Thought Leadership

NRC Support of New Reactor Designs

Category: News & Events
Eric Gould • March 23, 2022

Last week, I commented on the remarks that U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm made at this year’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Regulatory Information Conference (RIC). As I noted then, she asked industry leaders to help move new technologies and projects forward as quickly as possible through modernized regulations. Efforts to streamline the licensing process were widely discussed at the conference, with input from vendors as well as NRC. In this post, I reflect on those discussions.

With so many new technologies in various states of design, the potential for delays in the license application process poses a significant risk to the nuclear industry. Our clients and industry contacts who are considering new nuclear units have identified the potential length of the licensing process as a primary risk to their potential investments.

While no one should question the NRC’s mission to ensure these new reactors are safe and operable, the body faces resource issues that need to be resolved so they do not become the critical path for reactor license approvals. It was evident throughout the RIC that the NRC is facing many challenges reviewing and approving applications for new SMR/AR designs. NRC Executive Director for Operations Dan Dorman said that the NRC’s staff is currently 20% below 2014 levels, and that external hiring had slowed while retirements increased.

Fortunately, it appears NRC and industry vendors are dealing with these challenges directly, as described below.

Pre-Application Process

The Pre-Application process is NRC’s attempt to make licensing a stable and predictable process and get a jump start on the licensing process through early direct engagement with the vendor community. Some key themes about this process emerged during the conference:

  • Early Design Reviews: Much of the discussion involved the elements of the pre-application process, which provides the vendors with an opportunity to pre-vet their designs and confirm elements of the safety case in advance of the full license review. This process includes a mutual commitment to transparency and public engagement.
  • Resources: Vendors at the event expressed concern over ensuring that the NRC deploys consistent and adequate resources over the long haul of pre-application and application periods. They also acknowledged their own resource challenges.
  • Schedule Predictability: Vendors also expressed the need for cost and schedule predictability through every aspect of the process.

NRC speakers emphasized that the SMR/AR licensing process would be an opportunity for continuous improvement, and they showed openness to criticism. Nonetheless, they noted that this was a “first-come, first-served” process, in which NRC’s resources are limited.

This is one reason the work of NEI’s Construction Best Practices Task Force, to which Modus contributes, is so important. Our work with the task force has thus far focused on establishing a Phase Gate process that transparently defines and demystifies the business case development for new nuclear projects. It places the licensing process in the proper context within the design development and allows stakeholders to measure progress along the sometimes arduous path of regulatory approval.

Part 53

The NRC is working on a new Part 53 licensing regime aimed at a producing a technology-neutral, risk-informed and performance-based approach to new design approval. It is due for roll-out in 2024 or 2025. NRC Chairman Chris Hanson described it as an approach focusing on the outcome – proving the design will work – rather than on the step-by-step, incremental assessments that have bogged down prior approvals.

Until Part 53 is available, developers will continue to use Parts 50 and 52, and NRC continues to review applications from 13 different applicants while developing these rules. While promising, the reality is that Part 53 remains a far-off goal that won’t have a direct impact on the application process for several years.

Cooperation with Other Regulators

For NRC, active cooperation with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and other regulators is critical to spread the review and approval burden. There are some limits because of national sovereignty but, as Mr. Hanson pointed out, the physics principles upon which new designs are reviewed are the same, so the review burden should be at least partially mitigated by cooperation.

International regulators present at this event acknowledged the history of limited cooperation and variations in requirements. They outlined their own agencies’ efforts to do better. Mark Foy, Chief Nuclear Inspector, UK Office for Nuclear Regulation, noted that stakeholder and public confidence is essential, and “all have a part to play in achieving it.”

These are promising developments, and the NRC appears poised to take full advantage of the cooperation that is happening on the world stage. NRC should also draw important lessons from these other regulators as it formulates a risk-based approach for Part 53.

Take Aways – New Reactor Licensing Process

The information provided at this year’s RIC brightens the prospects for SMR/AR development. NRC officials appeared open to changes needed to support the business community while maintaining their role in providing adequate assurance that these new designs are safe and operable.

However, there are a number of challenges that will require active management by developers and owners intending to deploy SMR/ARs:

  1. Developers need a detailed road map, including the licensing process, that accurately depicts key milestones and incorporates mitigation strategies if there is a diversion from the path. We have recommended a Phase Gate process that incorporates licensing steps as key enabling milestones. This context is very important to investors who are measuring when their returns on investment could be realized.
  2. NRC needs to agree with and work to the developers’ road maps as much as possible and use project management techniques to track its own activities, including key performance indices (KPIs).
  3. Risk-informed and performance-based criteria for assessing designs is good in principle, but the parameters of these concepts need to be spelled out so that the developers understand how NRC will apply them.
  4. Rule 53 provides an interesting new path, but it is years away and the developers cannot wait until it’s ready. Developers and NRC need to leverage international cooperation (particularly with Canada, which is charting a first-mover path) and do everything possible to make the current process efficient and predictable.
  5. Potential NRC resource issues need to be mitigated, or the US will lose competitive advantage in this marketplace. The idea that this potential multi-billion-dollar enterprise depends on whether the regulator can hire ~300 staff over the next year shows the fragility of this plan.
  6. While not a primary focus of these sessions, the price tag and business case for SMR/AR development looms in the background of every discussion. The pre-application process must be used to allow the developers to mature their designs so that cost and schedule estimates can progressively iterate, reducing risks and uncertainties as NRC signals its approval of conceptual presentations.
  7. It is equally critical that NRC or other national regulators resist reversing ground once the developers submit their final applications unless there is a reasoned justification for doing so.

Let’s hope that the combined resources and attention of the regulatory community, combined with an emerging focus on risk-based, performance-based processes will provide the speed and accuracy needed to prudently vet these new designs and preserve the industry’s competitive edge.