U.S. Nuclear Technology Progress at Risk, Industry Groups Warn

The future of advanced reactors in the U.S. will remain murky unless the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) takes four key steps to support innovation and commercialization of new technology, three key industry groups have warned.

U.S. leadership of nuclear technology is “at risk,” and if changes aren’t made it will lose its standing as a technology powerhouse, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, and the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council told NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki in a January 23 letter.

The U.S. led the world into the age of nuclear energy, and it continues to be a global leader in technology innovation. The U.S. is also home to the largest nuclear fleet in the world, and NRC rules are viewed as “the world standard for ensuring nuclear plant safety and security,” the groups noted.

However, the groups said NRC licensing hasn’t evolved in decades, even as technology developments continue. Numerous designs are at various stages of development for small modular light water reactors (LWRs) and non-LWRs—and many are backed by federal research efforts. But “While the NRC staff has been engaged in an active dialogue with interested stakeholders, as yet there is little evidence of improved efficiencies in the reviews of advanced LWR designs,” the groups said in a white paper made public last week.

“Over-regulation and protracted reviews by the NRC are driving some U.S. companies out of the domestic market altogether, shifting their focus to the international market, where they hope regulators are able to make a finding of sufficient safety faster and at a lower cost than the NRC,” they said.

The NRC, for example, requires “more effort from applicants to demonstrate that a design” satisfies the “adequate protection” standard, prolonging—without certainty—reactor licensing, even as the designs are becoming inherently safer, the groups pointed out. “Applications for designs with improved safety features require ever greater detail, adding time and expense without enhancing safety. In some cases information is requested from the applicant that would normally not be available until a system is actually built.”

Industry, too, has contributed to this dilemma by “acquiescing to the escalation in the Agency’s requests for unnecessary, burdensome detail,” the groups noted.

To stay on top of global nuclear markets, the NRC should “act promptly to create a streamlined and predictable licensing pathway for advanced reactors,” they urged.

The future of advanced reactor technology in the U.S. will require four key near-term regulatory reforms, the groups said.

The first—which the groups termed “high priority”— involves reversing the trend of “increasing regulatory costs and excessively long reviews.” Applicants need a process that will give them confidence that the NRC can and will review designs and license applications predictably and cost-effectively—without the burden of unnecessary regulations. For one, the NRC should slash the expanding scope of detail required for licensing review, which has contributed to “regulatory creep,” the groups said. The NRC could also work to streamline management engagement and decision-making as it concerns details required to make and document safety findings.

The second reform sought by the groups concerns “aligning the regulatory framework for advanced reactors with their inherent enhanced safety.” The current regulatory framework is developed for LWR designs, but since most advanced reactors under development are cooled by fluids other than water (such as gases, liquid metals, and molten salts), they are not susceptible to the same types of accidents, they argued.

“Many advanced reactor designs are inherently safe even with the loss of both AC and DC power, feature even larger safety margins, and allow for longer times of accident progression. New designs also are less complex, with passive safety features and far fewer systems than large LWRs, significantly reducing the likelihood and magnitude of offsite releases,” they said.

While the NRC has initiated rulemaking with the potential to scale emergency planning and security requirements to align with the specific risks posed by advanced reactors, it should also modernize its process for setting design requirements for advanced reactors. “The modernized process should account for the unique characteristics of the advanced non-LWRs and enhanced safety features of these reactors. This effort is expected to result in a more technology-inclusive, performance-based and safety-focused regulatory process needed to restore stakeholder confidence,” they said.

The third reform needed involves “defining licensing options clearly, including options for staged applications and approval.” NRC rules allow, in principle, for a staged, incremental license application review and approval process for licensing one portion of a design at a time, but these provisions are “not well-defined and have not been recently used,” the groups said. “Thus, applicants are uncertain about their viability to address specific development risks much earlier in the licensing process.”

The groups said they are working with the NRC on developing a regulatory planning guidance that allows designers to better understand different licensing pathways, an effort that may help reduce uncertainty about NRC review and acceptance of certain aspects of a design, even before the final design is completed for the entire facility.

The final reform should provide “additional flexibility for changes during construction,” the groups said. “Utilities and other end-users that will build future reactors need the ability to make changes during construction, without unduly slowing construction. The need for prior NRC approvals of the changes, no matter how minor, has increased costs, both by causing construction delays or by maintaining the engineering and licensing organization on standby, ready to quickly develop and submit license amendments.”

These issues should be addressed by reducing the level of detail in the licensing basis, which in turn will reduce the need for license amendments, they added. Specifically, the groups called for the NRC to eliminate Tier 2*—a process the agency has been using to certify new design applications since the early 1990s under 10 CFR Part 52.

The NEI has lobbied for elimination of the Tier 2* category since 2014. The designation was introduced to minimize the scope of Tier 1 information—which is considered more safety-relevant—and to provide greater flexibility in making changes to that information. Ironically, even though Tier 2* information changes don’t require an approved exemption to the existing design certification, the NEI says the level of effort is nearly identical for Tier 1 and Tier 2* changes because both require license amendments. Last October, the NEI said that “both the NRC and industry have learned that the Tier 2* designation has introduced ambiguities and unnecessarily burdensome regulatory action.”

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)