RELEASE: Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Persists with Higher than Necessary Hurdles for Advanced Reactors

Joint letter from the American Nuclear Society and Breakthrough Institute urges NRC to correct security rule language that perpetuates regulatory overreach

Last week, Breakthrough Institute and the American Nuclear Society (ANS) submitted a joint letter to NRC Commissioners expressing concern with proposed and existing language in 10 CFR Part 73, the NRC's rule for physical protection of nuclear plants and materials.

The proposed language perpetuates a “high assurance of protection” standard for licensing advanced reactors. While this may sound good on its face, the regulatory posture overachieves what is necessary in practical terms: it establishes a “zero-risk” threshold for reliable energy that offers greater grid stability than other green alternatives, and poses far fewer risks to public health than other sources of energy.

ANS President Steve Nesbit and Breakthrough Institute Senior Policy Advisor for Nuclear Energy Innovation Rani Franovich explain why the proposed language is problematic for many reasons: mainly that it raises the bar above what is necessary for NRC’s approval, making it harder to license and deploy advanced nuclear reactors. A high assurance standard imposes undue burdens on new nuclear developers — with no added public safety or security benefit. Such an unnecessarily high bar disincentivizes deployment of safe, new nuclear technologies — with real implications for climate change.

Authors Franovich and Nesbit explain how the proposed rule language “perpetuates confusion, a long-standing misapplication of ‘high assurance of protection’ for physical security, and regulatory overreach beyond NRC’s legal mandate for nuclear security, which is… to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety. The proposed rule language violates the Plain Writing Act of 2010, defies prior Commission direction, disregards the ‘NRC Vision and Strategy: Safely Achieving Effective and Efficient Non-Light Water Reactor Mission Readiness’ … ventures beyond the regulatory basis for the limited-scope rule change, and contravenes the NRC’s Principles of Good Regulation.”

The authors urge NRC Commissioners to replace the phrase “high assurance of protection” with “reasonable assurance of adequate protection” in the proposed new rule language as well as the existing rule. Franovich commented that “this simple change would translate to more efficient NRC licensing and oversight practices for not only the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors, but also the currently operating fleet. Prior Commission direction establishes the basis for the rule change. Now is the perfect time, and this is the perfect opportunity for the NRC to correct the problem."

Advanced reactors represent one of the most important technology breakthroughs to fight climate change. While still a few years off from being deployed, current designs from NuScale, General Electric-Hitachi, Terrapower, Oklo, Kairos, X-energy and others are currently seeking, or plan to seek in the near future, license approvals from the NRC. These designs are smaller, modular, and inherently safer than previous generations of nuclear power plants. However, NRC licensing frameworks are only beginning to modernize consistent with risk-informed, performance based approaches developed in the late 1990s and mandated by the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) of 2019.

ANS President Steve Nesbit commented, “The American Nuclear Society supports NRC’s actions to modernize and update its regulations, including security regulations, to address advanced reactors in a risk-informed, performance based manner. While doing so, ANS urges NRC to conform potentially misleading wording in the 10 CFR Part 73 security regulation to the well-established regulatory standard of ‘reasonable assurance of adequate protection.’”

Providing always-on, zero-carbon power and electricity, advanced nuclear energy will be critical to solving our climate challenges. But we need Federal and State regulators to modernize their requirements in a way that reflects actual risk to the public relative to alternative sources of energy — like fossil fuels. Small regulatory language changes (like the ones proposed by the authors) will deliver clearer, more rational standards for current nuclear plant operations and enable deployment of new nuclear reactors — without sacrificing safety or security.