"Small and Medium Reactors" or "Small Modular Reactors" – Either Way, The US NRC and US DOE Notice a Growing Interest in SMR, Are Listening Carefully and Ready to Engage
On Thursday, October 8 and Friday, October 9, the US Nuclear Regulator Commission hosted a workshop to discuss generic issues related to licensing of small and medium-sized nuclear reactors. The meeting was billed as the first in a series on the topic. The NRC managers responsible for Advanced Reactors organized the meeting because they have been approached by a number of different potential vendors and innovators who have asked individual questions about the process, the policies, and the regulations. In what my fellow submarine nukes used to call a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) moment, the managers recognized that there was a growing interest in nuclear projects that are not “extra-large” (using Al Gore’s description of current nuclear plants). They determined that it would make sense to gather interested parties together so that they could start applying some more efficient management techniques like grouping questions to determine if any should enter into the generic issue process.
I liked a comment that Michael Johnson, Director NRC Office of New Reactors, expressed in his opening remarks. He said that some in the Commission had asked “Why now?” when he proposed the idea of a workshop on small and medium sized reactors. His answer was that it was too late to have had the meeting last year. In other words, now is better than continuing to wait to see if there is more interest when there are already at least 7 announced designs/concepts that might fit into the category of SMR’s (GE Prism, Westinghouse IRIS, PBMR, Hyperion Power Module, NuScale, Toshiba 4S, Sandia right-sized reactor). I learned at the meeting that there were several others who have not made their plans public – yet. The meeting was surprisingly well attended – there were more than 100 people there. The NRC had to move in extra chairs; it was initially a standing room only affair.
Though I and some of the regular commenters on Atomic Insights have been critical of the recent selection of Greg Jaczko as NRC Chairman, I have to give Chairman Jaczko credit for his opening remarks. He wasted no time at all in identifying and providing a solution path for one of the major stumbling blocks to even beginning the process of licensing a small or medium sized reactor – the existing NRC fee structure. He had only been speaking for a minute when he said the following
One thing that I want to offer at the outset is that I think that fees are a solvable problem, but it is also an issue that could dramatically slow down and ultimately derail efforts in this area. I think, from the NRC perspective, I would say that fees are not – we have to recover by law a certain percentage of our fees through licensees and we try to do that from the most technical and most effective way possible (sic).
There is ultimately no real safety issue associated with that decision, so we’ll try to do that in the most fair way as we go forward. I would encourage all of you, however, to make that job easier for us. Because ultimately the decision about fees are really decisions that all of you in the community have much more vested interest in than we do in the NRC. And I would hate to see the NRC having to devote a lot of time and effort to resolve the issues in this area because I think that would distract us from the real thing that we should be focused on, which is to ensure that we address the safety and security issues with the applications that we will be receiving. So, I’ll just throw that out there as something to think about.
Touching on the fee issue a little bit more. The fees are an issue that we are moving forward in addressing. We have put out an advanced proposal and I did have a chance to just look at the summary of the comments. The comments are certainly a wide spectrum of ideas about what we do with the fees. But I certainly encourage you all in the community, now that we have this new community of small and medium sized reactors, to really try and work amongst yourselves to try and find a path forward.
Working certainly in the broader industry to try and come up with a proposal for us that will be acceptable to you and that will really, I think, prevent us from spending a lot of time and effort on trying to address the issue of fees. Because as I said, it’s not the most safety significant issue that we have in front of us when it comes to small and medium sized reactors. So, having said that I now want to turn to those really important issues. . .
As a long time bureaucrat, I can provide a reasonable translation of that comment. Jaczko is admitting that his agency recognizes that the current fee structure is a roadblock that can absolutely prevent the development and operation of small power reactors and that it needs to be changed. However, he also recognizes that the change is ultimately a political decision that requires compromises and negotiations that are not in the core competency or even the legislative mandate of his regulatory agency. Inside the government, people often talk about the concept of breaking down organizational barriers that we call silos, but most are also quite reluctant to even recommend actions that are “outside of our swim lane.” Jaczko has told the people who believe strongly in the value of reactors that are not extra large that he feels their pain and will not oppose a fair solution, but he also indicated that determining that solution is simply not his agency’s job.
If any of you have good ideas, please propose them. Here is a link to the comments that I made on the initial request by the NRC for comments on variable fees – AAE Comments on NRC 2008-0664.
I was pleased to see that the Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy has recognized that SMRs fit its existing mission statement as quoted below:
The mission of the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) is to enable integrated nuclear energy solutions to address our most challenging energy, environmental, and economic problems.
- Enable the development and deployment of nuclear power for the production of electricity and process heat applications.
- Support systems and technologies that contribute to energy security, environmental stewardship, and economic vitality.
It was also heartening to hear that there might be a partial solution to the hurdle of NRC application fees that has already been demonstrated by the Nuclear Power 2010 program and its and its predecessor – the Advanced Light Water Reactor (ALWR). In those programs, the Department of Energy used some of its appropriated money to pay the license application fees to the NRC for design certifications for the AP600 and ABWR, for early site permits at several utility sites and for COL applications the AP1000, and the ESBWR. By law, the DOE is allowed to spend money for the purpose of promoting energy security, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is required to charge fees to recover the cost of its operations. According to the DOE’s presentation and the accompanying audio, there is interest in developing additional cost sharing projects for SMRs modeled on similar lines to the ALWR and NP2010 programs.
I personally think that is a rather silly way to run a railroad – or a government program – having one agency pay another to do its assigned work. It alleviates the pressing obstacle of fees for those programs lucky enough to get selected for special support by the DOE, but it does nothing to lower the barrier for innovative, safe and secure concepts proposed by less politically connected participants.
The real highlight of my day’s attendance at the meeting was the opportunity to chat with people like Andy Kadak of MIT, Mark Campagna, the COO of Hyperion Power Generation, Chris Mowry, president and CEO of Babcock & Wilcox Modular Nuclear Energy, LLC, and Gwyneth Cravens, the author of Power To Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy and Our Changing Climate. I had lunch with Gwyneth and asked her if she had any new projects in the works. I hope she does not mind if I mention her response – she indicated that she did and that was the reason for her attendance at the meeting.