Nuclear Regulator Details Pros, Cons of Mini-Reactor

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By Rebecca Kern

The pluses: smallness and flexibility. The minuses: questions about safety and where it is built.

Those are some of the advantages and drawbacks of NuScale Power LLC’s first-of-a-kind small modular nuclear reactor technology that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is discussing as it begins reviewing a design certification for the technology.

NRC staff noted that a major advantage of NuScale’s 50-megawatt, small modular light-water reactor technology is that it can be scaled up to 12 reactors totaling 600 megawatts, which is advantageous for communities with smaller-than-normal electricity demands. Its small footprint also makes it more flexible, so it can be built on smaller sites than traditional large-scale nuclear reactors.

“Some of the advantages are the scalability and the simplicity of the design. And it provides a lot of flexibility,” William Dean, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said during a Feb. 23 joint meeting between the NRC and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at NRC’s headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Regulatory Challenges

However, in terms of challenges, Frank Akstulewicz, NRC’s director of the Division of New Reactor Licensing in the Office of New Reactors, said the modular construction of the NuScale reactor components in an off-site manufacturing facility, rather than on-site, will involve changing NRC inspections.

“There are some regulatory challenges we have to face with the construction of reactors away from the actual site,” Akstulewicz said. But he said the agency is developing guidance to make sure the reactors are inspected before they are installed on-site and operated.

NuScale contends that doing such work off-site saves time and money. NuScale CEO John Hopkins said part of the company’s commercial viability stems from the fact that the reactor components are manufactured in a factory and shipped to the location of the plant.

“That’s a sustainable supply chain; you’re going to be able to mass-produce these for shipment in exporting as well as here in the U.S.,” Hopkins told Bloomberg BNA.

Also, new regulatory challenges will come with NuScale’s desire to seek an exemption from certain safety requirements at existing nuclear plants involving the emergency planning zone, which currently involves a 10-mile and 50-mile radius around nuclear plants providing extra safety precautions in an emergency.

Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA the NRC expects NuScale will request a smaller emergency planning zone in its application because of its smaller plant size. NRC commissioners will have to decide whether to approve a smaller zone.

Hopkins said an advantage to a smaller emergency planning zone is that it could enable new plants to be built on the locations of existing generating plants—such as closed coal facilities—which already have electricity transmission infrastructure in place. He also said former coal workers could be retrained to work at a NuScale nuclear plant.

“I look at our facilities and our sweet spot in this country is coal replacement,” he said.

Environmentalists and science groups, however, have raised safety and security concerns about reducing the emergency planning zone.

“We’d be a lot more supportive of these efforts if [NuScale] stopped trying to get the NRC to weaken its emergency planning and its security requirements,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, previously told Bloomberg BNA.

FERC Hopeful, Excited by Technology

NuScale formally submitted its design certification application for the technology in January, and the NRC said it aims to complete its review by 2020. Based on NRC approval, the company expects to get its first reactor on the U.S. market in 2024 or 2025.

FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable said she respects NRC’s willingness to be open-minded to new nuclear technologies.

“Your comments speak to our need as regulators to be open to seeing what comes, what the technology bears out, the case that is made for each based upon the impacts on safety, reliability and the environment,” she said at the meeting.

“I’m very hopeful about the prospect of [small modular reactors] in particular, and excited about what may come,” 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

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