified by the Licensing Board based on its review of the application and the draft and final SER and EIS prepared by the NRC staff. ASLBP hearings often involve difficult, interdisciplinary questions at the cutting edge of science and technology. They are among the most complex and sometimes most controversial administrative proceedings conducted by the federal government.
Cases on the Horizon
The nuclear industry has been engaged in development work for advanced reactor designs and small modular light-water reactors and has redirected its efforts away from licensing and constructing large light-water reactors. This effort may result in applications for licensing new reactor designs. The NRC is also expecting increased decommissioning activities for current power reactors while at the same time addressing those licensees who seek subsequent license renewals beyond 60 years of operation. In addition, several applicants are seeking licenses to construct and operate consolidated interim spent fuel storage facilities.
These applications and license amendment/renewal requests potentially constitute a significant undertaking by the applicant and the NRC staff, as well as the ASLBP. This trend may continue as new technologies like accident tolerant fuel or digital instrumentation and controls are further adopted into the reactor fleet.
Page Last Reviewed/Updated Tuesday, July 07, 2020