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By Rebecca Kern
May 18 — House and Senate committees approved two bills May 18 that would create a new licensing framework at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the review of advanced reactors.
During separate hearings, the House Energy and Commerce Committee favorably reported out the Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act (H.R. 4979), and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S. 2795).
The intent of both bills is to ensure the NRC has the expertise to review advanced nuclear reactor technologies, which are often non-light water technologies that are smaller, safer and use less radioactive material compared to existing light water reactors. The Senate bill also would reform the NRC's fee structure.
The current NRC licensing framework is geared to existing light water reactors, which are cooled by water as opposed to other materials like sodium or gases being used in advanced reactors under development.
NuScale Power LLC will be the first company to submit a licensing application to the NRC by year-end for its advanced small modular reactor that is 50 megawatts and can be transported by rail, truck or barge (95 ECR, 5/17/16).
The bills will next go to the House and Senate floors, although no schedules for votes have been announced.
Dan Schneider, the Energy and Commerce's press secretary, told Bloomberg BNA May 18 that the committee members look forward to working with the co-sponsors of S. 2795 once the House passes H.R. 4979 to work out differences between the bills.
While the nuclear industry lauded committee approval of the bills, environmental groups raised concerns with H.R. 4979 in a May 17 letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saying changes to the NRC's licensing framework could lead to safety concerns.
“We believe any focus on ‘expediting and streamlining' NRC licensing for nuclear reactors of any type is misplaced, [and] will do little to facilitate the deployment of advanced reactors in the United States, whatever the well-intentioned purposes of the sponsors of these bills,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club and four other groups said in the letter.
The groups said the House bill's focus on the NRC developing a “risk-informed” and “performance-based” licensing framework for advanced reactors “could potentially lead to compromises on public safety protections and do grave damage to the agency’s and industry’s environmental obligations.”
The Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved Rep. Bob Latta's (R-Ohio) manager's amendment to H.R. 4979 in a voice vote. The amendment made several changes, including extending the time, from 270 days to one year, that the NRC would have to submit a report to Congress on its advanced reactor regulatory framework.
The NRDC had raised concerns about the NRC not having enough time to establish this framework in the 270-day period.
Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney at NRDC, told Bloomberg BNA in a May 18 interview that he was pleased the NRC was given more time (83 ECR, 4/29/16).
The manager's amendment also required the NRC to consider options for cost-sharing structures between the federal government and private companies in a phased-licensing review process.
Ed Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he had concerns with requiring the Energy Department to split the costs of advanced reactor development, because this ultimately would be borne by taxpayers. “It raises the potential for a significant public subsidy, and that has to be worked out,” he told Bloomberg BNA in a May 18 interview.
Additionally, the manager's amendment included a provision requiring private companies using Energy Department facilities to build advanced reactors to not enter into such an agreement until the NRC has published a final decision on its application for a permanent high-level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Lyman said this provision is a potential “poison pill” because “if any such project has to wait for a Yucca Mountain license and an NRC decision, it could be the show stopper.”
Also, the committee unanimously passed by voice vote an amendment to H.R. 4979 from Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) requiring the NRC to provide the Senate with the status of performance metrics and milestone schedules for advanced nuclear reactors.
There was only one amendment passed, on a 17-3 vote, by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee—a manager's amendmentfrom Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla) as a substitution to the original language of S. 2975.
The manager's amendment addressed several major concerns of Democrat by providing the NRC a one-year waiver of an annual fee cap if the cap would compromise the agency's safety and security mission. The amendment also removed the proposal to eliminate the requirement that the NRC hold mandatory public hearings before issuing construction permits or operating licenses.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, was one of three votes against the manager's amendment. She said that while the amendment addressed her major concerns with the bill, she voted “no” so there could be more changes made to the bill before it reaches the floor.
Lyman said the Union of Concerned Scientists felt “neutral” about the Senate bill, now that the NRC was given a waiver to raise fees and the proposal to eliminate the mandatory hearing process was removed.
Similarly, NRDC's Fettus called these two major changes to the bill “significant improvements” during a May 18 interview with Bloomberg BNA.
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