Three years ago, Congress passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop a modernized licensing framework that could better accommodate innovation and support the commercialization of a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors. Along with that legislation, Congress has passed a slate of further policies in recent years to support the commercialization of advanced reactors over the next decade, committing $3.2 billion to fund the construction of two new reactor technologies by 2027 through the Energy Act of 2020, and a range of additional tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act earlier this year to incentivize further deployment of advanced reactors.
These commitments to advanced reactors are critical to the achievement of US climate commitments. “The United States,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm stated late last year, “views nuclear energy as a pivotal technology in the global effort to lower emissions, expand economic opportunity, and ultimately combat climate change.” US Climate Envoy John Kerry has been equally clear. “We don't get to net zero by 2050 without nuclear power in the mix.” he told an audience last month.
Unfortunately, recent developments suggest that the NRC is not holding up its end of the bargain. On September 30, 2022, commission staff unveiled a 1252-page draft proposal, 22 months in the making. A new Breakthrough Institute analysis of the proposed rule concludes that it largely replicates the failed licensing rules that have hobbled the legacy nuclear industry for decades.
Congress explicitly directed the NRC to create a risk-informed, performance-based licensing framework flexible enough to accommodate a broad range of future advanced reactor designs, in contrast to the prescriptive rules, purpose-built to license large light water reactors, that have governed nuclear licensing since the NRC’s formation in the 1970s. Under the old rules, the NRC has not, to date, ever licensed a new commercial reactor design that was subsequently entered into operation.
NRC staff claim they have met the mandate given to them by Congress. But the sheer length of the proposed regulations alone demonstrates this is not the case. The draft framework is twice as long as either of the legacy, prescriptive licensing frameworks, Part 50 and 52, that it is intended to supplant. That is because the staff largely cut and pasted the old rules into the new framework, then added further burdensome regulations, including qualitative health objectives that cannot be complied with and expanded requirements for the notorious “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” radiation standard, a further invitation to endlessly ratchet regulatory requirements. These latter two standards have been added by NRC staff despite longstanding and clear direction from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not to use either standard in the way that staff proposes to use them.
A truly risk-informed and performance-based rule would establish a clear and reasonable standard for acceptable radiation exposure to plant workers and the public, and then leave it to license applicants to demonstrate that the proposed reactor design can achieve that standard. Instead, the proposed rule removes detailed technical specifications from the old rules, in order to make the rule ostensibly technology neutral, but still mandates that advanced reactors demonstrate that they have the same design elements required for large light water reactors; multiple barriers to radiation release, for instance, even if a maximum accident cannot produce sufficient radiation to constitute a significant risk to the public.
Sophisticated “probabilistic risk assessment” methodology, to take another example, used to assess risks of failure due to interactions between multiple components and safety systems for large, complex, pressurized reactors, is required for safety analysis of much smaller and simpler advanced reactors that have few components and moving parts, rely on fundamental physical properties of their fuels and coolants to assure safe operations and limit the risks from accidents, and don’t have enough radioactive material in their cores to result in a major accident.
After an early draft of these rules was shared with stakeholders last spring, two industry groups conducted a survey of advanced reactor developers, which found that 85% reported that they would prefer to use the existing Part 50 and 52 licensing pathways and didn’t expect that they would use the new proposed framework, which appeared to be even more complicated and burdensome than the existing rules. In response, the NRC staff created a second framework, called Framework B, that allowed license applicants to use a less comprehensive safety analysis if they demonstrated that their designs featured a comprehensive set of prescribed safety features, also largely ported over from Part 50, with technology specific requirements associated with Light Water Reactors removed.
Framework B also featured a streamlined safety analysis for some small advanced reactors with little risk of exposing the public to significant levels of radiation, called Alternative Evaluation for Risk Insights (AERI), that would allow developers to dispense with a complete risk analysis and instead evaluate risk based on a maximum accident.
But the NRC staff then included a poison pill in AERI, which requires that the risk analysis assume that a maximum accident occurs every year for the lifetime of the reactor, an assumption that is physically impossible (there is no plausible world in which a reactor could have a maximum accident, rebuild and restart within a year, and then continue to have maximum accidents, rebuild, and restart every year over the 40 year lifetime of the plant) and could only be met by a reactor with a risk of releasing radiation to the public in the event of a maximum accident so small as to be functionally equivalent of zero.
Taken together, the two new frameworks in the Part 53 licensing proposal offer the worst of both worlds, marrying the old prescriptive and inflexible licensing rules to impossible risk thresholds so low that they cannot be observed epidemiologically. Needless to say, this is not a recipe for the development of an innovative and globally competitive advanced nuclear sector that can meaningfully contribute to America’s efforts to cut carbon emissions and clean up its electrical grid.
Worse, in the name of eliminating all public health risk associated with the commercialization of a new generation of nuclear reactors, the NRC is actually propagating public health risk. In contrast to the entirely theoretical and unobservable risk that the NRC’s proposed Part 53 licensing pathway attempts to eliminate, the US power sector today kills hundreds of thousands of real people every year. Indeed, public health risk associated with emissions of air toxins, particulates, and other dangerous pollutants allowed by EPA regulations of power plants under the Clean Air Act are several orders of magnitude greater than the standards that NRC proposes to enforce for advanced reactors.
The problem is not limited to the new framework. The proposed Part 53 rule gives a clear indication of how the NRC staff intends to approach licensing of advanced reactors over the next several years, including the two major reactor demonstration projects that Congress has funded. These license applications are proceeding under the old rules, as the new rule will not be finalized for several more years at the earliest. All indications suggest that the staff will apply Qualitative Health Objectives and ALARA in the forthcoming proceedings and require probabilistic risk assessment or, in its absence, impossible assumptions about maximum accident frequency. All this just to license advanced reactors that, by all accounts, will be substantially safer than the current generation of already extremely safe light water reactors.
In short, Part 53, as currently drafted, neither meets the mandate that Congress gave the NRC in NEIMA nor serves the public interest. Absent clear direction from the five appointed NRC commissioners to the NRC staff to go back to the drawing board, start with a clean sheet of paper, engage stakeholders seriously, and draft a truly modernized and risk-informed licensing framework, there is little reason to expect that the first advanced reactors will be licensed and demonstrated by the end of this decade, nor that the US will have the nuclear technologies available at scale in the coming decades that the world will need to deeply decarbonize the US and global economies.
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