NRC Vision And Strategy For Licensing Advanced Reactors Needs Improvement
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has published its vision and strategy for preparing to review applications for permission to begin building reactors that do not use light water as the coolant.
Policy makers who are interested in ensuring that American reactor developers have the opportunity to lead in the nascent – but potentially very lucrative field – of advanced nuclear reactor technology development and manufacturing should demand improvements to the plan. Funding appropriators should follow through with support for an implementation process that enables a quicker, less tortuous path to initial deployment, especially for those designs that allow simpler, less costly approaches to protecting public health and safety.
Current State Of The NRC Strategy
The document, released the first week of January, is titled NRC Vision and Strategy: Safely Achieving Effective and Efficient Non-Light Water Reactor Mission Readiness. It claims that “The NRC could review and license a non-LWR design today, if needed,” but also makes it clear that the process would not be effective or efficient.
It would be plagued with deficiencies in people, processes, organization and infrastructure, tools (hardware and software), policies, decision criteria, transparency and clarity of requirements, and communication with stakeholders.
The NRC’s roadmap for addressing its deficiencies in the above listed areas includes two phases. Phase 1 is a conceptual level development of goals, objectives, strategies and contributing activities. The activities needed to achieve objectives are binned into “near” term (0-5 years), “mid”-term (5-10 years) and long-term (beyond 10 years) categories.
The description of Phase 2 is something only a seasoned bureaucrat can understand. It relies on Implementation Action Plans (IAPs), budget battles, task approvals, task completion and public feedback for every step in the process. It would require a host of cost estimation specialists, project management software experts, human resources practitioners, and an unlimited number of coordination meetings.
NRC’s Claim Of “Capable” Not Equal To “Ready”
After reading through the listed deficiencies and strategy for developing plans to potentially (budgets and priorities permitting) address those deficiencies, it’s difficult to understand why the authors and reviewers of the document repeatedly state that “The NRC is fully capable of reviewing and reaching a safety, security, or environmental finding on a non-LWR design if an application were to be submitted today.”
According to the document, the agency’s claim of being capable rests on the fact that the NRC — more accurately the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), its predecessor as a nuclear energy regulator — successfully licensed three commercial non-LWRs in the United States.
That claim would be laugh out loud funny if it wasn’t for the fact that the chosen leaders of an important government agency meant for it to be taken seriously. The AEC ceased to exist at the end of 1974. That was 42 years ago.
It is unlikely that there are more than a handful of employees at the NRC whose resumes including positions in the AEC. Every member of that handful would have been too junior at the time to have any idea how the agency decided to license Fermi 1, Peach Bottom 1 or Ft. St. Vrain. The last U.S. non-LWR commercial power plant was shut down in 1989.
The documents describing those activities were created in the days of typewriters and microfiche, so they are not readily obtainable and are unlikely to be in anyone’s readily accessible knowledge base.
One thing that current employees should know is that the AEC did not issue a vision and strategy document that described Implementation Action Plans with task completion dates extending more than a decade into the future.
The NRC has a long history of claiming to be ready to review advanced reactors. Its institutional history, however, also includes at least half a dozen advanced reactor reviews that began and proceeded part way to completion before being abandoned.
Developers Poised To Go Elsewhere
Though the NRC claims no responsibility for the decision to abandon any of the aborted projects, participants in the PRISM, PBMR and NGNP reviews disagree.
They have stated that the cost and schedule uncertainty for obtaining a license and resolving other long-unresolved regulatory issues like emergency planning boundaries, insurance requirements, annual fee structures and control room manning requirements played a major role in their decision to quit trying.
About 28 years ago, the NRC published a document titled Development and Utilization of the NRC Policy Statement on the Regulation of Advanced Nuclear Power Plants (NUREG-1226). It identified many of the same issues, capabilities and challenges as recently issued vision and strategy document.
If a non-LWR applicant showed up at the NRC’s door tomorrow with a complete, high-quality application, with sufficient resources and patience to help the NRC overcome its existing deficiencies, it might eventually succeed in obtaining the required permits to begin building its first unit.
Unfortunately, the NRC hasn’t displayed any understanding of the near impossibility of producing a complete design and high-quality application without access to any published criteria or a proven process of efficiently communicating the application requirements.
Not surprisingly, none of the 50 companies that are working on advanced reactors in the U.S. have announced any plans to apply to the NRC for permission to build their designs in the U.S.
The best hope for a change in that situation would be a clear declaration by the federal government that the widespread use of advanced nuclear energy systems is vital for protecting public health and safety, contributing to common defense and security of the United States and protecting the environment.
With that declaration, the NRC would be required by its existing mission statement to produce a more workable plan to review and approve advanced nuclear power systems. The people on the staff at the NRC are fully capable of completing that task as long as they are told that they can stop being agnostic about whether or not nuclear technology succeeds.
That does not, by the way, introduce any conflicts by making them responsible for producing designs or marketing any particular technology. The process of enabling technology development through good regulatory practices is not the same as promoting any commercial products or special interests.
Note: The above piece first appeared on Forbes.com on Jan 9, 2017. It is republished here with permission.
This is truly the confusing and vexing aspect of Advanced Reactor development.
In 2016 the US Senate (on an overwhelming bi-partisan vote) passed
S 2795 – Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act
Likewise the House of Representatives passed
H.R. 4084 – The Research and Development Capabilities for Advancement of Nuclear Energy Act and
H. R. 4979 – Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act of 2016, also with overwhelming bi-partisan support.
In APRIL 2016 The Number Innovation Alliance published a report Enabling Nuclear Innovation Strategies for Advanced Reactor Licensing, the lead author was Ashley Finan Ph.D., Clean Air Task Force.
In which many of the problems inherent in the current regulatory process were identified and alternatives proffered.
In your Forbes article you state:
“Not surprisingly, none of the 50 companies that are working on advanced reactors in the U.S. have announced any plans to apply to the NRC for permission to build their designs in the U.S.”
In AUGUST 2014 in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, Leslie Dewan of TransAtomic Power expressly stated her wish to develop and build a Molten Salt Reactor in the United States, “We’re committed to building our first plant in the United States for a range of reasons…..”
Additionally TransAtomic’s Website
Under the heading INITIAL EXPLORATION:
INITIAL US REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT ASSESSMENT: 100% Complete
Under the heading VALIDATION & REFINEMENT:
INITIAL MEETINGS WITH REGULATORS: 30% Complete
Does anyone have a handle on what the NRC is doing. Is there no accountability for what they do or are supposed to be doing?
Before legislation can influence the behavior of a federal agency, it must be passed by both House and Senate and then get signed by the President. If bills fail to achieve all three before the end of a particular Congress, they must start the process all over again, beginning with getting debated and passed out of the appropriate committee.
None of the legislation that got so much attention last year became law.
Though several advanced reactor companies have said that they would like to obtain an NRC license, none of them have announced plans — with the associated tentative schedule — to actually APPLY for a license. My interpretation is that they expect that the NRC will change its ways BEFORE they get to that point.
I received a press release after the above post was published from Terrestrial Energy that indicated that they are tentatively planning to file an application with the U.S. NRC sometime in 2019, which could mean as long as 35 months from now.
For some obscure reason, this post makes me start channeling Sir Humphrey
“I think that what they’re saying there is that everyone has agreed that this
new policy is really an excellent plan. But in view of some of the doubts
being expressed, may they propose that he recall that after careful
consideration, the considered view of the mandarins of the Nuclear Strangulatory Commission was that, while they considered that the proposal met with broad approval in principle, that some of the principles were sufficiently fundamental in principle, and some of the considerations so complex and finely balanced in practice that in principle it was proposed that the sensible and prudent practice would be to submit the proposal for more detailed consideration, laying stress on the essential continuity of the new proposal with existing principles, the
principle of the principal arguments which the proposal proposes and
propounds for their approval. In principle.”
(with props to Sir Nigel Hawthorne and the scriptwriters of Yes, Minister. It seems to fit, somehow…
My understanding is that the industry and its advocates have had a lot of input to this legislation. Unfortunately, my guess is that even what they’ve asked for is not nearly enough to change the situation sufficiently for nuclear to thrive. What I would call “marginal changes”. If this turns out not to be enough, the govt. will (understandably) not be too sympathetic, as they passed what the “nuclear side” itself asked for.
What do I think is needed, well……. For this, I will keep it to the subject of new reactor licensing.
More NRC resources is not what’s needed. We need reduced review scope. Something remotely in line with actual hazards. As I’ve said before, 25 years and $1 billion for a reactor that is just like current PWRs, but scaled down which makes it obviously and fundamentally safer??
What’s needed? How about this idea. Place the burden of proof on the other foot. NRC shall be given a finite amount of time and money to provide definitive proof that a given reactor design, or project, is more dangerous than a coal plant. If they claim that it is, the applicant can challenge their conclusion in court. If they fail to provide proof of unacceptable danger (within the finite amount of time and budget), then the project moves forward. Simply put, the applicant doesn’t have to prove safety; the burden of proof falls on NRC to prove that it’s dangerous.
For building another copy of the AP-1000, at a site that already has nukes, I would say that the review should get no more than 2 years and $100 million. Things like the NuScale application? Not too much more (given the reactor’s well known LWR tech and obvious lack of potential to cause harm).
These may sound like the ravings of a simplistic, crazy, angry and frustrated old man (and there may be some truth to that). But consider, is this really that much different than Trump and the GOP’s philosophies on global warming? They’ve basically said that we should not be able to stop fossil projects from moving forward (and releasing mass quantities of CO2 and other pollutants directly into the atmosphere) until and unless there is definitive proof that global warming is a problem. In other words, the govt. must provide proof of harm, as opposed to the fossil industry (or project) providing proof that it (CO2 emissions) does not cause harm, before they are allowed to move forward.
If Trump and the GOP can use that logic for fossil fuels, why can’t they use it for new reactor designs, and assembly-line built SMR modules? (We all know the reason why. The fossil industry is more politically powerful, period.)
Far too costly. 10 months and $10 million. It’s been done before, it should be again.
I’ll add one more of my “crazy” ideas.
I worked in the dry storage cask business. The licensing of a new dry storage cask design was a relatively extensive process (millions of dollars and several years). Once a cask design was licensed, however, it was relatively straightforward to build and deploy more copies of the cask, at multiple sites.
There was nothing like a nuclear plant site evaluation (such as the Early Site Permit and COL processes that exist now, and which cost hundreds of millions and last several years). Instead, a new site would do what’s called a 72.212 evaluation. It was fairly straightforward. All the evaluation does is look at key environmental parameters of the site, such as temperature ranges and maximum ground accelerations, and confirms that those parameters are within the bounds covered by the cask design’s licensing analyses. (The cask designer would, of course, use conservative values, that bound all potential sites, for those parameters, so problems rarely, if ever, would occur.) They would also perform a site-specific estimate of site boundary dose rates, based on the number of casks, cask array configuration, and distances from the site boundaries, etc.., to confirm that the 25 mrem/year public dose limit is met. The whole effort would take under a year and cost far less than a million.
No licensing process was involved with adding more casks to a given site, or even deploying that cask design at a new site. Not a new, site-specific license application or even any revision or amendment to the cask system’s generic license application. In fact, the site’s 72.212 evaluation is not even sent to NRC! (Although it is documented on site and NRC inspectors can choose to look at it.)
As you may of guessed, I entertain the idea that we could, and should, use a similar approach for small reactor modules (like NuScale) that have little potential for public harm (much like dry storage casks). I mean, isn’t NuScale suggesting that emergency planning outside the plant boundary may not be necessary?
Once NuScale receives the license for its design, it should be able to build and deploy modules much the way we currently deploy dry storage casks. For each new site, a simple evaluation to verify that the design-basis analyses cover the site’s key environmental parameters, and the ability to build and add more modules with no licensing activity. At a minimum, this isn’t that unreasonable for sites that already have nuclear plants on them (and therefore have already been extensively evaluated).
I inquired into such at this sight a few years ago. One of the senior ROs directed me to NRC’s ADAMS Database. Jerald Head, Senior VP GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, prefaced his 21 April 2010 Submittal of Licensing Strategy Document for PRISM ML101230532 :
“GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (“GEH”) has followed and participated in recent NRC meetings associated with licensing strategies for small modular reactors, many of which are non-light-water reactors. The NRC has expressed its intent to interact with stakeholders to begin addressing issues of generic interest for licensing small modular reactors in advance of future licensing action requests. Through this submittal, GEH proposes to support the NRC’s work on licensing strategies for non-light-water reactors.”
… then spent an additional 508 pages detailing just how GEH proposed to support NRC’s work on licensing strategies for non-light-water reactors specifically for S-PRISM. 30 Days later Mr. Head received this reply (ML101110710):
“Dear Mr. Head:
Thank you for your March 15, 2010 letter responding to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission’s (NRC’s) Regulatory Issue Summary 2010-03, “Licensing Submittal Information for Small Modular Reactor Designs,” dated February 25, 2010 (ADAMS Accession No. ML100260855) concerning the Power Reactor Inherently Safe Module/Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM) design. The staff will use this information during its scheduling of resources to support its pre-application and application review activities.
The NRC staff plans to continue to interact with the Department of Energy and small modular reactor (SMR) designers over the next several years to identify and develop resolutions to policy, licensing, and key technical issues. Although the staff discusses a number of potential policy issues concerning many different types of SMR technologies in SECY-10-0034, “Potential Policy, Licensing, and Key Technical Issues for Small Modular Nuclear Reactor Designs,” dated March 28, 2010, we are primarily focused on our preparations related to the Next Generation Nuclear Plant program and integral pressurized water reactors. For fiscal years 2010 through 2011, the staff will, because of resource constraints, continue to limit interactions with the designers of other advanced reactor designs to occasional meetings or other non resource-intensive activities. Should you submit a design review application during this time, the staff will conduct an acceptance review of the application when it is received. The design review will commence once resources are available. While resource constraints may limit our interactions, we encourage your continued participation in generic activities related to SMRs and please keep us informed of your plans related to the development of PRISM-related design or licensing applications.”
Undaunted, Mr. Head re-submitted his proposal one year later. He received a similar non-answer answer (ML111310613), identical save “2010 through 2011” became “2011 through 2012”.
Undaunted, Mr. Head turned his attention toward completing ESBWR’s Design Certification.
He needed one anyway.
Changing the law would be a great start. It will be even harder to change the processes, bureaucracy, and people in regulatory agencies such as NRC. The rules result from appeasing the public’s fear of all radiation, no matter how insignificant. Though observations and biology show that exposures up to 100 mSv are harmless, EPA limits public exposure to 1 mSv/year (, except for Yucca Mountain where it’s limited to 0.1 mSv/year for 10,000 years). The omnipresent LNT (linear no threshold) and ALARA rule (as low as reasonably achievable) arms all nuclear opponents with the government official recognition that any radiation can kill you.
@Robert Hargraves says January 25, 2017 at 5:43 AM
It will be (deleted) IMPOSSIBLE to change the processes, bureaucracy, and people in regulatory agencies such as NRC.
There, fixed it for ya…
That’s why in NRC’s case they must be deleted and replaced with a new functional organization. No need to reinvent the wheel for the new organization; adopt the working successful Navy Nuke model. Regulators must have ‘skin-in-the success-game’, and be physically embedded in the process every step of the way to ever be truly resource effective.
And the regulations for public input at all phases of the process must be changed. Only allowed for original Site Licensing decisions, nothing else. The public still ALWAYS retains the power of ‘input’ at the ballot box for national policy and congressional oversight if they don’t agree with those accepted policies. But the public has no inherent right to ‘double dip’ (choose your own multiplier for obstruction) the continuing technical management of an approved Licensed Site.
For all who disagree, and also support the advancement of nuclear power, I say “fine, thanks for your opinion… how’s that current regulatory structure been working out for ya?”
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