The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has indicated it will certify NuScale’s 50-MWe (160 MWth) small modular reactor (SMR) design, marking another definitive milestone for the reactor vendor and its technology prospects.

The NRC on July 29 said it directed staff to issue a final rule that certifies the standard SMR design, for which NuScale submitted an application in December 2016. The certification, which means the design meets the agency’s applicable safety requirements, will be effective 30 days after the NRC publishes that rule in the Federal Register.

When published, NuScale’s SMR will become only the seventh reactor design certification that the regulatory body has issued for use in the U.S. Other reactor designs certified by the NRC include the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, System 80+, AP600, AP1000, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, and the APR1400.

NuScale’s 50-MWe module on Aug. 28, 2020, became the first SMR to receive a final safety evaluation report (FSER) from the NRC as part of a Phase 6 review—the last and final phase—of NuScale’s Design Certification Application (DCA). Issuance of the final design certification will be imperative for projects that seek a combined license from the NRC that reference the certified design.

An application for a nuclear power plant combined license that references a certified design will not need to address any of the issues resolved by the design certification rule. Instead, the combined license application and the NRC’s safety review would address any remaining safety and environmental issues for the proposed nuclear power plant. The design certification approves the NuScale reactor’s ‘design control document,’ which is incorporated by reference in the final rule,” the NRC said on Friday.

A Still-Needed Design Approval

While NuScale has several construction prospects underway worldwide, only one NuScale project is under active development in the U.S. CFPP LLC, an entity wholly owned by the Utah state energy services interlocal agency Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), is spearheading the 462-MWe Carbon-Free Power Project—the first VOYGR-6 power plant—at an Idaho National Laboratory (INL) site in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Project partners CFPP, Fluor, and NuScale are targeting a 2029 startup and commissioning timeframe for the Carbon Free Power Project. The partners are also actively developing a combined license application (COLA). CFPP has said it expects to submit the COLA to the NRC in early 2024 in accordance with the regulatory agency’s 10 CFR 52 requirements.

The CFPP project has recently marked a series of major achievements, including completing field investigation activities at the INL site in February. Plans now envision that site preparation and excavation will begin in 2025. Pouring of the first safety-related concrete for the reactor building could come next, likely in 2026. 

However, because the CFPP project will deploy NuScale’s 77-MW VOYGR technology, the nuclear vendor will need to seek an NRC review of the company’s power uprate (from 60-MWe to 77-MWe) as part of a Standard Design Approval (SDA) application.

“NuScale is preparing an SDA application for submittal to the NRC in December 2022 which will be based on a six-module configuration using 250MWt (77MWe) modules,” Diane Hughes, vice president of Marketing and Communications for NuScale Power, told POWER on Friday.

Going From 50-MWe to 77-MWe

NuScale raised its NuScale Power Module’s (NPM’s) capacity from 50-MWe to 60 MWe in 2018, after confirming the increase using advanced testing and modeling tools. The company in 2018 told POWER the power uprate from 50 MWe to 60 MWe would lower the cost of the 12-module facility from an expected $5,000/kW to about $4,300/kW with a “very minimal change in capital costs.” 

In November 2020, however, the company said its technology can generate up to 25% more power per module, which led to another significant uprate, boosting the NPM’s capacity from 60 MWe to 77 MWe. The uprate effectively expanded the company’s flagship 12-module plant size from 720 MWe to 924 MWe. “Furthermore, the scalable, 12-module power plant will now approach a size that makes it a true competitor for the gigawatt-size market,” the company had then said.

NuScale in November 2020 also launched two smaller plant solutions—a four-module plant of about 308 MWe, and a six-module plant of about 462 MWe—to provide potential customers more options in terms of size, power output, operational flexibility and cost. The smaller plants would also have smaller footprints, and more simplified construction, which could reduce construction schedules and costs, it said.

The company finally unveiled an official name for its SMR power plants in December 2021—VOYGR. The 924-MWe plant, featuring 12 NuScale power modules, is known as a VOYGR-12, the 308-MWe four-module plant is known as VOYGR-4, and the 462-MWe six-module plant, VOYGR-6.

As originally envisioned, the CFPP was to be built as a 12-module, 720-MWe project. The project was later downsized to a VOYGR-6 to provide much-needed flexibility as UAMPS scrambled to secure financial commitments from its members.  UAMPS has so far signed up 27 of its 50-member pool—mainly in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and New Mexico—as participants in CFPP.

A Notable Step for the NRC

The NuScale standard design certification for an SMR is a big step for the NRC. Since Congress enacted the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) in January 2019, the regulator has been preparing for the regulation of a new generation of reactors. NRC officials have said a key mission has been to transform the regulatory framework for advanced reactors into a “modern risk-informed and technology-inclusive approach.”

On the SMR front, however, the NRC is mostly engaged in pre-application activities. It is engaged with NuScale to support the company’s future SDA application for the 77-MWe reactor design. The regulator has also confirmed it is engaging with CFPP on its future COLA referencing the NuScale design. Meanwhile, the NRC is in discussions with GE Hitachi on its BWRX-300 SMR design, as well as with the Tennessee Valley Authority for a construction permit and future operating license application for the Clinch River site in Tennessee. Separately, it is engaging with SMR, a Holtec International subsidiary, on its SMR-160 SMR design.

In tandem, the NRC says it is adapting to the steadily evolving landscape for non-light water reactor (LWR) advanced nuclear technology. While the NRC in January 2022 denied—without prejudice—Oklo’s COLA, staff is reviewing a December 2021–accepted construction permit application for Kairo’s Hermes demonstration reactor, which the advanced reactor developer plans to use to develop a high-temperature molten salt-cooled power reactor design.

Several non-LWR reactor designers have also formally notified the NRC of their intent to engage in regulatory interactions. They include General Atomics for its Energy Multiplier Module, Terra Power and GE Hitachi for their Natrium reactor, Westinghouse for its eVinci microreactor, Terrestrial Energy for its IMSR, X-Energy for its XE-100 design, Terra Power for its molten chloride fast reactor, and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. for its high-temperature gas-cooled test reactor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).