BTI’s Innovative Vision for NRC Modernization

Steps to forge a streamlined path for licensing advanced nuclear reactors

BTI’s Innovative Vision for NRC Modernization

Amid a surge of reactor designs from developers, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) anticipates a substantial increase in applications for licenses to build and operate advanced reactors. This impending wave underscores the urgent need for the NRC to modernize its review procedures, ensuring meticulous alignment with the mandates outlined in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) of 2019. Recognizing the immense potential of the NRC in driving rapid decarbonization, reducing public health impacts, and bolstering U.S. energy security, it is crucial to make essential adjustments.

The Breakthrough Institute (BTI) continues to shape cutting-edge concepts, especially in the realm of nuclear energy regulation. Through years of rigorous research and engagement with the NRC, BTI has pinpointed crucial opportunities to modernize the regulatory framework that will lay the foundation for streamlined and efficient nuclear reactor licensing. This article lists three dozen occasions where BTI underscored specific regulatory challenges and provided recommendations for their effective resolution. The compilation herein unveils BTI’s innovative proposals, collectively aimed at catalyzing regulatory transformation in the United States.

NRC’s Mission: A Change in Core Philosophy

The NRC's significant potential in driving national progress is hindered by its self-imposed narrowly defined mission, primarily concentrated on nuclear safety, which leads to unwarranted delays in reactor licensing. Despite a broader mandate outlined in both the Atomic Energy Act and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the agency's self-imposed limitations prevent a comprehensive evaluation of its role in addressing crucial societal challenges such as climate change and clean energy adoption.

BTI recommends that Congress clarify the NRC's mandate, ensuring alignment with the act's overarching objectives. This amendment would empower the NRC to consider a wide array of factors, promoting a holistic evaluation of societal costs and benefits and enabling the agency to substantially contribute to public health, environmental protection, and national energy goals. In other words, the NRC should consider the negative impacts from a public health, climate, and environmental perspective of not licensing a power reactor at a site that would otherwise be used for a fossil fuel-fired power plant.

Throughout the year, the Breakthrough Institute used numerous occasions to publicly advocate for this shift in the NRC’s philosophy:

  • March 13, 2023. 35th Annual Regulatory Information Conference: Navigating the Nuclear Future.

    W11 - Panel: Perspectives on Risk-Informed Licensing of Advanced Reactors

    Dr. Adam Stein, director of nuclear energy innovation at BTI, made remarks on the NRC’s commitment to public welfare, highlighting the regulatory need to consider the general welfare of the public as stated in the Atomic Energy Act to “make the maximum contribution to the general welfare”

  • April 8, 2023. Foreign Policy: Will Washington Halt the Global Renaissance of Nuclear Power?

    In an article, BTI Executive Director Ted Nordhaus argued that the NRC's exclusive focus on eliminating theoretical risks hinders the advancement of innovative nuclear technologies. This narrow approach prevents the industry from effectively tackling environmental challenges and ensuring energy security.

  • June 13, 2023. ANS Annual Meeting

    ANS Annual – Plenary Session: To Promote the Common Defense and Security The panel explored how the NRC needs to change to promote energy security and environmental preservation and enable the future of clean, safe, and reliable nuclear energy.

    Dr. Stein reiterated BTI’s recommendation to update the NRC’s mission. BTI’s Matthew Wald published an article summarizing the event.

  • October 9, 2023. Fire2Fission Podcast with Mark Hinaman

    Dr. Stein urges the NRC to align with the Atomic Energy Act and assess the net benefits to the public while ensuring safety without promoting nuclear energy. He emphasizes the need for a clarified mission and collaboration with professionals to transition to sustainable energy sources.

NRC’s Risk Paradigm: Employing a Safe Yet Realistic Approach

The NRC faces critical challenges that demand immediate attention. First, the current risk paradigm will need to shift toward a balanced approach, considering a comprehensive range of factors, including the relative risks of alternative energy sources, like fossil fuels. If not addressed promptly, this skewed paradigm threatens to divert the United States from global leadership in advanced reactor deployment.

One major ongoing concern is the attempt to codify Quantitative Health Objectives (QHOs) into regulations. Despite being unobservable and statistically impractical, the NRC staff is pushing for their incorporation into the licensing framework, leading to excessive regulatory burdens. BTI's analysis underscores the detrimental consequences of enforcing QHOs as mandatory requirements. Moreover, the divergence between NRC and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for radiological health exacerbates the problem. Stricter NRC standards, while intended to ensure safety, have inadvertently amplified public health concerns and contributed to the closure of nuclear plants and replacement with environmentally damaging alternatives.

BTI recommends that Congress urgently align NRC standards with EPA regulations, establishing observable radiological risk thresholds for advanced nuclear reactors to maintain public safety effectively. Immediate action is imperative to rectify these issues and preserve the integrity of our national energy strategy. BTI frequently aligns discussions advocating for a clarification of the NRC’s mission with a call for revisions in the risk paradigm. The instances listed below exemplify some of the public engagement events where BTI demonstrated thought leadership on the subject of the NRC's risk paradigm:

  • February 14, 2023. Titans of Nuclear Podcast with Bret Kugelmass

    BTI advocates a shift in the NRC's approach, urging it to consider the overall costs and benefits to the public, including factors like climate, air pollution, and waste streams from alternative energy sources. BTI believes the barrier to implementing this analysis is a combination of cultural, institutional, and legal factors within the NRC.

  • July 14, 2023. Comparing the NRC and EPA Risk Regulatory Regime

    BTI’s manuscript comparing the NRC and EPA risk regulatory regime shares that the NRC's efforts indicate a tendency to stick with current stringent regulations, focusing on eliminating even the most remote risks. A comparison with the EPA regulations under the Clean Air Act highlights the NRC's overly strict and restrictive approach, while also revealing the NRC's failure to consider important risks, like those from fossil fuel-fired generators. The NRC's narrow scope of review allows continued generation from fossil fuels, impacting human health and the environment.

NRC’s Environmental Reviews: Setting an Appropriate Level of Review

Existing environmental review regulations are “one size fits all” and do not reflect the lower impact of new designs, or the ability to potentially improve sites through remediation and reuse of brownfields. Recent amendments to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) within the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 aim to simplify the approval process for new nuclear reactors. These changes establish clear criteria, timelines, and page limits for review documents. They also require careful consideration of the negative consequences of taking no action. For smaller projects with minimal impact, Environmental Assessments (EAs) are encouraged, while larger impact projects necessitate Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). The law mandates specific timelines for EIS reviews and page limits for documents, emphasizing the assessment of not taking any action, which could result in prolonged fossil fuel use.

BTI recommends swift implementation of these NEPA amendments by the NRC. This would ensure efficient and timely environmental reviews for projects akin to the Hermes 2 reactor, contributing significantly to the U.S. transition to cleaner energy sources. Furthermore, BTI suggests modifying NRC review procedures by consolidating notice and comment provisions for EIS into informal hearings. This practice aligns with approaches adopted by other agencies, reducing redundancy and delays. Alternatively, the hearing process could be streamlined by limiting timeframes or allowing only specific participants. These reforms are vital steps toward a more efficient and environmentally conscious approach to nuclear energy regulation while increasing community access to the process. On numerous occasions BTI shared opportunities that would improve efficiencies in NRC’s environmental review approach.

  • NRC Public Comments:

    September 6, 2022. NRC Environmental Hearing Process Reform

    BTI urges the NRC to streamline the formal hearing process for contested environmental issues related to advanced nuclear reactors. BTI advocates for considering the costs and benefits to the public and emphasizes the need for efficient stakeholder engagement. BTI recommends implementing an informal hearing process and recognizing the effectiveness of notice and comment proceedings used during the EIS drafting process. The letter calls for a more streamlined and inclusive approach to regulatory decision-making by the NRC.

    August 31, 2022. Comments on Preliminary 10 CFR Part 53

    BTI urges the NRC to adopt a flexible, risk-informed, performance-based approach for licensing advanced reactors. We propose an alternative framework modeled after the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) to balance public safety, national energy security, and environmental benefits. BTI recommends relocating detailed requirements to guidance, allowing developers flexibility, and aligning with the NEIMA vision.

    December 5, 2022. NRC’s Draft EIS for the Kairos Power HERMES Test Reactor

    BTI commends the NRC's draft EIS for the HERMES test reactor but highlights issues. We recommend considering economic benefits, streamlining environmental reviews, and acknowledging the impacts of the "no action" alternative. The Institute emphasizes the importance of safe nuclear energy in mitigating climate change and urges a comprehensive approach in NRC's regulatory decisions.

  • July 28, 2022. NRC Public Presentation “What Society Needs in Part 53”

    The presentation discussed how a streamlined hearing process on “contested” environmental issues would improve the licensing process. The NRC uses a trial-like hearing format that is burdensome and time-consuming, which discourages meaningful public involvement. Other agencies have already transitioned to a streamlined process to address these challenges.

  • May 4, 2023. Reuters SMR Conference in Atlanta: D2 - 11.40 - Recommissioning Sites & Re-Engaging People

    Efforts should focus on assisting early adopters by identifying efficiency opportunities within the NRC. Simplifying and standardizing the process is crucial, involving reducing regulatory uncertainties.

  • May 5, 2023. Reuter's SMR Panel: Experts Discuss Coal to Nuclear Transition

    At the Reuters SMR & Advanced Reactor 2023 conference, Dr. Stein highlighted the value of existing data for site assessments. The panel stressed the need for early action, efficient policies, simplicity in permitting, and collaboration to facilitate the transition. Panelists emphasized the economic and environmental impact of this transition, urging leaders to support it.

  • November 2, 2023. A Milestone for Clean Energy and the NRC

    In the article, BTI discusses Kairos Power's successful hearing for a construction permit for its Hermes test reactor. Despite no opposition, BTI noted that the process highlighted the need for streamlining NRC procedures. We recommend granting the NRC discretionary authority to decide on hearings for uncontested applications. It mentions the opportunity for Congress to endorse these changes through the Nuclear Licensing Efficiency Act.

Part 53: Developing a Truly Risk-Informed, Performance-Based, Technology-Inclusive Framework

The NEIMA directs the NRC to create a modernized framework for licensing new and advanced reactors under 10 CFR Part 53. However, the proposed draft of Part 53 raises concerns. For example, it includes problematic elements, like codifying operational principles like ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), as absolute requirements in reactor designs. Additionally, the Alternative Evaluation of Risk Insights (AERI) methodology, meant to simplify risk assessment, has unrealistic assumptions. The NRC is reviewing this draft, and there are concerns that the proposed rule might maintain the NRC's existing obstructive licensing approach. BTI repeatedly offered suggestions to enhance the Part 53 framework through public comments to the NRC.

  • February 8, 2022. NRC Public Presentation on Part 53

    BTI presented at an NRC stakeholder meeting to discuss and exchange information about the NRC's development of the Part 53 proposed rule for advanced nuclear reactors.

  • March 29, 2022. NRC Public Presentation on Part 53

    BTI presented at an NRC Part 53 stakeholder meeting on the viability of using the QHOs as a performance metric in the rule for licensing. The analysis shows that the QHOs are impractical in a performance-based licensing framework, and the QHOs are not statistically observable for operational oversight. Considerations for alternative metrics, like dose, were provided.

  • July 28, 2022. NRC Public Presentation “What Society Needs in Part 53”

    The presentation discussed how Part 53 is necessary to improve the general welfare of society by enabling both innovation and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors, and how that aligns with the purpose of the framework as defined in NEIMA. Detailed recommendations were provided on how to structure Part 53 to achieve that goal.

  • September 16, 2022. Can Part 53 be the Nuclear Licensing Rule We Need?

    BTI shares that the current regulatory framework, designed for older reactor designs, does not align with the diverse and evolving features of advanced reactors. To meet this challenge, the NRC must adopt a fresh, innovative approach starting from scratch, considering the unique characteristics of these advanced technologies.

  • December 12, 2022. NRC Staff Whiffs On Nuclear Licensing Modernization

    BTI argues that the proposed rule fails to align with Congress' mandate for a risk-informed, performance-based framework, hindering the development of innovative and competitive advanced nuclear technologies. The NRC needs to revise the proposed rule and engage stakeholders seriously to create a truly modernized and risk-informed licensing framework.

  • January 1, 2023. The Hill: Regulatory Rush Job Will Be A Disaster For Advanced Nuclear Energy

    BTI emphasizes the need for clear, high-level safety and performance objectives, allowing reactor developers to figure out how to meet them. The Institute argues that the current proposed rule by the NRC is overly complicated, hindering innovation in the advanced nuclear sector. BTI suggests revisiting the regulatory approach to ensure it aligns with modern technologies, promoting the development of innovative advanced nuclear reactors.

  • June 13, 2023. ANS Annual - Tuesday Plenary Session: To Promote the Common Defense and Security

    BTI participated on a panel that explored how the NRC needs to change to promote energy security and environmental preservation and enable the future of clean, safe, and reliable nuclear energy.

  • July 17, 2023. - 10 CFR Part 53: Risk-Informed, Technology-Inclusive Regulatory Framework for Advanced Reactors

    BTI was represented as a panelist at the ANS session to discuss the NRC's past efforts to develop 10 CFR Part 53, a regulatory framework emphasizing risk-informed, performance-based criteria for advanced nuclear reactors. The session explored the status of Part 53 and its potential impact on stakeholders, highlighting the NRC staff's responsiveness to stakeholder feedback in shaping the rule.

  • October 26, 2023. S&P Global Financing US Power Conference

    BTI was represented at the Financing US Power Conference to discuss the impact of regulations, challenges like supply chain delays, M&A activities, regulatory landscapes affecting permits, and emerging technologies and opportunities in the power sector.