Legal & Regulatory

U.S., UK, Canada Ink Trilateral Memo to Cooperate on Advanced Reactor Licensing

Nuclear regulatory agencies from the U.S., Canada, and the UK will collaborate on technical reviews and share best practices for advanced reactors and small modular reactor (SMR) technologies. The measure is aimed at improving regulatory efficiency and effectiveness as more reactor technologies seek approval in the three countries.

A trilateral memorandum of cooperation (MOC)  signed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), and the UK’s Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) on March 13 will focus on developing shared technical review approaches, the entities said. These approaches will “facilitate resolution of common technical questions to facilitate regulatory reviews” that address each country’s national regulations.

The MOC also calls on all three countries to collaborate on pre-application activities to “ensure mutual preparedness to efficiently review advanced reactor and SMR designs.”

In addition, the MOC calls for collaborations on research, training, and in the development of regulatory approaches to address unique and novel technical considerations for ensuring the safety of advanced reactors and SMRs.

The MOC will supersede earlier bilateral agreements between the entities. These include separate memoranda of understanding (MOU) for cooperation and exchange of information “in nuclear regulatory matters” between the NRC and the CNSC, signed in March 2023; an MOU between the NRC and the ONR, signed in October 2020, and an MOU between the CNSC and the ONR, signed in October 2020.

It also supersedes the NRC and CNSC’s MOCs on advanced reactors and SMRs signed on August 2019, and similar MOCs signed by the ONR and CNSC, signed on October 2020.

Preparing for Advanced Reactors

All three countries have been preparing for a ramp-up in regulatory activities related to advanced reactor licensing.

While the UK in January issued an Alternative Routes to Market Consultation as part of its  “smarter regulation challenge,” a civil nuclear roadmap calls upon ONR to begin streamlining its nuclear reactor design assessment and licensing processes for more efficiency. In addition, ONR and an environmental counterpart is expected to publish new guidance to the Generic Design Assessment (GDA)—a non-mandatory regulatory process—“requesting parties on how to maximize the use of overseas regulatory assessment and expectations for moving from a two-step GDA to licensing and permitting.”

The UK’s Great British Nuclear (GBN) is, meanwhile, working to finalize its final picks from an SMR competition. GBN could announce which of the six companies it shortlisted it will support in spring 2024, and it anticipates awarding contracts by summer 2024. 

Last week, meanwhile, the NRC directed its staff to publish a proposed rule and draft guidance to create Part 53, a much-awaited risk-informed and technology-inclusive licensing framework geared toward advanced technologies, including non-light-water-reactors (non-LWRs). All U.S. advanced reactor developers—such as KairosX-energyTerraPower, and Abilene Christian University—are currently pursuing demonstration projects under Part 50.

In Canada, where the CNSC in 2019 issued a strategy for readiness to regulate advanced reactor technologies, work has been advancing using the entity’s long-established risk-informed approach. A key focus has been on streamlining the vendor design review (VDR) process, an optional pre-licensing mechanism that allows CNSC staff to give applicants feedback early in the design process.

Regulatory Cooperation Already Underway at NRC, CNSC

So far, the NRC has been working with the CNSC to test regulatory cooperation processes using specific case studies that are under review both in the U.S. and in Canada. Notable projects involve the Westinghouse eVinci microreactor, Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor, X-energy’s Xe-100, and NuScale Power’s small modular reactor (SMR), which are each at different stages of vendor engagement and regulatory review in the two countries.

The NRC and CNSC are also cooperating on a pre-application review for GE BWRX-300 SMR, which has begun a pre-application process at the NRC and completed a combined phase 1 and 2 vendor design review with CNSC. Ontario Power Generation in October 2022, notably, submitted an application to the CNSC for a license to build a BWRX-300 SMR at its Darlington facility. In September 2022, the NRC and CNSC signed a charter that “establishes a collaborative relationship” and outlines work by each of the agencies on the BWRX-300 SMR design project.

The NRC and CNSC partnership is separately developing guidance for staff review on new build license applications, covering operator training and qualification, a TRISO fuel qualification assessment, and modernizing licensing processes.

An International Effort

The agreement unveiled on Wednesday “shows the great progress we’ve made with our international counterparts to ensure advanced reactor technology can be safely and efficiently deployed,” said NRC Chair Christopher Hanson. Hanson noted joint reports the NRC and CNSC in the past have supported “significant licensing activities on several advanced designs over the past couple of years.” He added: “We look forward to ONR’s contributions as we all consider applications to build SMRs and advanced reactors.”

ONR Chief Nuclear Inspector Mark Foy also lauded the measure, noting: “The agreement will ensure the efficient use of regulators’ time and resources through a willingness to share technical knowledge and judgments, streamlining regulation while maintaining safety standards, acting as an exemplar of how regulators should work together in today’s modern world.”

Ramzi Jammal, acting CEO of the CNSC, also highlighted the effort’s harmonization potential. “This provides a framework for the three organizations to work together to optimize our collective skills, experiences, and knowledge,” he said.

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

Updated (March 15): Includes more details about NRC and CNSC cooperation.

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