Advanced Nuclear Reactor Framework Needed, Industry Says

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By Rebecca Kern

June 8 — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to develop a regulatory framework specifically for advanced nuclear reactors and review applications for them efficiently, vendors that are developing the next-generation nuclear reactors told the agency.

The current regulatory process for all 100 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. is meant for light water reactor technology. Companies developing advanced non-light reactors say the current framework doesn't apply to their technologies, which are cooled by substances other than water—such as sodium, gas, molten salt and lead—and have safer profiles than existing reactors.

According to Eric Loewen, chief consulting engineer at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, which is building the PRISM, a high energy sodium-cooled reactor, the current regulatory framework “is unworkable for any advanced reactor.”

Speaking at a June 8 Department of Energy and NRC workshop in Rockville, Md., Loewen said the current NRC processes have led to cost and schedule uncertainties, making these advanced nuclear projects difficult to complete. In fact, GE has been working on the PRISM reactor since 1985, when it first received DOE funding.

He said that the NRC also needs to expedite its advanced reactor design criteria, which the agency issued in a draft form in April for public comment, and regulatory guidance for advanced reactors.

Jennifer Uhle, director of NRC's Office of New Reactors, told Bloomberg BNA June 8 that the NRC can review non-light water reactors under its current light water reactor framework, but it is considering developing a new non-light water reactor framework that would be more efficient. So far the agency hasn't received any applications for these types of reactors.

The most mature advanced non-light water technologies—sodium-cooled and gas-cooled reactors—are still at least 15 years away from the commercial market, John Kelly, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for nuclear reactor technologies, told Bloomberg BNA June 8. Other advanced non-light water technologies, such as molten salt reactors, are at least 20 years away from the market, Kelly said.

Need for More DOE Funding

DOE is providing funding for these reactor designs. DOE awarded X-energy and Southern Company Services competitive advanced non-light water grants in January for X-energy's pebble bed high temperature gas-cooled and Southern's molten-chloride fast reactor designs.

“DOE funding for industry is definitely needed, alongside funding for test facilities,” Rita Baranwal, director of technology development at Westinghouse Electric Co., said at the workshop.

Additionally, the industry and government need to work together more closely to encourage innovation in advanced reactor designs, Baranwal said. She commended the work DOE has done to establish the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative, which aims to provide the nuclear industry with access to technical, regulatory and financial support to speed the commercialization of new advanced nuclear reactor designs.

“The climate we’re in right now is very risk averse. That climate is the complete antithesis of what we need to be innovative,” she said.

Next Steps at NRC, DOE

The NRC is working on finalizing its implementation of near-term implementation strategies for advanced reactors (those the NRC can implement in the next five years) by September, Uhle said.

Concurrently, Uhle said, the NRC will formally issue its vision and strategy document for advanced non-light water nuclear reactors for public comment in August, with a goal of finalizing it by early 2017. She said the intention of the document is to ensure NRC is ready to review and regulate non-light water reactors effectively.

The NRC also will finalize its 5- to 10-year and 10-plus-year implementation strategies for advanced reactors by February 2017, Uhle said.

While no companies have had pre-application meetings or have submitted applications for non-light water reactors yet to the NRC, she said she encourages companies to come to pre-application meetings at least two years ahead of when they plan to submit an application. This is because the NRC has to include whether there are applications coming into the agency in its budget, which it creates two years in advance. Currently, there are only two full-time staff at NRC to review non-light water reactors, she said.

Also, the DOE plans to finalize its vision and strategy document for advanced non-light water nuclear reactors in the next year, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com