Can prototype nuclear reactors be licensed in the US under current rules? 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Comments:


  1. This seems like a very promising path for microreactors especially! I wonder if USNC is considering this path for their university reactor? I have also long wondered if we could “cheat” some licensing by making a subcritical test facility. This would be especially helpful for designs that are going after less mature fuel and coolant types and need data about thermo-radio-chemical issues in their designs. The new SHINE Mo-99 facility is effectively an accelerator-driven subcritical aqueous homogenous reactor and their NRC licensing didn’t seem to arduous. 10’s of kW class beams to drive sub-critical prototypes would add ~$1M to the cost, which may be acceptable IF the licensing is easier. Of course such a machine wouldn’t be useful for power production, but it could be used for training, radiation testing and even isotope production!

    1. @Gerrit Bruhaug

      While your ideas have merit, this post is specifically aimed at blazing a path for a full scale prototype that is as close to a production machine as possible. It would use the same pumps, valves, piping, control systems, sensors, etc. Of course some features of the design might prove inadequate during testing, but that it one of the reasons for testing full scale machines approved through a less arduous process with public safety being assured with external precautions that would not be required for commercial machines.

  2. Ron – Your article is outstanding. It needs to be published in ANS Nuclear News & posted in ANS Nuclear SmartBrief.

    1. Thank you, Paul. I hope that others find it valuable and take the time to provide useful feedback, including pointing out logical or procedural errors. Public peer review is welcome.

  3. Rod, an excellent piece of research and writing! It probably should be pointed out that Kairos Power is using a variant of this approach as we speak. Their proposed Hermes test reactor, while not a full size version of their KP-FHR molten salt reactor (about 10% of the planned full size design), is currently under review for a construction permit with staff work expected to be complete in 2023.

    1. Gene – thank you for the kind words. Coming from a man with your experience, it’s high praise indeed.

      I’m glad you appreciated the work.

      I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Kairos’s well planned effort to move towards fully commercial power plants. Their scaled down Hermes will provide valuable data on both reactor performance and behavior of key materials under radiation.

      But it won’t be able to provide all of the functions enabled by a full scale prototype. I’m especially interested in the way prototypes have potential to shorten the total path to full commercial production. They also can serve as a great marketing tool for customers that act like they are from Missouri and demand that vendors “show them” that the system they will be purchasing performs as promised.

  4. Historical Fact:
    Many years ago, I worked in the Licensing department at a Comnercial Nuclear power plant. Reading your article reminded me of a paragraph that was not in Title 10 CFR but in the Title 1 CFR [The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the official legal print publication containing the codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the departments and agencies of the Federal Government.] At that time Title 1 CFR stated that the book had to be printed to be legal, technically. I found what I believe was that statement or a statement of verification by searching the internet. ” The Office of the Federal Register (OFR) began publishing yearly revisions for some titles in 1963 with legal effective dates of January 1 each year. By 1967 all 50 titles were updated annually.” Strangely they seem to enforce the rules in the various CFR’s within 30 days of approval. Rod should be able to verify this, but as a Chief Petty Officer for the Reactor Control division on a Submarine the “Naval Reactor” was also subject to 10 CFR. I clearly remember the RC Division Officer requiring that florescent lamps that package of waste discarded be tested for radiation and that the discharge of the material met the requirements of 10 CFR- in 1970 or 71. A job that I was glad went to the Engineering Lab Technician (ELT.)

  5. Speaking for myself.

    While the prototype provisions can provide a pathway to resolve some technical risk, the open ended “additional requirements” scare me. If a design is hoping to reduce costs through the use of concepts such as functional containment or an on-site EPZ and the “additional requirements” force a structural containment or remote location with full 10 and 50 mile EPZ, a prototype may do more harm than good. Thus, many developers may decide that it is better to move those discussions earlier and reduce licensing risk rather than push that risk farther out in time. Additionally, once a developer accepts the additional requirements for the prototype reactor, it might be hard to claw back the requirements for the commerical design. Path dependency is real.

  6. People are distracted by the amount of work/effort it takes to license and build something other than a LWR – as if “prove it” is an unreasonable request from the regulator. Yes there may be three or four different paths to success in the CFR…. but that is not a problem.

    Problem: not one of these concepts the government is supposedly dragging its feet on significantly improves costs, reliability, maintenance, operations, dose, disposal. In fact, all the concepts make at least one of those concerns worse.

    Congress funded the VTR for a few years and then killed it. That’s a judgment on a segment of the Gen 4 offerings – this is consistent policy since before cancelation of IFR. SFR are judged: NOT BETTER for utility scale power generation. We don’t have to build a bunch of them to convince ourselves of this – we can simply watch the sideshows in Russia and China. Nobody wants to pay for detailed evaluation of a SFR plant that does not generate electricity as cheaply as an LWR. The fuel utilization improvement from the SFR is irrelevant because uranium is not scarce; if it were, incremental improvements to current fuel cycle could stretch the supply. Nobody gets excited about chopping up spent fuel rods, making a bunch of effluents in the process, to scavange mixed actinides to LOSE MONEY. The benefit to a MOX program is some hedge against interruption of supply (e.g. embargo), which isn’t an issue for the nation with the most lethal Navy.

    Without going through the details of why not a single Gen 4 offering is promising, I’ll simply state: if it were better, it would have been built already.

    You might have an opinion that a particular design is better, especially those that don’t exist, but that is just that (opinion). The LWR alternatives that are operating today like HTRPM and the BN800 are not making power more cheaply than a PWR.

    It is hard to license a reactor. It must obtain unanimous agreement among all parties involved that the design improves things. The process only seems to break down when presented with a design that is not an improvement. In that case the process breakdown is a FEATURE not a bug.

    1. @michael

      If LWRs are superior, why did we stop building them for 4 decades and why aren’t there any projects following up on the great successes in Georgia? After all, there are still for active COLs for more AP1000s still active.

      There are apparently thousands of people who don’t agree with your assessment. That body of people includes engineers, business people, and financial people (like I’ve recently become.)

      Are you trying to tell us – with an apparently straight face – that Congresses decisions on VTR and fast reactors in general are somehow proof that they are not potentially viable machines.

      The HTR-PM is the first of a kind, so I am not at all surprised that it would produce more expensive power than LWRs being built on a sustainable scale in China. But I am curious – where did you find detailed information on the program costs or on the planned scaling of the technology? Id like to review that information. HTR-PM interests me more than most nuclear technologies.

      Finally, why do you assert that licensing a reactor requires unanimous approval? There is room for differing professional opinions without causing a denial. Even among commissioners, an approval can be issued without a unanimous vote. Vogtle’s COL was not unanimous, the vote was 4-1 with the chairman being the dissenting vote.

    2. Michael Scarangella’s logic applies to the leisurely market of today. It won’t stay leisurely. In the climactic years ahead, there is a rising likelihood of a nuclear rollout worldwide. It is almost inevitable that the US take the lead in the mass production and export of at least one proven SMR. Certainly the first will be a LWR, and its rollout will stretch the current capacity of the world’s uranium mines and enrichment facilities. At the same time as the rollout takes off, the subsequent designs must already be being proven in prototype form, unimpeded by spurious restrictions. Increasingly constrained uranium supply is likely to dictate a subsequent wave of (fuel-efficient) fast neutron reactors, together with their associated reprocessing facilities. They too must be being proven in prototype form early in the rollout. In order to prove that they are market ready, all the above must have proving grounds where their last tweaks can be completed.

  7. I didn’t do a good job of parsing through the word salad of your article. It was my fault and not that of the article.

    It’s been a while since all these companies have pursued the various paths of alternative reactors to replace / augment the existing PWRs and BWRs in the US. Not much building seems to be happening. I’m not sure the complex regulations are aiding progress rather they may be abetting progress.

    Perhaps its time for these companies to look at building prototypes / pilot plants in countries more friendly to the creation of this revised technology. It could be a peaceful South American country would welcome the infusion so this tech into their country. It could be a wonderful future export industry sure to bring in scads of needed revenue.

  8. I think resources for Gen IV are spread too thin, at least given the current overhead for FOAK. Normally, having multiple companies working on each of the Gen IV technologies with their own specific designs would be a good thing, but given the requirement for at least some form of government support to get a prototype built, it might be necessary to collaborate on a single design. For example, all the companies with SFR designs should choose one design incorporating all the efficiency and economic innovations that each bring to the table. Same for steam cycle HTGR’s, Direct Brayton cycle HTGRs, MSR’s, and LFR’s. The cooperation should be on an international scale.

  9. Vallecitos BWR was a prototype in its day. But that was built during the AEC (collaboration) vs NRC (regulation) paradigm. There was a distinct change in the industry when the government went from AEC to NRC. My earliest commercial mentors originally had AEC Licenses, plants named Elk River, Pathfinder, LaCrosse. These not far departures from prototypes.

    US will not lead in nuclear energy because we – as a nation – do not have Atoms For Peace focus in DC. What we have in the Vogtle AP1000 example is the continuance of unstable regulation. The plant was was under an approved design and then was served with an Aircraft Impact Rule. Shield Building requirement over loaded the basemat, bring out the Civil Engineers and start all over.

    The Aircraft Impact Rule was the clone of the *TMI Rule* imposed in the 80s under every plant then under construction. NUREG 0737 / suspend construction and respond with design changes. This caused cancellations / budget overruns / and regulated utility deals such as Shoreham ( started / ascended to 25% / declared commercial / decommissioned) – almost no utilities dare build after that whipping. The guys who know aren’t all dead yet.

    We had our day and the trip from 105 reactors down to 95 didn’t take that long. In countries that have government control of business on a (hard to imagine but it’s true) greater scale than the US will have a much easier time building innovative reactors. Chinese APs Haiyang / Sanmen, handily beat Vogtle coming on line – building a Chinesium version of a US design.

    1. @Rob Brixey

      The project you mention were not the kind of commercial prototypes I am suggesting.

      As far as I know, none of them were built by teams that were fully committed to building and selling a series of virtually identical machines after they had completing the construction and testing of the first of a kind licensed through the NRC process as being identified as a prototype that had not yet proved that it had practical applications.

      It would be important for the developing team to firmly rest its case on the legal requirements from the Atomic Energy Act and to ensure that a determination of practical value needs to be applied to each specific design with the consideration that customers need proof that the system works as claimed and that it can be built for approximately the claimed price within the expected schedule. Without those customer criteria being met, the system should not be considered to have proven its practical value as a commercial product.

      I believe that the current regulations clearly encourage developers to build and test their commercial products rather than depend on models and simulations that are not easy to verify and validate. Even with small scale “prototypes” there are serious questions about scaling, especially in systems that depend on natural circulation for safety.

Recent Comments from our Readers

  1. Avatar
  2. Avatar
  3. Avatar
  4. Avatar
  5. Avatar

Similar Posts