NRC Preparing for Modular Reactors, Reducing Staff in 2016

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a busy year ahead of it in 2016. The agency is preparing to receive the first design certification for a small modular reactor by the end of the year from NuScale Power LLC, Stephen Burns, NRC's chairman, said during an in-person interview with Bloomberg BNA's Rebecca Kern.

The NRC staff is also planning to issue a report in March as part of its Project Aim 2020 program which will outline how to re-baseline the agency's mission and priorities and reduce staff to align with the fewer-than-expected new nuclear reactor applications it has received over the years, Burns said.

Additionally, he discussed the prospects for interim storage of nuclear waste while the future of a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain remains in limbo. He also touched on the prospects of extending reactors' licenses by another 20 years, bringing lifetime operations up to 80 years and making the U.S. fleet one of the oldest in the world. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg BNA:

Tell me about some of the preparations the agency is making for the NuScale small modular reactor design certification.

Stephen Burns:

We expect to get a design certification [for a small modular reactor] from NuScale at the end of 2016. The staff has been working with them over the last few years in preparation for the formal submittal of the application. I think that's an important area, particularly when we consider that there are potentially other advanced [non-light water] reactor developers who have an interest of potentially getting their design in front of the NRC, maybe not next year, or the year after, but in the next five to 10 years. It's certainly something that came out of the White House summit on nuclear energy, this potential interest, and our readiness to be able to accept those applications (215 ECR 215, 11/6/15).


Do you have safety concerns with a small modular reactor design?


The small modular reactor is a light-water reactor. The basic design criteria in our regulations really contemplate the larger light water reactors. So with the NuScale reactor, for example, you would have questions on the footprint of the emergency planning zone. The commission has authorized staff to go forward and explore that. Given the safety case that the designer makes for the small modular reactor, you wouldn't need a 10-mile emergency planning zone for it, because of its smaller size.

With the small modular reactor, it's understanding what the technology is and in some places, it's the question Do we have the right footprint? Our staff and NuScale have had good communications over the years to try to tease out some of these issues.

Project Aim 2020.


Can you talk about the intentions for Project Aim 2020 and the progress made so far?


Project Aim 2020 is the agency's attempt to look at ourselves, do some re-baselining and focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of the agency. We've been under some pressure to reduce the profile of our budget and our resources. We think we can do that responsibly, but what we want is to make sure that we are focusing on the right things. To make sure we're focusing on the safety and security mission of the agency.

The commission, when it approved the Project Aim recommendations, set a personnel target of 3,600 full-time equivalents by the end of 2016. Based on current projections, we're going to meet or probably exceed that target.

We're also consolidating some of the technical disciplines in one office to make them basically fungible in terms of the types of reviews for other offices. For example, our new reactors people might also support the operating reactors people in certain types of technical reviews. You can also do some things to consolidate administrative functions. That's an area that's been a big focus, so some of that work is ongoing.


What are the goals in terms of Project Aim for 2016?


The big thing that's coming in 2016 is recommendations coming out of the re-baselining project. This is an attempt to step back and look at what the agency's mission is and look at the various aspects of what we do in terms of regulation of safety and security. And ask ourselves: Are we doing those most effectively? Is there work we could either shed or handle differently? That re-baselining report is coming in the March-April time frame. That's the next big deliverable for Project Aim.

Yucca Mountain, Interim Waste Storage.


What is the likelihood of establishing a long-term nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain? And, in the meantime, does NRC support consolidated interim nuclear storage options provided by private companies?


It's hard for us to speculate in terms of what may or may not happen with respect to Yucca Mountain. What we have done, partly pursuant to the [U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit] order in 2013, is expended—as the court expected us to do—the remaining funds we had appropriated for the Yucca Mountain project.

I should emphasize that we have to have an appropriation to do anything under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Right now, what we're doing is expending the last bit of carry-over funds from a number of years ago. The staff issued its final safety evaluation report earlier in 2015(20 ECR, 1/30/15). We expect early in 2016 to issue a final supplemental environmental statement(160 ECR, 8/19/15).

Other than making sure we have some documentation in place, the money is gone. That's about all we can do. The big thing ahead of us as regulator would be the adjudicatory hearing, which is very heavily contested. So we would have to go through that.

On the issue of consolidated storage, what we've seen in the last year is indication of interest in submitting applications for consolidated interim storage sites. One in western Texas from Waste Control Specialists, LLC, and the other in eastern New Mexico from Holtec International, Inc. We do expect to get those applications by mid-year 2016–from WSC by April and Holtec by June.

We're prepared to go through them and evaluate them. How they would relate to the overall national policy on waste disposal, I think that's out of our bailiwick. But we have the capability and have in fact reviewed such applications in the past.

Extending License Renewals.


What is the status on extending reactor license renewals by an additional 20 years, from 60 years to 80 years of operation? When are the first reactors expected to seek extended license renewals?


I don't expect any other regulations need to be put in place. The commission decided that the basic framework for the license renewal was still appropriate for subsequent renewal from 60 to 80 years. The current regulations focus on the management of aging of long-lived and passive components, for example the reactor vessel, concrete structures that are important to safety, or buried piping. License renewal has historically focused on that.

The commission re-confirmed that the focus on passive components should be the focus for subsequent renewal, too. The staff issued a guidance document [the week of Dec. 14] focusing on whether there are any particular aspects of that aging management program for 60 to 80 years that you need to address.

Dominion Resources, Inc., said it was planning to go forward for the Surry Power Station for extended license renewal in about 2019. There may be some others out there that are waiting to announce.

Post-Fukushima Requirements.


What is the status of nuclear plants finishing up the Tier 1, high-priority safety enhancements as required by the NRC in response to the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan?


A priority for the agency is finishing the post-Fukushima enhancements. The most important and significant Tier 1 safety improvements should be completed for the most part by the end of 2016. That's where we wanted them to be. A few of them will go on into 2017, but I think getting ourselves across the finish line on that is an important priority(221 ECR, 11/17/15).

Future of Nuclear Industry.


With Entergy Corp. announcing the closure of the Fitzpatrick and Pilgrim nuclear power plants in 2017 and 2019 due to difficulty competing in the deregulated markets, what do you think this means for the future of nuclear power(206 ECR 206, 10/26/15)?


There's some uncertainty over the next few years, as particularly merchant plants face this question about their economics in the context of low [natural] gas prices and the structure of the electricity market itself. So I think you will see some other decisions coming in the next couple of years about continued operation of merchant plants in the deregulated market.

Long-term, I think it's hard to say. We have, with the licensing of Watts Bar Unit II, 100 reactors licensed to operate again(204 ECR 204, 10/22/15). That baseload of nuclear plant generation will be there. You have license renewal that extends some of these licenses into the 2030's and 2040's and we now have announcements where some plants are considering further extension from 60 to 80 years.

Then there's the consideration of the potential new small modular reactors. And the coming online, if things continue to go as planned, for Vogtle [Units 3 and 4] and Summer [Units 2 and 3] new AP1000 [reactors]. That is new generation even though you're going to see some plants closing down in the next few years.


The U.S. Energy Information Administration put out a report in November finding that there would be a net increase in megawatts of nuclear energy added to the grid by 2020 with the addition of the five planned new reactors. Is this what you're expecting as well? Do you think these five reactors will actually be coming online by 2020(212 ECR 212, 11/3/15)?


I would expect so. With Vogtle and Summer, there have been some delays, but it seems that they're on track. I think their plans are actually to come online before 2020. So by 2020, what you see is the five new reactors with Watts Bar coming online next year and then the four AP1000 [reactors], minus the Pilgrim and Fitzpatrick plants and the long-planned closure of Oyster Creek plant. You're really in sort of a balancing act in terms of the total generation by 2020.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at