TerraPower Asks the NRC for a Construction Permit

Will the first commercial advanced reactor in the US be in Kemmerer, Wyoming?

TerraPower Asks the NRC for a Construction Permit

Photo Credit: Gary L Hider - stock.adobe.com

In a landmark date for clean energy, TerraPower, a nuclear reactor developer, submitted its Construction Permit Application (CPA) for the Kemmerer Power Station to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on March 29, 2024. This is the first CPA for a commercial advanced reactor in the United States, potentially positioning the TerraPower project, called Natrium, to be the first such reactor to be constructed in the country.

TerraPower has acquired land to build in Kemmerer, Wyoming, near a retiring coal plant. Kemmerer has been a hub for energy production since its first coal mine opened more than a century ago — providing the energy that fueled the region's growth and prosperity. But as the world grapples with the urgent need to transition to cleaner energy alternatives, Kemmerer chose to embrace a new era of innovation with TerraPower's advanced nuclear project.

The submission of the Construction Permit Application to the NRC follows years of research, development, and collaboration. TerraPower started engagement with the NRC in 2021, culminating in requesting a pre-application readiness evaluation in 2023 intended to identify gaps in their application before it was formally submitted. The NRC found no gaps in the Preliminary Safety Analysis, but identified some areas where more detail was needed. Early identification provided TerraPower an opportunity to address any issues prior to submitting the CPA to enable the review to proceed efficiently.

For the Kemmerer project, TerraPower chose to use the regulatory framework in 10 CFR Part 50. Part 50 is a two-step licensing process where applicants apply for a Construction Permit, start building, and when construction is near completion, file for an Operating License. The NRC will take several weeks to review the application to make sure it is complete before docketing it for full review. The NRC’s generic review timeline for CPAs after docketing is 36 months.

TerraPower's CPA represents a milestone for several reasons. It is an advanced design, operating at higher energy and able to use a larger variety of fuels. It incorporates a giant battery, in the form of heat storage, making it well suited to operate on a grid with intermittent renewable energy. Recently, NuScale Power, a competing advanced reactor developer, achieved a milestone of its own by obtaining a Standard Design Certification for its design separate from a specific site. This accomplishment validates the safety and viability of their technology, but is separate from the site-specific portion of licensing.

Kairos Power, another developer, is following a similar regulatory pathway as TerraPower, but it is using an iterative approach that starts with the construction of non-commercial test reactors. Kairos received a Construction Permit for its Hermes 1 reactor in 2023 and the NRC is currently reviewing the CPA for Hermes 2. The review process for TerraPower’s Natrium commercial reactor will take longer than the Hermes test reactors. However, by using a similar route, Kairos may have helped pave the path for TerraPower.

Terrapower’s submission of its CPA represents a pivotal moment in the deployment of advanced nuclear technology. The review of TerraPower’s application serves as a significant data point in assessing the NRC’s readiness to process the increasing volume of reactor applications. Additionally, it will provide a valuable learning opportunity: any challenges or delays encountered during the review could highlight areas where the NRC may need to bolster its resources and expertise, or modify its regulatory framework to accommodate the growing influx of reactor applications.

As the world looks to nuclear energy as a critical component of the transition to a low-carbon future, the NRC’s ability to balance regulatory diligence with the timely advancement of nuclear innovation will be paramount in shaping the trajectory of the global energy landscape.