On Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did the right thing. The commissioners voted to approve a modernized emergency planning rule for advanced reactors, simplifying one of the many steps needed to bring a new generation of new reactors online.
The need was clear and simple: the current deterministic rules were designed for very large existing reactors, not new small or advanced reactor designs. The NRC already has scalable rules for gas, research, and test reactors, so similar rules for advanced reactors is logical and appropriate. Additionally, by incorporating half a century of engineering progress, all the new reactor designs have inherent safety features that sharply reduce the risk of damage to the fuel. Beyond that, many have features that make releases to the environment very unlikely even if there is fuel damage.
That makes the current emergency planning rule a clear example of the ways in which regulations designed for current-generation reactors need to be changed to accommodate advanced models.
Crafting the new rule took time, with lengthy engagement with new reactor developers and other interested parties beginning in 2016 with the staff’s original rulemaking plan. By January 2022, the commission’s staff and the reactor developers were in close alignment about what was needed and they sent a draft rule to the commission. But then the rule was stalled for more than 18 months. In fact, although the commissioners all submitted their written vote months ago, they kept delaying their “affirmation vote,” that is the last step to direct the staff to publish the final rule. Meanwhile, reactor developers were facing the prospect of preparing their applications with two different scenarios: One if the new rule were approved, with criteria appropriate to their designs, and the other if the commission failed to act.
The Breakthrough Institute and four other organizations that are seeking to foster a new generation of reactors (the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, ClearPath, the Clean Air Task Force, and Third Way) sent a letter to the commission on August 1, asking the commission to approve the rule, and to its credit, the commissioners scheduled a vote for less than two weeks later.
We agree with NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson’s statement: “While requiring formal offsite radiological emergency plans where there is no offsite plume exposure might increase public confidence, it does not increase public safety. Therefore, the NRC does not have a regulatory basis to impose such requirements. When there is no technical justification for a regulatory requirement, we call into question our independence and credibility by wading into policy issues outside our purview.”
Finalizing the emergency preparedness rule is a modest step towards modernization, and many others remain. Notably, the NRC is under instructions from Congress to develop an entirely new, simplified licensing rule for advanced reactors, one that is firmly grounded in risk analysis, focusing on what the actual risks are, and that sets performance requirements. We hope the commission will consider the chairman’s statement in development of the new licensing rule.
The commission acted quickly on our request to finalize this long-delayed rule. Now is the time to keep the momentum and finalize other rules that have been waiting for direction from the commission.