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Modernizing US Licensing for Advanced Nuclear Energy: The NRC Takes an Important Step Forward

July 13, 2020 Work Area: Advanced Nuclear

Numerous analyses from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the International Energy Agency to the Obama Administration’s mid-century climate report have suggested that expanding our low carbon options to include nuclear energy (today, the world’s second-largest source of zero-carbon electricity after large dams) could make a significant difference in addressing climate change.  Yet significant innovation in nuclear technology, as well as business and delivery models, will be necessary to make this option real. Fortunately, there are dozens of advanced nuclear innovators putting forward designs that are potentially less expensive, faster to deploy, and with a lower risk of technical failure.

Because these designs have such different features from conventional water-cooled reactors (light water reactors, or “LWRs”), they need a licensing process that assesses the safety of these new designs from the bottom up, rather than “by exception” from water-cooled reactor standards.  Last month, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) took a big step in this direction, spurred by Congress.

The NRC’s new regulatory guidance for non-LWRs fulfills some of the requirements of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA).  Clean Air Task Force has previously expressed our support of the provisions of NEIMA and has been advocating for regulatory reform of this kind for years.  Traditionally, NRC regulations have been focused on LWR technology and the unique aspects of new reactor designs necessitate new thinking and processes.  These processes still maintain rigorous review requirements to ensure the protection of the public but allow for improved capabilities and some intrinsic aspects of non-LWRs to be appropriately assessed.

The guidance issued builds on years of work done by the NRC, the Department of Energy, developers, utilities, and other stakeholders to assess the most suitable pathway for regulatory reform as well as numerous public meetings and opportunities for public comment.  Pilot and demonstration licensing projects performed by the NRC in cooperation with more than five potential future applicants also informed the process and ensured that the issued guidance meets the needs of both developers and regulators.  The final issued licensing pathway provided in this guidance is a useful option for future non-LWR applicants to pursue licensing or certification and eventual commercialization.

CATF supports risk-informed, performance-based NRC regulation for non-LWRs, which assesses the unique aspects of each design within the appropriate safety concerns and accident scenarios.  Advanced non-LWRs have the potential to play an important role in the US and other nations achieving decarbonization and emissions goals and the issued regulatory guidance will ensure that safe and competitive novel non-LWR technology will not be restricted by non-germane regulatory requirements.  Additional future reforms in other areas are still needed, but for now, the guidance recently issued by the NRC ensures that review and evaluation of future designs can be performed in a safe, rigorous, economic, and timely manner.

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