A panel of five experts and an experienced moderator addressed the progress being made in creating effective processes to license advanced and non-LWR (light water reactors) at an ANS Winter 2022 panel session titled “Licensing the Future: How the NRC is Approaching Advanced Reactors.” Four out of five of the panelists were cautiously positive and provided descriptions of actions being taken and objectives that are still aspirational.
Kati Austgen, Nuclear Energy Institute
Kati Austgen, who is leading the Nuclear Energy Institute’s efforts to coordinate the industry’s inputs for licensing process improvements, led off the presentations by laying out achieved progress and desired outcomes.
NEI’s primary goal for this effort is a process that enables the NRC to “approve safe designs as efficiently aa possible”. Objectives that will help achieve that overarching goal include the following:
- Streamline regulatory processes to achieve much more timely and efficient applications reviews and oversight of new and advanced reactors
- Resolve key generic technical or policy topics well before new and advanced reactor applications are submitted for NRC review
- Revise or establish new regulations as quickly as possible to achieve a much more modern and efficient regulatory framework
Austgen emphasized the important concept that environmental reviews, while important, must not be a barrier to the deployment of significant sources of carbon free power and heat. Her talk ended with a summary of the industry’s goals for Part 53
- Regulatory framework that is useful and thus used
- Risk informed
- Technology inclusive
- Performance based
- Safety without unnecessary regulatory burden
- Efficient and timely licensing approvals
- Greater licensee flexibility
- Long term regulatory stability (Aside:
Mo Shams, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Mo Shams, director of Advanced Reactor Licensing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, spoke after Austgen. It was hard to disagree with his early comment even if it was meant to be in jest. “Earlier Steve [the panel moderator] asked ‘Why do we need licenses?’ I don’t know, but it gives me a job, so let’s go with that.”
He included some important words in his talk. He said that he and his team are as excited about the opportunities provided by advanced nuclear energy as anyone and said that his goal was to perform his job “in an enabling way” while remaining cognizant that he is not supposed to be an advocate. The role of his organization is to make safe use of nuclear technology possible. They want to give the public additional options and want to do their job in a way that returns value to the public.
He offered the following statement: “Our Vision: Creating new paradigms to make SAFE. use of nuclear technology possible.”
He provided some statistical details about the number of applicants in pre-application review (15), in license review (1) and who have the potential to receive operating licenses by 2027 (6+).
He briefly described the NRC’s interagency relationships and its international cooperation efforts. He talked about the progress being made, especially with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to harmonize regulations and reviews. He concluded with a discussion about actions underway to strengthen the agency by focusing on the people that make it work. Their acronym is ADAPT
- Augment – add staff and managers at optimal staff/supervisor ratio
- Develop – train next generation of leaders and experts
- Analytics – drive efficiency and enable scalability
- Plan – future scenarios with bias towards agility
- Team – train people to work collaboratively and synergistically
Ted Nordhaus, The Breakthrough Institute
Ted Nordhaus, who spoke immediately after Mo Shams, described himself as “as a skunk at a garden party” and shared some sharply critical observations. Nordhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, was introduced to the audience as the leader of an environmental NGO with the ability to provide an independent voice in wide ranging discussions about nuclear energy without having the taint of being dependent on income from the industry.
Nordhaus said that the Breakthrough Institute takes no donations from the nuclear industry and described its positions on nuclear energy as “advocating for nuclear in the public interest as a critical energy and environmental technology.”
Not only is Breakthrough able to provide an independent voice in public discussions about nuclear energy, but its representatives are also more free to level direct complaints about the NRC compared to people associated with companies that are regulated by the NRC or who plan to be regulated by the NRC. It’s well understood within the industry that it’s unproductive to upset or anger a regulator that can control your destiny.
Aside: I can testify that one can get into hot water with corporate leaders by making public comments that might offend regulators, even if the statements are true. End Aside.
Following the conventional advice to public speakers, Nordhaus began his talk with a humorous remark. Ted apologized to the NRC’s Mo Shams for disrupting his presentation by dropping his phone. “I’m sorry about my phone, I was getting it out so I could take a picture of the Part 53 Transformative [advanced reactor license] slide with its windmill in the background.” The audience and the panelists chuckled.
Nordhaus then noted that the NRC staff had recently released a Part 53 draft for public comments. He described how the document is 1200 pages long, contains many prescriptive requirements that were cut and pasted from existing regulations, moves ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) directly into the regulation from its current status as the subject of Regulatory Guide 8.10, and adds qualitative health objectives that are firmly rooted in the linear, no-threshold dose model for radiation health effects.
A survey of advanced reactor developers showed that the overwhelming majority of them do not intend to use Part 53, opting instead for either Part 50 or Part 52.
Aside: Though Nordhaus did not mention it, there were numerous critical comments submitted after the draft Part 53 was released. According to Mo Shams’s presentation, the staff had been operating for some time under the belief that they could produce a final rule by 2024, but they have pushed their stretch goal to 2025 as a result of the need to resolve the large number of comments. By the NEIMA law, the agency still has a 2027 deadline. End Aside.
From his point of view, establishing a burdensome licensing process that is not optimized for efficiently reviewing reactor safety results in “down selecting not on best designs or best business plans.” Instead it chooses winners that have the “most patient investors with the deepest pockets or the greatest talent for rent seeking and getting various sorts of federal or government support.”
Nordhaus concluded his remarks by explaining why he and his organization are so passionate about creating an effective licensing process that is focused on enabling regulators that allow radioactive material to be used to protect public health and safety, protect the environment and contribute to the common defense and security of the United States.
Every reactor that we don’t build, license or commercialize increases public health burdens associated with the electrical system. Further results in higher CO2 emissions intensity. It adds to climate risks and also increases economic and geopolitical risks by failing to commercialize economically viable advanced reactors. The result of that is increasing US and global vulnerability to price volatility associated with coal, oil and gas.Ted Nordhaus, the Breakthrough Institute, ANS Winter Nov 15, 2022
Following Nordhaus’s sobering commentary, Drew Peebles, Sr. Licensing Manager, Kairos Power, and Travis A. Chapman, Manager, U.S Licensing — X-energy, each described their company’s licensing approach and their interactions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Drew Peebles, Kairos Power
Kairos Power is well into the process of obtaining a construction permit – the first step of a Part 50 license application – to build its Hermes 35 MWth non-power reactor at a site near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. When Kairos submitted its CPA (construction permit application) for Hermes in Sep 2021, it was the first non-LWR reactor CPA ever submitted to the NRC. Under the current schedule and the actual progress made to this point, the CP should be issued within 21 months after the application was submitted.
Aside: A CPA was reviewed and issued for the Ft. St. Vrain high temperature gas reactor in 1967, but that was approved by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about 7 years before the NRC was created. End Aside.
Peebles emphasized that the progress that his company is making with their application review is the result of careful preparation that included an extensive period of pre-application engagement with the NRC. That engagement included submitting a detailed product and licensing roadmap so the NRC could plan the necessary review resources, and exhaustive reviews of license requirements and design criteria that would be applied to the Hermes reactor. Kairos submitted topical reports for those two key areas as well as additional topical reports for licensing areas like methodology for a mechanistic source term determination.
Kairos has an interactive design and manufacturing process where they design, build, test and revise components and systems. Their representatives often point to Space-X as the inspiration for their design philosophy. They are applying that same thought process to their licensing interactions with the NRC.
Kairos is one of the advanced reactor developers that has no current plans to use the new Part 53 process. They have found a way to their desired goal through the existing process and will evaluated the option of shifting to Part 53 after it has been issued and has “some run time.”
Travis Chapman, X-Energy
X-Energy’s Xe-100 four pack power station design was one of the two major power plant recipients of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Project. Under that program, X-Energy is tasked to begin operating its facility by the end of 2027, which is recognized throughout the nuclear community as a stretch goal that will need everything to go right the first time.
Chapman started off his presentation with a description of the Xe-100 and its technological pedigree. He pointed to the extensive testing and fuel qualification for “uranium oxycarbide, Triso-coated particle fuel” done by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) Fuel Development Program.
Chapman provided a personal testimony about the NRC’s capability to understand and license high temperature gas reactors that use Triso coated fuel. He was on the NRC staff 15 years ago during preparations to review the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) and attended presentations from experts from General Atomics and PBMR. He has been involved with the industry’s continuing efforts to improve and modernize the advanced nuclear regulatory process since 2015. [You read that date correctly. Neutrons are the only thing that moves fast in the nuclear world.]
The technological maturity of the Xe-100 informed the decisions made for the licensing path chosen. Like the Hermes project, the Xe-100 licensing effort will use the two step Part 50 process.
The Xe-100 designers are confident that their plants are protected from damage that would release significant quantities of radioactive material by design based on physics, materials and dimensions. Their licensing challenge is to “prove the safety case assertions.” Chapman emphasized the word “assertions” in his presentation; until the safety case is proved and accepted, the NRC considers that its components are just applicant assertions.
Chapman’s then shared some thoughts and guidance for other potential applicants based on his interactions with regulators.
- Regulatory certainty is correlated to the level of detail in submissions
- Don’t be complacent based on positive regulatory feedback on high-level submissions
- Understand the benefits and challenges of “non-negative” forms of feedback
After watching this session, I remain cautiously hopeful that the NRC licensing progress is not going to be on the critical path for the early demonstration projects. Especially under Part 50, it is possible to effectively license a construction project that can be underway while obtaining an operating license.
With careful preparation, a licensee can produce documentation, probably in the form of a topical report, that lays out the requirements and design criteria that apply to its particular form of non-LWR. A good place for new developers to start is a review of the Kairos topical reports. You can find links to those documents and the NRC’s feedback on those reports on the Kairos page of the NRC’s Pre-Application Activities for Advanced Reactors.
The NRC position is that they are well on their way to improving advanced reactor licensing by their efforts to create a new Part 53, but it’s a good idea to approach this topic with the attitude of the Show Me state.