Nuclear, Reactors

A Path to Updating the Regulatory Process for Advanced Nuclear Reactors

Issue 3 and Volume 9.

By Dr. Ashley Finan, Policy Director, Nuclear Innovation Alliance & Project Director, Clean Air Task Force

A technological revolution is underway in the energy industry. We are already seeing the results of that revolution in the surge of oil and gas production in the United States. But even more profound changes are happening in nuclear power – changes that have the potential to transform electricity production in the United States and around the world for decades to come.

Dozens of innovative start-up companies and other industry stakeholders are pioneering new advanced reactor designs that could be as revolutionary to nuclear energy as the iPhone was to the telephone. They promise cheaper and easier deployment, lower operating costs, and increased safety. Despite the American talent for developing advanced reactor technologies, the transition from design to commercialization and deployment – both in the United States and globally – has been slow.

A new report from the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) looked at the key initial obstacle to getting new advanced plants built: a nuclear regulatory structure in urgent need of updating. Currently, there is no efficient, cost-effective, predictable process for licensing advanced reactor technology in the United States. The report’s authors consulted with nuclear innovators, safety experts, former staff and commissioners from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), members of the financial community, and other nuclear industry stakeholders. They also examined nuclear reactor licensing systems in the United Kingdom and Canada, and looked at how the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Food and Drug Administration regulate their respective industries.

The result was a detailed series of recommendations for updating America’s system for certifying and licensing nuclear plants that differ from the traditional light water reactor model.

The NIA believes that updating the regulatory process is urgent. The world will double or triple its energy demand in the next 30 years, driven by an emerging middle class in the developing world and the need to bring electricity to 1.4 billion people who lack it today. At the same time, many analyses point to the pressing need to reduce global carbon emissions by 80 percent or more over roughly the same timeframe to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. New safe, efficient, low-cost, proliferation-resistant nuclear generating technologies should play a central role in reconciling these two apparently contradictory challenges – they can provide the large volume of baseload electricity generation needed to meet surging demand without emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The NIA report identified how current NRC regulation presents the licensing of advanced technologies with two major challenges. First, NRC design certification or approval calls for enormous front-loaded investment during a protracted development and licensing phase – without a staged structure to provide applicants with clear, early feedback on an agreed schedule. Second, current regulation is structured to oversee traditional light water reactors, but advanced reactors have different features and performance characteristics, and use substantially different fuels, cooling systems, and safety and operating strategies.

To overcome these challenges, the NIA recommends regulatory changes that the NRC should consider, as well as U.S. government policy changes requiring congressional action, and actions the nuclear industry should undertake to help facilitate needed changes.

The NIA’s recommendations for the NRC include developing a licensing project plan, as well as a statement of licensing feasibility process, that enable applicants to approach the process in standard stages, clarifying expectations, establishing clear milestones and facilitating communications between applicants and regulators throughout the licensing process. At the same time, the NRC can adapt current light water-centric regulations to be more technology inclusive through the development and use of risk-informed and performance-based evaluation techniques and guidance.

To facilitate the commercialization of innovative designs, the NIA recommends developing a staged approach to licensing advanced reactors that will better align with typical development and investment stages in new technologies. Several mechanisms for staging are recommended as starting points, principally the use of topical reports and the standard design approval process.

The NRC could also develop an optional statement of licensing feasibility process to standardize a limited review of early design information. This would provide early feedback to applicants, allow timely alterations in approach to better meet regulatory obligations and provide useful structure to pre-application engagement. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s vendor design review process offers a useful model for this approach.

The figure above depicts the elements that could be used to support the staged licensing of an advanced reactor and structured via a licensing project plan.

Congress can support these efforts by changing the NRC’s budget structure so license applicants only pay for activities related to their regulation, rather than funding nearly all of the NRC’s activities. It should also appropriate funds to help the NRC prepare for advanced reactor licensing and for the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide financial support for early-stage regulatory costs for promising advanced reactor designs.

Congress has already taken action with the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S. 2795) and the Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act (H.R. 4979), which have recently been reported out of committee. Both call on the NRC to enhance their regulatory framework for advanced reactors. S. 2795 also establishes a DOE cost-share grant program to assist with some early licensing costs for advanced reactors. The bills will need to be signed into law and funds appropriated, but the NRC and industry are also moving forward in parallel to meet the challenges identified in the NIA report and to ready the regulator and the prospective applicants for the review of advanced reactors.

The industry also has a role to play by providing crucial information and communications support to the NRC, the DOE and other stakeholders, and by spearheading efforts to develop codes, standards and conventions for advanced nuclear power.

Taking the new generation of advanced nuclear reactor technologies from the drawing board to deployment is vital for meeting the world’s growing demand for electricity without damaging the environment. The NIA’s recommendations outline a path forward that will dismantle some of the barriers to world-changing American innovation.

Dr. Ashley Finan is the policy director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) and project director at the Clean Air Task Force. She is also the lead author of the NIA’s report titled “Enabling Nuclear Innovation: Strategies for Advanced Reactor Licensing.”

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