Private sector innovators are currently paving the way for how advanced reactors can begin producing clean energy. Due to the differences between these technologies and the existing fleet of large light water reactors, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is modernizing their review process. A modernized approach will be a gamechanger for future American reactor designs, enabling their deployment to aid in decarbonization.
Part 53 and the Future of US Nuclear Licensing
In April 2020, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff submitted its plan for an upcoming rulemaking for advanced nuclear reactors in SECY-20-0032. Tentatively called “Part 53” after the planned location in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), this rulemaking is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reform the deployment of low-carbon nuclear power in the United States, and even abroad. America leads the world in nuclear innovation; reforming the licensing framework to bring these new designs to market can help the United States regain its global leadership in nuclear energy, strengthen its national security and mitigate climate change. Industry and the public need to actively support the NRC’s outreach efforts through public meetings and workshops to develop an efficient, modern, world-leading pathway for the licensing and deployment of new nuclear technologies.
Current Challenges in Nuclear Licensing
An NRC license allows a company to operate a nuclear power plant, and the power plants of the future look nothing like those from the past. To date, the entire operating fleet of nuclear reactors in the United States are all large, light water-cooled and licensed decades ago. The need for a new licensing pathway for advanced reactors comes from the difficulties of applying the existing nuclear licensing frameworks to the next generation of advanced reactor technologies.
The two existing pathways for licensing a new nuclear power plant, which are codified in 10 CFR Part 50 and 10 CFR Part 52, are prescriptive licensing regimes. They are based on prior experience with the current fleet of large light-water nuclear reactors, which is the only commercial technology operating in the United States. As a result, NRC regulations require specific, prescriptive design features to meet safety goals instead of defining a goal and allowing companies to meet it with design innovations. Performance-based requirements allow reactors to meet safety goals by using a diversity of methods. Existing prescriptive design features are based on decades of light-water reactor operating experience and include narrowly defined topics like containment building specifications, the number of operators per reactor, and the need for off-site power. Advanced reactors, by contrast, design safety from the ground up. Due to the nature of their designs, these reactors will be even safer than conventional reactors by taking advantage of fundamental principles that make them inherently safe through the use of passive or inherent safety features, such as natural convection and circulation to provide cooling. Therefore, these reactors do not require many of the existing prescriptive regulatory requirements, but are still largely subject to them absent a modernized licensing framework. While the NRC is prepared for and capable of licensing advanced reactors today, such licensing would be more efficient and effective if a technology-inclusive, performance-based, and risk-informed regulatory framework were in place.
Despite these challenges, next–generation nuclear reactors are diligently advancing through the existing licensing processes. NuScale’s advanced light-water reactor design received NRC approval under Part 52, and it is expected that Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) will use the NuScale design certification to apply for a combined license. This combined license will allow UAMPS to both construct and operate the NuScale plant without the need for the duplicative licensing and hearing requirements under Part 50. More recently, Oklo submitted the first non-light water reactor combined license application under Part 52.1 Depending on how the regulatory review progresses, Oklo’s Aurora reactor could proceed towards construction and be operable by 2024. Many other companies are in pre-application discussions with the NRC to make their future license application reviews more straightforward.
Challenges with the current licensing frameworks for these and other companies illustrate the need for licensing reform. NuScale’s design certification, supported by a Department of Energy (DOE) cost share, will still be extremely expensive. Even though NuScale is a light-water reactor, its passive design and advanced features required specific exemptions from some of the NRC’s regulations. Such exemptions do not reflect safety risks; rather they demonstrate the inflexibility of the current regulatory framework, even for a design that shares similarities to large light-water reactors. As an example, NRC regulations require a certain number of operators per reactor. Since the NuScale design has up to 12 (60 MWe) reactor modules per plant, NuScale applied for an exemption to the operator requirements that were developed for a single reactor of 500-1400 MWe. As it is both the first non-light water application and commercial microreactor application, Oklo’s Aurora design will also need to resolve complex technical issues within the NRC’s current framework. From a safety standpoint, there is nothing inherently wrong with the NRC making exemptions to its requirements, but it diverts time, attention, and resources from addressing the most relevant issues from the regulators and developers. Exemptions need to be granted on a case-by-case basis to each individual reactor design and are a burden on NRC staff to review each request, and they also increase review time and applicant costs. Exemptions also do not provide certainty in the licensing process. These unnecessary, and uncertain, licensing costs can become prohibitive for new designers. Regulating-by-exemption can also degrade the NRC’s ability to assure the public of safety; a licensing framework that substantially reduces the need for exemptions can better assure the public.
Congress Directed a New Licensing Approach
In light of these challenges, nuclear regulatory reform has emerged as a bipartisan priority to ensure that the U.S. nuclear industry remains competitive and can play its vital role in climate mitigation and global leadership as well as spur job creation. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), signed into law in 2019, provided the NRC the direction and financial resources to modernize nuclear safety licensing. It contained a specific requirement to develop a technology-inclusive framework for advanced reactor licensing by 2027.
Nuclear Regulatory Reform Has Emerged as a Bipartisan Priority
On May 14, 2020, members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which oversees the NRC, sent a letter to encourage the Commission to identify actions to accelerate the development of this rulemaking, prior to 2027, to support near-term applicants. On October 2, 2020, the NRC Commissioners voted for the staff to publish the final rule by October 2024.
The first couple of years of the rulemaking, prior to the publication of the proposed (i.e. draft) rule, will be critical as the NRC incorporates historic advanced reactor licensing considerations and lessons learned from today’s ongoing activities. The NRC Commissioners will also need to make timely decisions on a variety of policy issues that will emerge in the development of this new licensing framework to support the timeline needed to promptly deploy these advanced reactor technologies.
A key component of the proposed Part 53 is that it will be a performance-based, and not a prescriptive licensing regime. Based on NEIMA and ongoing regulatory reforms, Part 53 is intended to also be risk-informed and technology-inclusive. In practice, these concepts mean that the regulatory framework will not require certain specific design features but will rather evaluate reactor designs on their ability to meet high-level safety goals.
If properly developed, Part 53 will provide substantial benefits to advanced reactor developers and consumers interested in using nuclear power. By creating a technology-inclusive framework, not only will the NRC avoid the need to issue exemptions, but doing so will enhance public confidence, reduce unnecessary staff review time and applicant fees, and ensure the NRC is meeting its public health and safety mission. A simpler, dedicated pathway for advanced reactors will allow for rapid innovation as well as safer and more competitive designs from vendors.
In order to successfully develop a new licensing framework, the NRC will need time, resources, and significant external engagement. For comparison, the separate ongoing rulemaking to incorporate lessons learned in Parts 50 and 52 was identified as a need in 2015, outreach started in 2018, and that final rule is also anticipated in 2024. Since the scope of Part 53 will be far broader than the Parts 50 and 52 lessons learned rulemaking, the four years between today and the final Part 53 rule presents a potential challenge for all parties involved. The NRC will concurrently be reviewing at least one non-light water reactor combined license application and pursuing a multitude of other regulatory initiatives to prepare the NRC to handle additional near-term advanced reactor reviews. Furthermore, NRC staff are involved in various DOE initiatives, such as the Versatile Test Reactor and Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. While many of these projects will help inform the Part 53 rulemaking, it is critical that Congress provide the NRC with sufficient resources to ensure the NRC can meet all of these important priorities without facing internal resource competition. The nuclear industry, the general public, international organizations, NGOs, and the DOE all have a role to play in helping the NRC develop the most adaptive and appropriate licensing framework for advanced reactors.
Part 53 and International Competitiveness
Dozens of countries, many of which have never deployed nuclear reactors, are evaluating the potential to utilize low-carbon advanced reactors to meet their energy development needs. The successful development of an effective Part 53 offers the U.S. an ideal opportunity to support nuclear exports, which could allow the U.S. to regain its once preeminent role in the international nuclear export market. In recent years, the prescriptive nature of Parts 50 and 52 have discouraged some domestic vendors from considering a license in the United States. Some vendors are initially pursuing licensing elsewhere due to concerns about how the current, inflexible framework creates both cost and schedule uncertainties. A successful Part 53 will help ensure that the U.S. maintains a competitive and viable regulatory environment for nuclear innovation and development.
The U.S. NRC has long been considered the leading nuclear regulator, inspiring many provisions of the international Convention on Nuclear Safety. Part 53 is a unique opportunity to help enable international licensing harmonization. Harmonization has proven difficult to implement thus far, inhibiting international regulators from sharing best practices and companies from widespread international commercialization. The NRC and its Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, recently signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to collaborate on and explore potential licensing efficiencies. NuScale and Terrestrial Energy were selected as pilots in this effort, which could also help inform Part 53. For example, if Part 53 is designed to be compatible with international standards, like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safety Standards, the U.S. may be able to ‘export’ its safety-focused regulatory system. This could speed international acceptance and rapidly deploy these designs to allow newcomer countries an easier path to benefit from the use of nuclear energy. An internationally compatible Part 53 would enable other countries to more easily consider designs licensed by the U.S. NRC, creating new markets for U.S. companies. If this were to occur, the U.S. would be well-positioned to regain a preeminent role in international nuclear commerce, supporting our nation’s global safety, security, and non-proliferation goals.
The Commission directed the staff to develop a “high-quality, thoroughly vetted regulation.” In order to accomplish this goal, the NRC staff will have to undertake significant public outreach and seek diverse feedback. The entire nuclear industry and other stakeholders should take this opportunity seriously and dedicate the resources to ensure that Part 53 is a useful, flexible, and practical licensing pathway for advanced reactors. A lack of participation would hinder the rule’s effectiveness and would be a truly missed opportunity. Open collaboration in upcoming public meetings and workshops will ensure that Part 53 not only meets the NRC’s safety and security mission, but also enables the prompt and efficient construction and operation of a future fleet of low-carbon advanced reactors.
Alex Gilbert is a Project Manager at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance where he is responsible for managing and conducting project research, stakeholder engagement, and related activities.