US-Canada licensing of GE Hitachi SMR set to open doors worldwide

General Electric Hitachi’s simultaneous push in the United States and Canada to licence its BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) will open doors worldwide, company heads told Nuclear Energy Insider

The company officially began the licensing process for the SMR in the United States at the end of December with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and, in February, submitted its 300-MWe water-cooled, natural circulation SMR to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) for the Vendor Design Review.

“Both the U.S. and Canada have very mature licencing regimes and they carry a lot of credibility in the global market. These are the first stages of the licensing process for this reactor,” Executive Vice President of Nuclear Plant Projects at GEH Jon Ball told Nuclear Energy Insider.

The company has agreed with Estonia’s Fermi Energia OU, Poland’s Synthos and CEZ in the Czech Republic to collaborate on potential applications for the BWRX-300 in those three countries and Ball says U.S.-Canadian licensing can be leveraged for these smaller markets.

“For countries like Estonia that doesn’t have a nuclear regulator yet, they would put tremendous weight on a Canadian or U.S. licenced design,” Ball said, adding that much of the European Union and the United Kingdom are considered very important markets for the SMR.

“The EU has very aggressive carbon reduction targets and there’s a recognition that nuclear needs to be part of the solution. It’s clean energy but it needs to be cost competitive and that’s our primary focus using a design-cost approach,” Ball says.

GEH says the capital cost of the BWRX-300 is significantly lower per MW than the ESBWR, with more than a 50% building volume reduction per MW and more than 50% less concrete per MW. The company is targeting a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) that is competitive with gas, it says. 

The reactor is the tenth evolution of the GE’s first ever boiling water reactor and uses much of the design and licensing basis of its 1,529 MWe Generation III+ ESBWR unit. It is, says the company, the simplest and most innovative BWR design since GE began commercialising nuclear reactors in 1955.

Regulatory Colaboration

In August last year, the NRC and CNSC signed a memorandum of cooperation over licencing SMRs, agreeing to increase regulatory effectiveness though collaboration between the two agencies and building on a joint memorandum of understanding signed two years earlier.

Last year’s MOC means both agencies will lean on each other in order to share scientific information to support reviews of SMRs and advanced reactor technology, says the CNSC.

“It is too early to comment on results; however, the main emphasis right now is on enabling sharing of technical and scientific information to the extent practicable to inform our individual activities in Canada and the United States. Credible technical and scientific information from either country will better inform decision making in each country and will reduce duplication in technical assessment,” the CNSC told Nuclear Energy Insider.

GEH says that its joint application for the BWRX-300 is purely coincidental in relation to the MOC, but applauded the move.

“We believe there is great benefit, not only to ourselves but also the NRC and CNSC, in driving for benefits and productivity by working together so we hope to be able to take advantage of that cooperation,” Ball said.

The dual licensing is not just a case of cut-and-paste between the two agencies, says GEH Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Michelle Catts though it does help avoid duplication of labour by the two bodies.

Two-Step Licencing 

GEH plans to use a Part 50 approach in the United States, which includes a construction permit followed by an operating licence, while leveraging the cross-over points between the BWRX-300 and the previous incarnation, the ESBWR, and submitting the changes to the NRC and CNSC.

Catts notes that the two-step licencing process (first construction then operating) would probably take 5-6 years, and GEH aims for the BWRX-300 to be licenced, constructed and operating by 2027.

“This year we’re planning on issuing several licence topical reports and we’ve already submitted the first one. And all of those will ultimately go in to the safety analysis and ultimate approval for the construction permit,” says Ball.

Non-disclosure agreements with utilities prevent GEH from saying who it is talking to in north America for that first plant, not expected for another seven years – Ball notes it is with “multiple interested parties” - though the flexibility of the new design means future customers will be both utilities and industrial companies worldwide.

The Czech Republic’s CEZ and Estonia’s Fermi Energia are utilities while Poland’s Synthos is a chemical manufacturer.

“In the future our customer base will be different. In the past it’s only been utilities. In the future it’ll be both utilities and industrials,” says Ball. 

Smaller design means SMRs can be placed closer to an operation and are good for applications aside from providing power including processing heat and desalination, he said.

By Paul Day