I came across an article a publication called Energy Washington Week about small reactors that troubled me a bit. Unfortunately, I cannot link to that article because the source is a subscription only publication. Tthe article gave me the impression that the NRC is not terribly interested in licensing small reactors because its funding came from fees paid by existing licensees and those entities had not expressed any interest in building smaller plants.
I should have followed the advice that I often gave to my students and my children – never accept what someone says about someone else on face value – go and find the original source material. (If that fails, at least gather a few disparate opinions.)
This morning, I found the actual speech that the author of the article in Energy Washington Week heard and used as the basis for his article. I now have a bit more bounce to my step – Commissioner Lyons’s words are far more encouraging than I expected and tell me that the NRC is working hard to figure out how to handle small reactors and how to change the laws that may need to be changed to enable their safe and efficient development. The following comes from a speech given to the Regulatory Information Conference on March 10, 2009. You can find the specific section on small reactors by scrolling down the page or using the “find” command.
The next area on my list of challenges involves small reactors. We have been deluged with proposals for small reactors (Emphasis added), of evolutionary and revolutionary design. I do not believe that the NRC, as the regulator and through the regulatory process, should choose the “market winners.”
Currently, we do not have the staff or funding to undertake an evaluation of these designs, and the Commission has indicated that it will evaluate such reactor applications only when a domestic entity is applying to use the reactor in this country.
I’m not at all sure that this should be our answer, although I think it is the only answer we can give at present. I believe it is in the national interest to assure that a new generation of extremely safe and proliferation-resistant small reactors is available for use in isolated areas of the United States and in developing nations. The best way to assure that goal is to evaluate submitted designs and provide design certification for any that can pass our critical regulatory licensing review. At the same time, the agency cannot appropriately use funds derived from fees paid by current licensees to prepare for such work, and therefore, would need to seek a different source to fund such evaluations.
Unfortunately, because I don’t see such reactors as having much application to our nation’s grid, I think it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy to first demand a domestic customer and then say that there is none. In addition, developing nations, with very few exceptions, simply will not have the infrastructure to safely operate one of the large light water reactors of interest here in the United States; and even if they could use such a reactor safely, it makes no sense to put it on a small grid. Thus, in the interests of global nuclear safety, I believe it is appropriate for the NRC to certify designs for small reactors. I’ve testified to Congress that we need its encouragement, as well as funding off the fee base, for the NRC to undertake such certification. In addition, I submit that it should be DOE’s job to evaluate alternative small reactor designs and select a few to move into the design certification phase.
In closing my remarks on small reactors, I don’t mean to ignore the use of such reactors for process heat. That application may lead to domestic applications for these units and may provide domestic customers who then will require NRC licensing actions. The Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) program is an example of such an approach.
See what I mean? Let’s work with the NRC, the DOE and the Congress to help figure this out!