What makes a reactor “advanced”?
In general, advanced nuclear reactors provide more inherent safety, operational flexibility, and security than existing reactors. They can also provide lower operational costs, less spent fuel, and increased efficiency.
Why are advanced reactors safer than current reactors?
Advanced reactor designs are typically much simpler than existing reactors and operate based on the fundamental physics of the design. Safety systems are typically passive, meaning outside energy or operators are not needed to safely shut down the reactor. For example, many new designs do not require high pressures to operate or are designed so cooling systems do not require pumps to operate.
Why does advanced nuclear power matter?
Nuclear power provides advantages over other forms of energy generation. It emits fewer greenhouse gases than even wind or solar. These plants can be called upon to provide electricity when needed, for as long as needed. The advanced reactors can also be used for other processes, such as hydrogen production, water desalination, or district heating. Nuclear power is already the safest way to generate electricity and advanced reactors will be even safer.
Why is there a new licensing rulemaking?
The existing licensing rules were not designed to work for advanced reactor designs. Congress mandated a new licensing framework for these reactors in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA)Public Law 115 439 of 2019of 2019.
In part, this Act required the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make a new licensing pathway for the innovation and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors. The result of this Congressional mandate is the current Nuclear Regulatory CommissionDocket NRC-2019-0062 https://www.regulations.gov/document/NRC-2019-0062-0012rulemaking process for 10 CFR Part 5310 CFR Part 53 refers to Part 53 of Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations, commonly known as Part 53.
How is this different from existing licensing pathways?
The NEIMA prescribes a risk-informed and performance-based regulatory approach that is technology-inclusive. This means that clear, objective, and measurable performance criteria should be defined that are scaled to the level of risk. For example, a performance criterion could be that the power plant should be able to withstand an earthquake without damage to safety systems. To be risk-informed the design should be able to meet that performance criterion based on the likelihood and magnitude of an earthquake in that location.
The existing licensing frameworks are prescriptive, meaning that they contain specific requirements that the NRC mandated when licensing the existing large light water reactors. In our earthquake example, the requirements might prescribe specific methods that a design must use for earthquake protection, such as seismic dampers or backup cooling pumps in case one fails.
To be technology inclusive the criteria have to fit all potential designs. A performance-based structure allows for technology innovation, whereas a prescriptive structure expects developers to do everything one way.
What is the NRC proposing?
Nuclear power is already required to be (and is) safer than all other energy technologies, including wind and solar. Advanced nuclear plant designs provide even lower risk. Despite this, the NRC is proposing a performance-based and risk-informed framework that goes beyond what was mandated by Congress by increasing safety requirements further than the existing licensing frameworks. The additional requirements include stricter safety thresholds and new operations oversight programs.
The increased burden does not provide improved benefits to the public interest, either in the form of improved safety outcomes or by meeting the goals of NEIMA. It also doesn’t provide benefits to the advanced reactor developer. It does not credit advanced designs for increased safety and operational performance. There are no provisions to reduce this burden by showing justification that the design is safe without specific requirements, which can be done with current licensing frameworks.
What will the impact of these regulations be on advanced reactor developers if these rules are adopted as currently proposed?
Advanced reactors won’t use the new licensing framework as proposed. The additional regulatory burden imposed in Part 53 results in the existing frameworks, despite their limitations for advanced reactors, being an easier pathway to licensing. This is in direct opposition to the goal of NEIMA to provide a regulatory framework that enables innovation and commercialization. The result is an extensive regulatory effort that costs the taxpayers millions of dollars, won’t be used. Limiting advanced nuclear deployment will reduce the possibility of meeting climate and environmental goals.
What is the Part 53 rulemaking timeline?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission set a deadline of October 2024, but NEIMA mandated that it should be completed no later than 2027. The final draft of the rule is due to be submitted to the NRC Commissioners by NRC staff before the end of this year. To achieve the 2024 goal an ongoing draft and revise process is being used with individual sections of the rule language being published at a time and no clear picture of the overall rule. To date, even the first drafts of several sections have not been published for stakeholder input.