RELEASE: NuScale’s Success Highlights Pain Points at NRC for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Licensing

Berkeley, Calif. — This week in a new blog post, Breakthrough Institute’s Senior Nuclear Energy Analyst Dr. Adam Stein and Pittsburgh Technical’s Sola Talabi examined NuScale’s successful Design Certification Application (DCA) and identified opportunities for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to streamline the arduous process. In response to NuScale’s difficulties the NRC attempted to revise the application process but it has not proven to perfectly match the needs of most developers.

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Dr. Adam Stein is available for comment or interview

Back in August of 2020, NuScale became one of the first developers to have its small modular reactor design (SMR) approved by NRC staff. Historically, the NRC application process was designed to regulate pressurized light-water reactors (PWR), a larger and more complex nuclear reactor, resulting in NuScale producing a 12,000-page Design Certification Application (DCA) that took more than five years.

“If licensing a reactor that is based on common PWR is this challenging, there will be a further disconnect between the NRC’s existing licensing framework and the innovative designs behind a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors,” writes Dr. Stein.

It took 17 exemptions for NuScale to be approved. Getting rid of prescriptive standards for licensing that are irrelevant to new reactor designs would significantly streamline the process. For example, “10CFR part 50 ‘Domestic Licensing of Production and Utilization Facilities’, provides control room staffing requirements based on a set of assumptions that are applicable to LLWRs.” NuScale had to get an exemption just to use the number of operators their engineers actually recommends. “As an alternative, designers and licensees should be allowed to demonstrate how safety objectives are being met on a design-by-design basis, without having to seek exemptions.”

In 2017, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) advised the NRC in its attempt to streamline licensing for non-light water reactor technologies. However, the NRC misunderstood the NEI’s intent for the Licensing Modernization Project (LMP) to modernize the existing licensing process. “Their commitment to LMP gave the NRC the mistaken impression that it should also serve as a functional template for the new Part 53 framework that is currently being developed,” writes Dr. Stein, resulting in the LMP not matching the licensing strategy for most developers.

However, advanced nuclear experts and developers are still hopeful that regulations will improve by 2030. “With the lessons of each success and failure, industry and the NRC can hopefully chip away at the barriers to arrive at a more efficient licensing process.”

“It is clear that major improvements need to be made to the NRC licensing process in order for the next generation of advanced nuclear power plants to be successful and that the existing process is woefully inadequate,” said Dr. Adam Stein