US regulator ready for new nuclear, says NRC

U.S. regulators are ready to review and license the next generation of nuclear reactors while staying committed to safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California, closed since 2013 (Source: Reuters/Mike Blake)

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The NRC is under pressure to show it can move fast on a new generation of nuclear technology, including small modular reactors (SMRs) and other previously untested designs, as many in the industry call for deep reforms at the regulator.

The regulator must be willing to remove operational and organizational barriers that are in the way of rapid and efficient licensing and understand that time is of the essense to reduce emissions and solve energy security issues, critics say.

“I have the sense that most government employees have a sense of mission and purpose to serve the public interest. But the question is, can they bring a sense of urgency as well?” asks Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) and lead author of the report, ‘The Urgency of NRC Reform’.

“Over the past several decades, we seem to have become slower at building infrastructure, and the debate has been that you either go slow and you consult with everyone, or don’t worry so much about safety and the environment and go faster. I think we can have processes that are both timely and protective of the public interest.”

The government agrees that more work needs to be done to enable the NRC’s work to meet the coming challenges.

The regulator will need to scale its license-application capacity from around 0.5 GW/year to 13 GW/year to meet projected demand, the Department of Energy (DOE) said in what it calls a living report that will be updated as the projects evolve, ‘Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear'.

The NRC and the industry need to take deliberate actions to streamline and significant additional resources for the regulator would be needed, it said.

“There’s an old saying in the United States: ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way’,” past president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Steven Arndt said at the group’s annual meeting in June.

“We need a regulator that not just gets out of the way, but leads.”

Screen grab of NIA’s interactive Advanced Nuclear Technology Map – North America

(Click to enlarge) 

Source: Nuclear Innovation Alliance. For fully interactive map: here

Learning from doing

There are currently dozens of new reactor designs in the development stage, though only a handful have made it to the NRC’s doors and even fewer have gone the regulatory distance.

NuScale’s VOYGR 50-MW SMR power plant became the first SMR design certified by the NRC in January. It is just the seventh reactor design cleared for use in the United States.

The NRC accepted the company’s Standard Design Approval (SDA) application for formal review of its VOYGR-6 plant design featuring an uprated 77-MWe SMR in August and provided a 24-month review schedule for approval. 

“Probably the most important focus area for us is conducting the truly risk informed reviews that we desire. It's something that we haven't done as well as we would have liked in the past, but we've renewed focus and commitment moving forward,” says Deputy Office Director for New Reactors at the NRC Robert Taylor.

“That commitment has been incorporated into all the changes that we're making to our regulations, guidance, and staff procedures over the last few years and in preparation for this next generation.”

The benefits of the NRC’s efforts can already be seen in the reviews of Nuscale’s VOYGR, the Kairos Power’s Hermes 35-MWth demonstration reactor, and SHINE Technology’s application for a license to operate a medical isotope production facility, he says.

“We are yielding timelier and more cost-effective reviews without compromising on safety,” Taylor says.

“We're going to see probably three or four more applications here in the next six to eight months and we will drive each one of those reviews aggressively. That's our goal.”

The new reactors coming before the NRC are first-of-a-kind technology and, as such, the regulator must take a little longer working through key safety aspects of the design.

Once they are standardized, the regulator won’t need to repeat those portions of the review, substantially streamlining the regulatory decision making process, he says.

Different approach

The developers’ stance before the process is essential, Taylor says, noting that Kairos engaged with the regulator extensively in pre-application, which helped to resolve issues well before the application even arrived at the NRC.

“That helps tremendously, because they're still working on finalizing their designs, but they can leverage the time while they're doing that, to work with us on those pieces that they want to get approved,” he says.

The regulator is taking a different approach to reviews than previously, assigning small focus teams to each area and including additional subject matter experts when needed, while at the same time taking a wider, holistic view to the designs before them, something the agency has struggled with previously.

“By forming the smaller teams that challenge each other on issues as they go through, we really sharpened that focus and then we bring in other experts to supplement the team as needed. We're finding it's really paying dividends,” Taylor says.

The gradual adoption of sections of a proposed new advanced reactor licensing framework (10 CFR Part 53) and a major hiring initiative – “Everyday, I see new faces” – are also helping adopt the process to the new technology.

“When I talk to my management team and staff, we talk about the importance of what we do and how our activities are contributing to society by tackling one of the biggest threats facing our generation, and our children's generation,” Taylor says.

“We wake up every day committed to making the safe use of nuclear technology possible as part of the solution.”

Tech bros and anti-regulation

Some of the calls for regulatory reform come from a ‘tech bro’ libertarian culture, that values new technology and is deeply anti-regulation, according to former NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane.

In a damming op-ed written for the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) and reproduced widely, ‘The end of Oppenheimer’s energy dream’, Macfarlane skewered the suggestion that SMRs are the fix-all solution to costly and late nuclear power plants.

The reactors have yet to be demonstrated and billions of dollars of investment into their deployment is driven more by philosophy than science with the media acting as an echo chamber, she says.

While some of the new designs may surface as useful solutions, many will fall by the wayside as unworkable or overly expensive.

“The government is at some point going to have to start picking winners and losers. There are a lot of these companies out there and a lot of tech bros clamoring for support and wanting to win the race, but not all will win,” Macfarlane says.

“The actual designers care about their product, but for many of these folks, it's just about making money. They could care less about the technology.”

By Paul Day