Regulating New Types of Nuclear Reactors
In response to climate change, economics, energy demand, and reliability, engineers in more than 50 companies and organizations in North America are hard at work developing an entirely new generation of nuclear reactors. This technology, known as advanced nuclear, is backed by $1 billion in private investment. Unfortunately, advanced nuclear today faces a significant regulatory roadblock; there is no timely pathway for the federal government to approve the license for these new, very different reactor designs. This is in part because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not have the resources it needs to prepare to evaluate and license advanced nuclear.
The NRC is the premier nuclear licensing organization in the world. It has ensured the safety of over 100 reactors across the country for decades. But all these reactors are based on the same light water technology. The NRC knows does not yet have the processes or know how to regulate advanced reactors, which do not use light water. The NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research is seeking to address this challenge in order to fulfill the NRC’s research program mission of supplying independent expertise, information, and technical judgments to support timely and realistic regulatory decisions.
Researching emerging reactor technologies, however, requires funding and personnel. Just as the private sector has invested in advanced reactors, the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research (and the Office of New Reactors, which it coordinates with) has had its research budget cut by more than 60% since 2010.1 The $8 million currently budgeted to research under the Office of New Reactors is dedicated to a variety of reviews and analyses, with a very small portion aimed at advanced reactor reviews. This reduction in funding is starving the NRC of the resources it needs to evaluate how to license advanced reactors.
Advanced reactors are being developed. If there is not a pathway for these reactors to get licensed in the United States, they will be licensed and built in other countries, with less robust regulatory agencies. This is not in our best interest as a country. We must make sure the world’s top nuclear regulatory agency is ready to evaluate and license them. This requires adding between $5 and $10 million to the research budget of the Office of New Reactors for FY 2016 with the express purpose of supporting the expedited review of advanced non-light water reactors.
The doubling of an extremely small budget would provide a critical path for the development of advanced nuclear reactors. This, in turn could help ensure that advanced nuclear technology is developed, licensed, and built, in the United States. Just as the staff of the NRC recently developed a list of potential policy and technical issues associated with licensing small modular light water reactors, the staff could prepare a similar list of issues for non-light water reactors. With more staff time dedicated to studying advanced reactors, the NRC can be ready to license the new types of nuclear reactor when the industry is ready to begin building, testing, and deploying them.
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