Oklo, developer of the 1.5-MW Aurora micro-reactor, has submitted the first-ever combined license application (COLA) for an advanced non-light water reactor (LWR) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The move formalizes the start of a new era for nuclear regulation in the U.S.
The Silicon Valley company, which last year received a first-of-its-kind site use permit to build its Aurora plant, a fast reactor, at an Idaho National Laboratory (INL) site, this February also became the first modern advanced reactor design firm to secure access to recycled nuclear fuel from INL for demonstration purposes.
Oklo CEO and co-founder Jacob DeWitte told POWER on March 16 the COLA it submitted to the NRC last week is also pioneering because it is the first that was privately funded, and the first to be submitted online. More significantly, “Our application also takes on an entirely new license application structure, which we piloted in 2018 with the NRC,” he said.
“This yields a streamlined application which also introduces a variety of new and improved approaches. Overall this sets the stage for more efficient and effective reviews, which should lead to reactors being built more quickly and affordably since the structure better reflects the inherent safety characteristics of advanced reactors,” said DeWitte.
NRC Preparing to Review Non-LWR Applications
The NRC, a federal licensing and regulatory body exclusively for the U.S. nuclear sector, has issued hundreds of licenses to separately permit reactor construction and operation, including for the nation’s currently operational 96 commercial reactors, all LWRs whose construction began before 1979. In the 1980s, the NRC modified its original two-step licensing approach to provide for early site permits and approval of standardized designs, both which could be referenced in an a COLA.
Over its long history, the NRC has also regulated non-LWRs, mostly focusing on gas-cooled and liquid metal-cooled reactors.
Responding to recent industry interest in the development and licensing of non-LWRs—which are different from LWRs because, for example, they use gas, liquid metal, or molten salt as a coolant, or have a fast neutron spectrum (LWRs have a thermal neutron spectrum), or are much smaller in size—the agency published the 2016 NRC Vision and Strategy: Safely Achieving Effective and Efficient Non-Light Water Reactor Mission Readiness, laying out key objectives as they relate to possible new rules.
According to a February 2020 status update on its advanced reactor program, NRC staff has since made “significant progress” to support non-LWR licensing, including by preparing two reports to expedite and establish the licensing process for commercial advanced nuclear reactors, as required by the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA). It has also hired experts to support reapplication interactions and application reviews, and has begun efforts to establish a “technology-inclusive” regulatory framework. “Significant work” still remains, however, the NRC says. (NRC documents relating to non-LWR licensing can be accessed here. Slides from an advanced reactor stakeholder meeting the NRC held on Feb. 20, 2020, which provide more detail on the agency’s advanced reactor regulatory initiatives and gaps identified by industry, can be found here.)
So far, the NRC has received formal notice of intent to begin regulatory interactions from six non-LWR developers, which are in different stages of design development. Along with Oklo, which initiated discussions in November 2016 for its micro fast-reactor design, these include X-energy for its pebble bed high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR); and Kairos Power for its pebble-fueled, molten-salt-cooled reactor. The NRC also is in discussions with X-energy on a pre-application interaction for a fuel fabrication facility to produce tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel.
A ‘Pilot’ Application
Oklo’s pioneering COLA is also first time the NRC has received an application for a custom combined license (COL) not referencing a certified design. It follows a September 2018-submitted “pilot” application based on the NRC’s draft regulatory guide (DG-1353), a document last updated in April 2019 that sought to give regulators and technology developers more insight on permit, licensing, and certification applications. In its pilot application, Oklo pointed out that the NRC “does not require applicants to follow a certain structure for applications,” noting that the application structure uses for operating commercial LWRs was developed after several plants had been built.
While it is unclear how much the pilot application differs from the COLA submitted to the NRC last week, the pilot’s structure comprises five primary parts: general company and financial information; final safety analysis report requirements; proposed inspections, tests, analysis, and acceptance criteria; an environmental report; and requirements from loss of a large area of the plant due to explosions or fire.
In comparison, Southern Nuclear’s 2008-submitted COLA (approved in February 2012) for its Vogtle 3 and 4 AP1000 reactors, the only nuclear reactors currently under construction in the U.S., contained 11 parts, including technical specifications, an emergency plan, limited work authorization, and a security plan. The NRC said Oklo’s COLA includes “some exemption requests for technical requirements.”
As industry trade group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) noted, the approach is customized to the fast micro-reactor’s size and safety attributes. In a statement to POWER, NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick lauded it as a “monumental step in the deployment of advanced reactors, and the nation’s first micro-reactor, which will look much different than today’s nuclear plants and generate just one to ten megawatts of electricity.”
NRC Review Timeframe and Costs
The NRC will now embark on an acceptance review of Oklo’s application. “This is likely to extend beyond the normal 60 days” because the custom COLA does not reference a certified design, NRC told POWER on March 19. “At the end of the acceptance review, we will decide on docketing the application and if we do, we’ll establish a review schedule.” As required by NEIMA, NRC’s generic schedule for a custom combined license (COL) not referencing a certified design is 36 months, it noted.
In February, Oklo’s DeWitte told POWER the company is looking at an NRC review time schedule that is “in the order of two years, possibly even better than that.” Though he did not specify when the reactor will be demonstrated at INL, he also noted: “Generally speaking, the time range of 2022 and 2024 is where we’re looking at, somewhere in that range.”
Citing a November 2019 NEI report, NEI Senior Director of New Reactors Marc Nichol told POWER on March 19 that it may be possible for the NRC to review a micro-reactor application in as little as 12 months. “No showstoppers were identified that would prevent the NRC from reviewing or approving a micro-reactor application. Resolution of the identified issues would; however, reduce uncertainty for the applicants and lead to more efficient NRC reviews,” he said. Nichol also noted that at a February NRC Commission briefing on Advanced Reactors, staff noted that they may be able to review the first micro-reactor application in 24 months.
In her statement, Korsnick suggested she expects licensing for multiple non-LWRs will occur at least during this decade. “The 2020s will advance these new nuclear technologies from design concepts to reality, ushering in a wave of nuclear innovation that will change how we power our future while mitigating against a changing climate,” she said.
How costs compare to regulatory review of certified designs will be determined by how long the review will take. The NRC said it will bill Oklo for the COLA review using a professional staff-hour rate of $275/hour. “If the application is accepted and docketed, the NRC will provide a cost estimate in addition to the schedule estimate,” it said.
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).
UPDATED (March 20, 2020): Adds details about review timeline from NRC, NEI