Licensing advanced reactors in the United States
On September 1-2 2015, the US DOE and US NRC jointly sponsored a workshop on advanced non-LWR [light water reactors]. Your intrepid reporter from Atomic Insights attended and managed to ask a few questions.
The presentations are available here.
One of the highlights of the first day of the workshop came during the question and answer session that included a venture capitalist and representatives of three advanced reactor vendors.
In the space of a few minutes, Eric Loewen, a past president of the ANS and an engineering leader at GE-Hitachi, was hypothetically elevated through a series of positions including Chairman of the NRC, Secretary of Energy, President of the United States and President of the World. In each position, questioners asked him how he would handle some of the complex challenges associated with developing and deploying advanced nuclear reactor systems.
Another crowd favorite was when Ray Tothrock, the venture capital representative from Venrock, admitted that he truly believed that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the gold standard of nuclear regulators. He then reminded the audience that gold is heavy, inert, expensive, and hard to move.
The workshop attracted about 300 registered attendees, more than twice the number the organizers first envisioned. The welcoming talks by both Stephen Burns, NRC Chairman, and John Kotek, Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy set a positive tone.
Kotek emphasized the importance of nuclear energy to the nation’s electrical power supply system, especially in light of the Clean Power Plan. He pointed out a number of ways that the DOE contributes to the development of advanced reactor concepts including providing laboratory support for testing, moderate assistance for licensing and development for SMRs, and supporting university education programs.
Chairman Burns reviewed some of the NRC’s accomplishments during his nearly 40 years on the agency staff and stated that he believes it can do almost anything it sets its collective energies to doing. He challenged the prevailing feeling that the NRC is unable to license non-light water reactor technology without a major preparatory effort. He told us “we can do this.”
There is little doubt that the NRC can eventually license non-light water reactors, but adapting the current framework is not the most efficient path forward. Since no advanced reactor developer has announced that they are preparing a design certification or licensing application, it is a good time to make a significant change.
Jim Kinsey’s brief of lessons learned from the Next Generation Reactor Program (NGNP) highlighted the need. His first slide started with the following bullet:
The existing NRC process for pre-licensing requirements development is workable and viable – it’s not “broken” based on NGNP experience
He then proceeded to describe four needed policy decisions that have been under consideration for 5-8 years without a final resolution. No one in the audience publically challenged the inconsistency between the bullet statement and the lack of closure.
However, I learned from several hallway conversations that many people wondered how such a situation could be considered “not broken.” If nothing else, it is in need of serious repair work. Though the NRC representatives at the meeting acknowledged the need, they also indicated that resource constraints were pushing them in the direction of using the current standard review plan and general design criteria with an expressed openness to justified exemptions.
Probing questions revealed that the resource constraint issue could not be solved by rearranging existing priorities.
The NRC’s financing model, established in the Omnibus Budget Reconcillation Act of 1990, is the root cause preventing many needed actions.
That model requires that the agency bill users of its services for 90% of its operating budget. When there is work needed on a generic issue that applies to numerous parties, the cost is spread among the existing base of operating licensees. If there are more tasks than available people, some tasks get moved below the action line and wait for resources.
Apparently, the 10% of the NRC budget that is not billed to licensees or applicants covers international coordination and some interagency activities.
The “user fee” model sets up an inevitable tension. For good reasons, many current licensees have no interest in funding genaric work to design a more efficient process for licensing advanced reactors. Not only do they want to minimize their fees, but they have a number of active issues they consider to be more pressing.
Fixing the NRC financing model requires Congress to act, but that is not the firm barrier that some imply that it is. It is a political challenge to complete an “act of Congress,” but a budget model can be altered with the insertion of a few carefully chosen words. Clear explanations describing the value provided by sufficient regulatory resources might be enough to stimulate action if made to the right representatives.
The investment of a few tens of man-years in creating policies for a technology neutral licensing path, for example, might enable hundreds of millions to billions of dollars worth of investment. It would retire a certain amount of investment risk by providing more clarity about the actions needed for an applicant to achieve approval to begin and complete physical system development. The result might be tens of thousands of good jobs.
It might be possible to provide the necessary dedicated resources without changing the budget model by directing a portion of the Department of Energy’s $30 billion annual budget to support an NRC effort to develop generic rules. Clear rules that are not specific to light water reactors could enable efficient licensing processes that ensure public health and safety and environmental protection without having to produce and review dozens of individual examption requests.
The disadvantage of this less direct path is that it puts another layer of decision makers in between the source of money and the agency that needs the resources. That situation almost inevitably leads to “taxes” applied on the budget line by the extra layer, leaving fewer resources than expected for completing the needed tasks.
It’s not within the purview of the NRC to push to make the financing model change. It is incumbent on those of us who believe that advanced reactor development is a beneficial activity. It is already a technical challenge; making it more difficult than necessary does not enhance safety or security.
Without action, the NRC will have to rely on existing rules and tell applicants they are willing to entertain justified exemptions. That process is not only difficult to execute for the applicant, but it also provides targets for later challenges. Nuclear energy opponents love attacking exemptions and questioning the reasons why the NRC agreed not to enforce its own rules.
During the next week or two, I will be culling my notes and recordings for additional workshop highlights, but I thought it was important to begin discussing the need for a long lead action. It’s never too early to start when streamlining a process requires “an act of Congress.”
I am really interested in hearing about alternative budget models. I will soon have more opportunities to discuss these types of issues with my local representatives.
From Mr. Jim Kinsey’s talk:
“He then proceeded to describe four needed policy decisions that have been under consideration for 5-8 years without a final resolution.”
Can you list the 4 policy decisions he mentioned? I’m wondering if any are the same as the policy decisions identified by NRC Staff in a letter to NuScale Power, stated to likely impact the NRC’s ability to approve the Design Certification Submittal request on the currently proposed schedule? Two of those policy decisions were the NuScale proposed Licensed Operator manning and the lack of 1E power in the proposed NuScale design. See, if those 2 policy issues aren’t decided in NuScale’s favor, they can throw their design away and start over! And they are about fifteen months away from submitting their Design Certification request.
And I’m supposed to believe “we can do this”? And it is just a budget issue? NuScale’s SMR is a LWR, which is a technology the NRC supposedly understands well. This crew wants me to believe they can “we can do this” for advanced non-LWR designs?
From the brief:
OK, thanks. These will be very generic policy issues for non-LWR designs. But they are also directly tied to LWR SMR designs, as I believe NuScale is looking at a reduced Emergency Planning Zone which will reach right into these 4 bullet resolutions. Slightly off this specific topic, but seems to me NuScale is being penalized, by leading the pack, and “forcing” the discussion of these issues because they will submit a design for certification that contains these policy issues. So NuScale is indirectly paying (via NRC meeting fees, generating Topical Reports, etc.) to have every body’s generic issues resolved.
It can’t all be blamed on NRC either. Remember pre-2011 NRC was gearing up to handle 20+ new reactor applications. NRC can only “crystal ball” their next year budget proposal based on what they hear. The whole structure is a mess. But as long as NRC official position is “no problem”, it is not likely to change.
Of course NuScale is being penalized for being first. This is the primary reason that NuScale is the only group in line trying to license a “novel” reactor design. It’s also the reason you see groups like Terrapower running off the China to see about building their first design. What sense does it make to pay someone $270+ per hour so they can figure out what rules to write just so the design team can then go back and design their reactor to meet those rules?
Not broken my butt…..
Rod, North of the border the reglatory picture is very different, The regulators follow the developmeny of each reactor, and identify safety issues along the way. By the time the reactor is designed and constructed, iits approval becomes a slam dunk. Last year Terrestrial Energy estimated that its first comercial prototype would be ready by 2021, with a line of customers already qued up out the door. This is a very different situation, and it is uni,maginable with the current, NRC. The best thing that could happen to the NRC, would be be to put it out of its misery, and start over from scratch.
“The best thing that could happen to the NRC, would be be to put it out of its misery, and start over from scratch”
The NRC is just the offspring of a failing system. If you just put the NRC out of its misery, the system would just give birth to another handicapped child. If we are going to euthanize the problem, we’d need to start in the halls of Congress.
I reluctantly agree with your statement … in the race of becoming the “gold standard” of nuclear licensing thoroughness, the downside is that NRC outgrew its initial purpose and became a monster that you have to feed 1-2 billion USD (DCD, SER, COL approvals) before even starting the construction of a new type of reactor.
There is no doubt that the political system is broken. The basic problem is the gradual loose of political power by a large group of people who believe that they are still entitled to it. The want to go back to a set of rules that was set when they had all of the power. That will never work because they compose an ever shrinking minority of the population. The resist their loss of power, by rendering the national government ineffective. heir sun is setting slowly.
You’ve nailed the problem with a new design. And that method is not known just north of the border, it’s how Naval Reactors functions. Your solution is a hard (if not impossible) political solution to sell.
It will sell to South Korea, who would like to build and sell 100GWe worth of nuclear power to a power hungry world every yearChina could build and sell even more, and they are putting big investments into MSR technology already..
It seems we’re Ossified Circa 1955. We’re an Oil country. Whatever economic “churn” that’s allowed, is only allowed at the low end: It’s socially acceptable talk about the $15 minimum wage, allowing new “winners” at the expense of new “losers” at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Low end “churn” is OK via the reckoning of some of our elite.
Fortunately for me and many of my co-workers, We caught the Churn of the IT revolutions that caused great losses (and new found “poverty”) among the powerful Media companies. Such economic Churn created lots of jobs for which I among others was able to parlay into a career. The IT revolution wasn’t chosen by the plutocracy; It caught them by surprise. The Churn was that great wealth left the realm of the elite, and great new wealth entered as the elite. This cause the explosion of new work for many, many people.
The difference between the plutocratic churn of IT and the potential churn of new reliable energy is that the energy elite see the potential of strong new competition directly with them, and can muster the resources to stop it. Many Media companies didn’t see the opportunistic and competitive potential of the IT revolution until it was too late for them.
I believe that this effort by the DOE-NRC is only to appease the innovators and nothing will ultimately happen due to: It is my understanding that the NRC-DOE administrators can not change the regulations that stop non-LWR unless Congress changes the laws that forbids them ==> If they were willing to be persuaded to try to work around the laws and make regulatory changes that would allow the non-LWR reactors, Congress would have to be willing to fund the endeavor ==> Congress and DOE has been reducing NRC funding for several years now even though they are 90% self-funded from fees from existing nuclear facilities, This is not likely for our Congress & Senate seems to be at an impasse to do anything positive for the country much less take on the anti-nuclear organizations and powerful energy corporations. Also, The current energy bullies with deep pockets and huge investments (natural gas, wind, solar, coal, oil, existing nuclear, railroad, etc.) don’t want a clean, inexpensive, amazingly safe, base load power & industrial heat competitor and they don’t have any problem calling in election funding favors to squash the competitor; In parallel, the media makes money off of fear mongering regarding anything nuclear. They draw information from enough sources that are non-scientific or are being paid to throw doubt/fear/panic/doomsday about the nuclear even to the detriment of society. Various agencies refer to bad past theories and regulations (LNT, ALARA, CPP) due to the above that have intentionally made working with radiation many times as expensive as working with other comparable or worse toxic materials. Even the new Clean Power Plan under its rate base rules rewards states replacing existing clean energy power sources with fossil fuel power plants. Good luck if you think that DOE-NRC will do anything that their masters don’t want them to do. Most likely they will string the innovators out for decades until they give up and go to another country. It is sad, unpatriotic and embarrassing.
You get my “like” in all caps, bold, underlined large text.
“It is sad, unpatriotic and embarrassing”
Patriotism?? Whats that?
The concept used to beat party members into submission, is all. You are only a patriot if…yadayadayada. You are either with us, or against us.
It is all about loyalty to business designs, party aspirations, and lobby agendas these days. We are way past the point that the powerful political and business interests pursue policies for the good of the nation. Its about enriching one’s immediate interests; greed for power, wealth, and influence.
Patriotism is dying in the same bed our values died in.
“Patriotism is dying in the same bed our values died in.”
Not in the Davison household.
You mentioned that a few changes in some legislation would help here. Do you have specific ideas? if not, do you have the number of the 1990 legislation that could be adjusted? These changes could be done by a few legislators at the support and encouragement of a few hundred to a few thousand of the general public.
I would be willing to put time into this.
This is an excellent comment. On a big picture level changes are needed back to the square one regulatory development, which fundamentally grew out of the bomb development program. Anybody who believes in nukes for electric power (and other pluses) can complain all day, but that won’t change the system. Congress approved Regulatory changes will. And even then there are no guarantees, as we’ve seen with Yucca Mt (derailed by one rogue Commission chairman by fudging a budget), and also the US government failure to take “their” used fuel from the nuke plants.
That’s the kind of response I was looking for, not the bashing or defeatist kind of comment posted by most others so far.
I’ll be continuing my research to nail down the exact provisions, but there is a useful summary of the progression of the fee provisions in pages 17-21 of The Growth of Federal User Charges. The real meat starts on page 19 in the section titled Provisions of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. That year, the fees grew from small assorted charges for items like copying and mailing that provided about 10% of the budget= – but were not linked to the actual budget – to an assessment on licensees aimed at recovering 35% of the NRC’s budget.
That act set a precedent by establishing a fee linked to the total operating expenses of an agency instead of the previous policy of only charging fees for particular services attributable to a customer. In 1987, the portion of the budget covered by fees on licensees was raised to 45% and in 1990, it was raised to 100%. (Apparently a later amendment lowered that to 90%, but I have not found that provision yet.)
Here is the exact provision of law as passed in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, H.R. 5835 (https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/101/hr5835/text):
Even better, I just found a source for the US Code that includes all of the changes and amendments to the above law by searching on the following term “SEC. 6101. NRC USER FEES AND ANNUAL CHARGES”:
It looks to me like an amendment would be a fairly simple thing to draft. Then, we “simply” need to produce an persuasive explanation, find sponsors, pick a law in which to include the language, produce a bill, get the bill introduced, and get the act that includes the language passed into law by both the House and Senate and signed by the President. I might have missed a step or two, I’m not a professional staffer anymore.
this is doable. I will read what you have here very carefully. The thing is finding the maximum impact with the fewest words so that it “slips through”.
The FAA is funded largely by user fees, a surcharge on pax tickets, air cargo, etc,
not by running up applicant review man-hours. So there is no motivation
to keep reviewing and reviewing applications just to keep the agency funded.
The nuclear equivalent would be a charge on nuclear generated electricity.
The NRC budget is about a billion dollars per year. In 2014,
US nuclear plants produced about 800 billion kWh,. So a surcharge
of 0.125 cents/kWh would fund the NRC. Now if the NRC wants to grow,
nuclear has to grow.
The overall cost of regulation stays the same
but now the regulator’s motivation changes drastically, and entities
that dont have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on mostly useless
paperwork can compete. Their money can be spent on real physical testing
which is where it should be spent, as it is in commercial aircraft.
I kept searching for a “like” button and started to write a comment criticizing the owner of this site. Then I remembered who the owner was. 🙂
Thank you for your useful comment. It provides a possible path forward.
That is the best comparison that I have seen. Thanks
I’d be the last person to try to justify the current NRC budget/fee process as the right way to do this whole thing. However your statement:
“So there is no motivation to keep reviewing and reviewing applications just to keep the agency funded”
is just not the actual case.
NRC is primarily funded by flat (adjusted every year) annual license fees for licensed nuke plants, special nuke material license holders, spent fuel only license holders, etc. It is supplemented by hourly fees for inspections of those facilities and reviews of changes, responses, etc. from those facilities.
Reviews for new licenses or design certifications for new designs is a very small part of the total annual NRC budget. So those reviews aren’t driving the process “to keep the agency funded.” The problem is way more complicated than that.
The annual NRC budgets, and breakdown by function back to 1976, are available on the NRC web site listed as “Annual Information Digest” (NUREG-1350 Vol XX for each year). Review them all, you will see the rise and fall of new licenses, TMI2 increases, shifts to emphasis on decomm, etc. Basically a snap shot of nuke power history back to ’76.
Your point about the cost of certification review being a problem is valid. But don’t blame the NRC. In 1976 the total NRC budget was $270M (CPI adjusted to 2013 $1110M) with a research budget of $100M. In 2013 the total NRC budget was $986M (effectively smaller than 1976) with a research budget of $34M. Follow the bouncing ball from 1976; Congress told NRC to get out of the promotion (research) business. NRC currently has no legal way to follow/research new reactor development. Their hands are tied to sitting in a classroom, learning the new design from the developer, charging hourly fee rate for it (per man in the meeting), then trying to develop regs. About all NRC can legally do is budget manpower to sit in the meetings.
It is not a simple problem to solve, and I certainly am not saying that is a reason not to try. But make sure the whole problem is understood before you propose a band aid solution. And be prepared for heavy flak on “taxpayer subsidy for nukes” when you try to fix the root cause.
Is it defeatist to recognize the problem, Rod? Or simply realistic? Solutions don’t come on the heels of denial.
If outside politics are steering the inner workings of the NRC, than it is those outside politics that need to be changed, and the NRC will follow suit.
Problem recognition is only the first step. The next step that a true leader or a person of action takes is to determine a way to effectively address the problem.
As noted in the post, the politicians are the people who can make the change; we, the people, have the right to influence the politicians. They work for us.
Of course, one can fret and criticize the apparent influence of money on the current system, or one can find a way to overcome the advantage provided by concentrated pools of money.
I am, by the way, heartened by the example of Save Sweet Briar; despite heavy odds and a closure announcement that was carefully timed to make it almost impossible to overcome, they managed to raise money and achieve a legal solution within just a few months.
The solutions can be simpler than we think and if we assume we are powerless then we will not take practical actions.
Here is the IAEA proposal for
Proposal for a Technology-Neutral Safety Approach for New Reactor Designs
NRC does not have to re-invent the wheel.
Here’s a US document on new reactor technology licensing..
Guidance for Developing Principal Design Criteria for Advanced (Non-Light Water) Reactors
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