Bipartisan Nuclear Modernization Bill Clears Congress

A bipartisan bill to modernize regulation of the nation’s nuclear power fleet passed in the U.S. Senate on Dec. 20 and the House on Dec. 21 without much opposition. It now heads to President Trump.  

S.512, better known as the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), seeks to provide a program to develop the expertise and regulatory processes needed to allow innovation and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors. Along with establishing transparency and accountability measures in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) budget and fee programs, it develops a regulatory framework to enable licensing of advanced nuclear reactors. It also seeks to make uranium regulation more efficient. 

Among the bill’s notable aspects are that it caps annual charges of certain licensees. It requires, with few conditions, that annual charges for operating reactor licensees should not exceed the annual fee established in the NRC’s “Revision of Fee Schedules; Fee Recovery for Fiscal Year 2015.” 

It also requires the NRC to develop and implement strategies to establish stages in the licensing process for commercial advanced nuclear reactors, and to submit the staged licensing strategy to Congress within 270 days after the bill becomes a law. 

Additionally, by December 2027, the NRC must complete rulemaking to establish a “technology-inclusive, regulatory framework” that encourages greater technological innovation for the advanced nuclear reactor program.

As significantly, under the bill, the NRC must publish necessary revisions to the guidance on the baseline examination schedule and any subsequent examinations for baffle-former bolts in pressurized water reactors (PWR) with down-flow configurations. The NRC requires licensees to periodically inspect the components, which help hold a structure inside a PWR reactor vessel, for indications of degradation, noting that baffle-former bolts are more susceptible to degradation in older Westinghouse four-loop reactors that have a “down-flow” configuration and have baffle-former bolts made of Type 347 stainless steel. The issue has gained prominence since spring 2016, after at least four nuclear units—Indian Point 2 and 3, Salem 1, and D.C. Cook 2—identified degraded baffle-former bolts. 

One section of the bill, meanwhile, specifically seeks to encourage private investment in research and test reactors by amending the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The bill also requires the NRC to submit a report to Congress describing the status of its licensing process related to accident tolerant fuel within one year of its enactment. Beyond its safety benefits, the advanced fuel technology, could furnish the world’s light water reactor fleet with much-needed cost efficiencies to help them stay competitive.

Finally, the bill requires that the DOE issue a long-term federal excess uranium inventory management plan at least every 10 years that details the management of DOE excess uranium inventories.

The bill was introduced in March 2017 by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) The EPW cleared the bill in May 2017. On Dec. 20, the senate passed the bill with a voice vote, and the House followed suit with 361 yeas to 10 nays on Dec. 21. 

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the bill is a “significant, positive step toward reform of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission fee collection process.” 

“This legislation establishes a more equitable and transparent funding structure which will benefit all operating reactors and future licensees,” said NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick. “The bill also reaffirms Congress’s support for nuclear innovation by working to establish an efficient and stable regulatory structure that is prepared to license the advanced reactors of the future.”

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