NRC, DOE, and Congress Move on Advanced Reactors in May

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The latter half of May has seen regulatory initiatives benefiting advanced reactors promoted across the government.   The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) affirmed new guidance on non-light water reactor (non-LWR) methodologies, and the Department of Energy (DOE) showed support for a new, streamlined emergency preparedness framework for small modular reactors (SMRs) and new reactor technologies.  This follows on the heels of a letter by Congressional leaders pushing the NRC to accelerate the timetable of its important “Part 53” advanced reactor rulemaking.

Non-Light Water Reactor Methodology Approved

On May 26, 2020, the NRC Commissioners unanimously found that the NRC staff’s use of the technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and performance-based methodology described in SECY-19-0117 is a reasonable approach for establishing key parts of the licensing basis and applications for non-LWRs.  According to the NRC staff paper, the methodology described in SECY-19-0117 focuses on “identifying licensing basis events (LBEs); classifying structures, systems, and components (SSCs); and assessing the adequacy of defense in depth (DID).”

The NRC staff stated that the development and approval of this methodology fulfills part of the requirements of Section 103 of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (Public Law No: 115-439) (NEIMA), which requires the NRC to: (1) within 2 years develop and implement strategies for the increased use of risk-informed, performance-based techniques and guidance for licensing advanced nuclear reactors within the existing regulatory framework; and (2) complete a rulemaking by December 31, 2027 to establish a technology-inclusive, regulatory framework for optional use by advanced nuclear reactor applicants—what is commonly called the “Part 53” rulemaking. More information on the NRC’s activities related to NEIMA and advanced reactors is available in its Advanced Reactor’s Program Status paper from February 14, 2020.

In its notice of approval the Commission asked the NRC staff to “remain open to continuous, critical examination of its thinking regarding approaches and metrics for the licensing of this coming class of advanced reactors.”  The Commission also encouraged the NRC staff to consider the Commission’s policies on “minimum safety standard for the new reactors” in its mission to create a flexible framework that fits the state of advanced reactors.  Chairman Svinicki noted in her comments accompanying her vote of approval that the current regulatory framework already contains certain provisions that would provide an appropriate measure of safety with lower risk advanced reactors.  She provided that instead of completely reinventing the wheel, the NRC staff should consider “how to adapt these portions” of the current regulatory framework.

Related industry guidance, NEI 18-04, was developed as part of the Licensing Modernization Project (LMP), a cost-shared initiative led by nuclear utilities and supported by the DOE.   The industry guidance will likely be finalized following this Commission approval of SECY-19-0117.

DOE Comments on Emergency Preparedness rule for SMRs & ONTs

DOE recently submitted a comment in support of the NRC Proposed Rule for Emergency Preparedness for SMRs and Other New Technologies (ONTs), which we discussed in our previous blog post, Your Input Needed: NRC Publishes Proposed Rule on Emergency Preparedness for SMRs/ONTs.  The comment demonstrates DOE’s enthusiasm for the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) provisions in the new framework.  The comments acknowledge that the framework is a “critical step” that would “credit the advanced safety and performance characteristics” of SMRs and ONTs.  DOE goes on to discuss the inherent safety features of advanced reactors such as “smaller reactor cores, lower reactor core power densities, below-ground siting, and redundant passive accident capabilities.”

As a quick recap, the new framework would require staff to use performance-based, technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and consequence-oriented methodology in its emergency preparedness for SMRs and ONTs.  It will update the current approach that was created with large light-water reactors in mind, thus overlooking the many safety and efficiency features promised by SMRs and ONTs.  The framework allows for regulatory flexibility that takes into account technology innovation found in these next-generation reactor designs.  Among other things, the revised rule would use a scalable approach when assessing a reactor’s EPZ that terminates at the site boundary.

Senators Urges NRC to Accelerate Rulemaking for Advanced Reactors

In mid-May, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) sent a letter to NRC Chairman Svinicki asking the NRC to accelerate completion of a rulemaking to establish the technology-inclusive regulatory framework for advanced nuclear reactor technologies called for in NEIMA. In the letter, the Senators noted that the NRC’s current rulemaking schedule plans for the completion of the new framework for advanced reactors by August 2027, just a few months shy of the December 31, 2027 “backstop” mandated by Congress.  Such a close completion date to the statutory requirement leaves little margin for schedule slip or unexpected delays.

As the letter further explains:

Advanced nuclear reactors are expected to be smaller, safer, and more efficient. Some even hold the promise of re-using spent nuclear fuel. We expect the NRC’s regulatory framework will account for the innovative features of advanced nuclear technologies. We also expect the NRC’s rulemaking to establish the rules to license and regulate these advanced nuclear technologies in a predictable, efficient, and affordable manner. This will help nuclear innovators successfully deploy advanced nuclear technologies with enhanced performance and reduced risk.

The senators urged the “Commission to identify actions to accelerate the development of this technology-inclusive regulatory framework prior to the statutory deadline.”

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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