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By Rebecca Kern
May 23 — The annual fee structure for small, modular nuclear reactors will vary depending on how much heat a reactor generates, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a final rule.
Light-water small modular reactors will differ from the existing light-water reactor fleet due to their smaller design—typically generating 300 megawatts or less per module—which will make them safer and more secure than traditional nuclear reactors, the NRC said in the May 23 final rule (RIN:3150-AI54).
NuScale Power LLC is expected to be the first company in the U.S. to submit a small modular reactor design application to the NRC by the end of the year, with project commercialization by 2024. NuScale's reactor modules would each generate 50 megawatts (95 ECR, 5/17/16).
The NRC is implementing a variable annual fee schedule for these reactors including a minimum fee, a variable fee and a maximum fee based on the reactor's cumulative licensed thermal power rating, which is the total heat output for all modules at a nuclear power plant. The smaller and safer features of the reactors—referred to by the NRC and industry as SMRs—could result “in a lower regulatory oversight burden for this type of reactor,” the NRC said in the rule.
The NRC said applying the same fee structure to small modular reactors that is used for existing reactors would go against the agency's mandate to make fees be “fairly and equitably” allocated among licensees.
“The Nuclear Energy Institute supports the NRC’s final rule for variable annual fees for light-water small modular reactors as a fair and equitable fee structure for this new class of reactors,” Marc Nichol, a senior project manager at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry trade association, told Bloomberg BNA May 23.
Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of Environmental Progress, a new environmental research and policy organization, said he is also supportive of reduced costs for SMRs.
“This is exactly the kind of support you’d want to see for newer technologies,” he told Bloomberg BNA May 23.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization focused on scientific research of environmental issues, opposes different fees for small modular reactors because the safety risk of these reactors is still unclear, it said.
“It's not clear that the relative risk of SMRs and the effort needed to license and regulate them is proportional to the power rating,” Ed Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg BNA May 23. He said this is especially true “since SMR applicants are requesting exemptions that require significant technical analysis, such as reducing emergency planning zone size and weakening security requirements.”
Also, Lyman disagreed with the statement that the SMRs would require less regulatory oversight. “NRC inspections of a multi-module SMR bundled unit may be more complex and entail more labor than inspections of a single large reactor with the same power rating,” he said.
Similarly, Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information Resources Service, said he thinks that reduced fees for SMRs would ultimately impact NRC safety inspections.
“Smaller reactors means there would be several times more reactors requiring inspections and oversight for the same amount of power. Basing the fees on the generation capacity seems like it’s likely to starve the agency of resources to do its job,” he told Bloomberg BNA May 23.
The Tennessee Valley Authority submitted an early site permit application for the potential to construct and operate multiple small modular reactor units at its Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tenn. TVA is the first in the nuclear industry to submit any such application related to SMR technology to the NRC, TVA said in a May 13 statement.
The utility, which currently operates three nuclear plants in the South, has not decided what company it would purchase the SMR technology from, a TVA spokeswman told Bloomberg BNA May 23.
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