RELEASE: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Proposed Licensing Process Threatens Nascent Advanced Nuclear Industry

Known as 10 CFR Part 53, the proposed licensing framework is essential to deploying the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors, but the current approach by the NRC is overly burdensome and out of step with current technology and climate demands.

Berkeley, Calif. — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is developing a new licensing framework for the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors, the next generation in nuclear energy technology, as required by the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) passed by Congress and signed into law in 2019.

What’s the problem: Troublingly, the draft licensing framework from the NRC is undermining the future of advanced nuclear technology. While safety is of paramount concern, saddling the fledgling advanced nuclear industry with unnecessary safety and licensing criteria well beyond what is required for previous generations of nuclear technology is burdensome and counterproductive.

According to Dr. Adam Stein, Senior Nuclear Analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, “By definition, advanced nuclear reactors provide significant improvements beyond the already safe and reliable existing fleet of nuclear power reactors. Despite these improvements, the new licensing framework that is being developed for advanced reactors imposes new requirements beyond existing licensing requirements, and doesn’t allow for additional relief based on additional safety.”

Why this matters: By passing NEIMA, Congress specifically required the NRC to develop a new licensing framework to allow the deployment of advanced nuclear technology. The current draft framework from the NRC is undercutting this mandate and forcing advanced nuclear technologies to take costly and burdensome measures that are unnecessary, fly in the face of common sense, and threaten the nascent industry.

“The existing fleet of nuclear reactors are safe, reliable, and long-lived,” Dr. Stein continued. “Advanced nuclear reactors have significant improvements beyond the existing fleet. Despite these improvements, the new licensing framework being developed for advanced reactors imposes new requirements beyond existing licensing requirements. The unfortunate outcome is that the new license will not be “used or useful.” Instead, developers of next-generation technology will have to use the existing licensing framework that was designed for the prior generation. It will result in less innovation and slower (if any) commercialization.”

How to fix it: Following the release of the draft regulation by the NRC, the Breakthrough Institute submitted a comment to recommend specific adjustments that will help the commission meet their criteria, while recognizing advanced nuclear technologies are much safer than previous generations of nuclear technology. While the existing rules in place for the previous generations of nuclear reactors have assured the safe operation of that technology in the United States for decades, advanced nuclear reactors are, by design, both safer and simpler to operate and should merit appropriate new considerations in light of these benefits to foster commercial deployment.

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In the submitted comment, the Breakthrough Institute noted that “the timely completion of a risk-informed performance-based licensing framework is important to the successful innovation and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors in the United States.” Known as Part 53, the proposed licensing framework prescribed by NEIMA for advanced nuclear must satisfy four basic tenets to meet this mandate:

1) Technology-inclusive: Flexibility to be applied to a variety of technologies and operational strategies

A simple test of being technology-inclusive is to ask if the rule in the current form would provide an effective, efficient, and commercially viable pathway for licensing three very different but already existing or proposed technologies — a modern large light water reactor, an advanced reactor technology that has never operated, and a microreactor. If the answer is no for any of these technologies then it is likely the rule will present unforeseen issues in the future for technologies that have not yet been invented.

2) Safety: No reduction in safety thresholds or increase beyond established thresholds from 10 CFR Part 50 & 52

Safety should meet the qualitative Safety Goals - Individual members of the public should be provided a level of protection from the consequences of nuclear power plant operation such that individuals bear no significant additional risk to life and health. Societal risks to life and health from nuclear power plant operation should be comparable to or less than the risks of generating electricity by viable competing technologies and should not be a significant addition to other societal risks. It is expected that many advanced reactors will provide much larger safety margins relative to existing large light-water reactors. But they should not be required to do so for licensing, which would result in a substantially ratcheting of regulatory burdens upon licensees for technologies that offer the United States substantial environmental and energy security benefits.

3) Performance-based: Clear, objective, and measurable risk-informed performance criteria should be specified

The move to this approach is necessarily more open ended to allow applicants to meet the performance requirements as may be logical for each technology and design. There are two themes presented by stakeholders: 1) that the rule needs to be very open to avoid unforeseen future limitations, or 2) that the rule should be more specific on performance requirements to reduce the uncertainty of what will be acceptable and therefore streamline the regulatory process. To be successful, the new licensing framework needs to be both flexible and predictable, not one or the other. A balance can be created by using clear, objective, and performance-based criteria for each stage of the licensing process.

4) Commercially viable: Regulation should be efficient, predictable, and not overly burdensome

There is a significant amount of risk-informed performance-based work leading up to this point that the NRC can leverage to move past the prescriptive structure of the past. Abandoning this rulemaking effort to either reevaluate or extend the timeline will result in the regulatory bottleneck to licensing and commercial deployment of advanced reactors. However, the rule still needs to be an effective, efficient, and commercially viable pathway for licensing.

What’s next: In the submitted comment, specific recommendations are included on safety criteria, performance metrics, health objectives, and risk assessments that further refine the regulatory framework for advanced nuclear reactors. These considerations are intended to help the rulemaking process achieve the best possible outcome for the nascent advanced nuclear industry.

Ongoing engagement with the NRC and stakeholders is necessary to develop consensus on a path forward. Independent non-profit research-based stakeholders that provide input for the benefit of society and the environment, such as the Breakthrough Institute, contribute an irreplaceable perspective to these proceedings.

Nuclear energy is a critical component of a carbon-free energy system that provides clean, firm electricity generation for residential, commercial, and industrial applications. Currently, the U.S. relies predominantly on fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas, for baseline power generation. Current renewable technologies such as wind and solar are weather and condition dependent and require firm electricity generation to provide reliable power.

As advanced nuclear technology develops and gets closer to market, it is imperative that we develop the regulatory framework necessary to foster its development.

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