The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is poised to move from preliminary studies of licensing requirements for advanced nuclear reactors to the development of an actual licensing program. A number of bills currently making their way through Congress provide funding and authorization for such a program, but a final legislative framework has not yet emerged.
Note: Article updated 9/13/16 to mention passage of the "Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act" by the House of Representatives.
In recent years, as efforts have expanded to commercialize “advanced” nuclear reactors, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been studying how best to regulate them. Now, with bipartisan support from the Obama Administration and in Congress, the stage is almost set for the NRC to move into the active development of a licensing program.
Presently, all commercial nuclear reactors operating in the United States are large light-water reactors (LWRs), and, with few exceptions, all were commissioned between 1970 and 1990. Accordingly, for decades, the NRC’s work on licensing commercial reactors has been geared overwhelmingly toward overseeing and renewing existing licenses, and toward processing license applications for the handful of new LWR units currently under construction in the U.S.
Advanced nuclear reactors deploy novel technologies not found in traditional LWR designs. “Small modular reactor” (SMR) designs aim to improve the economics of nuclear power by reducing the scale and increasing the flexibility of new plant construction projects. Other, more exotic designs aim to improve performance and safety by employing non-light-water coolants and alternative fuel configurations, while some designs incorporate passive safety systems that require no manual or automated intervention in the event of an emergency. To license such reactors, the NRC will have to invest in the expertise required to develop licensing requirements and procedures appropriate to a variety of new nuclear technologies.
Licensing has funding support, but program details remain unclear
The idea of licensing advanced reactors has been on the NRC’s radar for decades. The commission first published a policy statement on the subject in 1986, and most recently in 2008. However, the attention paid to advanced reactors has become more serious only over the past several years.
In August 2012, the NRC issued a report requested by Congress, detailing the requirements for a licensing program. Subsequently, the NRC began collaborating with the Department of Energy to establish what technical features will be required to ensure the safety and integrity of different reactors. In December 2014, the Idaho National Laboratory issued a report on design criteria for non-LWR reactors, which provided the NRC with regulatory guidance.
This year, in its budget request for the NRC, the Obama Administration has asked for $5 million dedicated to developing an advanced reactor licensing program. In their respective Energy and Water Development appropriations bills, the Senate and House have both included this funding.
More specific provisions concerning the form of an advanced reactor licensing effort are scattered over several bipartisan authorization bills. While the breadth of support behind advanced reactor licensing suggests many of the provisions are likely to find their way into law, it is unclear which provisions from which bills will ultimately be retained.
As reported in FYIs #27 and #48, elements of the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” were incorporated into the “Energy Policy Modernization Act,” which the Senate passed in April. The consolidated bill would instruct DOE to create a “National Nuclear Innovation Center,” at which NRC staff could “actively observe and learn about the technology being developed at the Center.” It also would direct the NRC to submit a new report to Congress by the end of 2016 detailing its anticipated ability to license advanced reactors within four years from the date of application.
However, a conference committee still must reconcile the Senate energy bill with the House’s amended version largely drawn from the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act” that the House passed in December. Notably, the House’s version does not explicitly instruct its “National Reactor Innovation Center” to inform NRC work, nor does it require the NRC to report to Congress on advanced reactor licensing. It does, though, instruct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to establish a nuclear energy standards committee, the duties of which include performing “a needs assessment to identify and evaluate the technical standards that are needed to support nuclear energy, including those needed to support new and existing nuclear power plants and advanced nuclear technologies, including developing the technical basis for regulatory frameworks for advanced reactors.”
Authorization bills address regulatory principles and fees
Meanwhile, two other bipartisan bills—the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act” and the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act”—specifically authorize the NRC to develop an advanced reactor licensing program.
One key feature of the bills is that they instruct the NRC to adhere to regulatory principles that the commission has been developing for some years. They specify that any advanced reactor licensing program should be:
- “performance based,” meaning it should focus on outcomes rather than prescribe how those outcomes should be achieved;
- “technology neutral” or “technology inclusive,” meaning regulatory requirements should apply across reactor types;
- “risk informed,” meaning regulatory attention should focus on the most safety-critical system components; and
- staged, allowing project financing to build on success in passing early licensing hurdles.
Together, these principles are intended to promote flexibility, innovation, and rapid commercialization within a swiftly changing technological landscape.
At hearings for both bills, nuclear industry proponents have been generally supportive. However, there is not universal assent on the bills’ wisdom. Notably, at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in April, Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates on nuclear safety issues, testified that provisions intended to provide flexibility could “lead to less rigorous standards for approval of novel and untested technologies.” Because the NRC can only vouchsafe safety by rigorously analyzing particular designs, Lyman argued that the more technological options the commission allows applicants to employ, the more expertise its staff would be required to have to make effective decisions. Seeing larger obstacles to advanced reactor commercialization, he regarded the legislation as “premature.”
Another problem confronting any potential advanced reactor licensing program is that, under current statutes, 90 percent of the NRC’s budget must come from capped user fees that the commission charges to recover licensing-related costs. To provide additional funding, and to prevent the new licensing program from being paid for by existing licensees, the Obama Administration requested that special funding for the program be exempted from the 90 percent requirement.
The House and Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations bills do indeed provide this exemption. However, the Senate’s “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act” goes further in that it altogether abolishes the 90 percent requirement and links NRC user fees more closely to the actual burden of NRC licensing activity. It also makes applications for licenses on advanced reactors eligible for a DOE-applicant cost-sharing program. A committee report on the bill offers further explanation of this reform.
In May, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approved the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act” while the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act.” The Senate bill awaits floor action, while the House bill remains slated for consideration by the House Science Committee.
[Update: The House Science Committee was discharged from consideration of the "Advanced Nuclear Development Act" on Sept. 12, 2013, and the House of Representatives passed the bill by a voice vote.]