NRC working to smooth path for advanced nuclear reactors


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already looking at ways to improve its existing license review framework and make it more predictable for developers of advanced reactors; a top NRC manager told a Senate panel on April 21.

Executive Director for Operations (EDO) Victor McCree appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. The committee took testimony in connection with S.2795, The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act.

McCree is the top staff official at NRC and oversees its day-to-day operations.

The NRC’s mission is to license and regulate the use of radioactive materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety and promote the common defense and security. “Our statutory authority does not extend to promotion or implementation of nuclear energy design or technology,” McCree noted.

At the same time, NRC seeks to provide “an effective, efficient, clear, and predictable licensing process for advanced reactor safety reviews,” McCree said.

NRC’s proposed FY 2017 budget includes $5 million to help prepare a strategy for efficient and timely reviews of non-light-water reactor technology designs.

In keeping with the efforts, the NRC recently expanded an existing interagency agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE) for exploring regulatory issues and research needs for novel fuel designs, and held a seminar on advanced reactor and accident-tolerant fuels. “We also have completed some training, and plan further training for staff on different reactor technologies,” McCree said.

“Finally, we will pursue outreach activities that proactively engage key stakeholders to ensure all parties will be ready to proceed,” McCree said.

As for the legislation currently before the committee, McCree said the bill “would require the NRC to undertake a number of activities related to developing plans, strategies, and a rulemaking associated with the licensing of advanced reactors and of research and test reactors; and report on those to Congress.”

Another witness General Atomics Vice President for Nuclear Technologies and Materials Christina Back, PhD., said she wanted to better define “advanced reactors” which has become something of a catch-all term lately.

“At the end of the day, electricity is a commodity, and many consumers do not care whether it is made from nuclear fuels or from burning coal or gas, or from renewables; what matters is its cost,” Back said.

To provide that commodity in today’s world, an “advanced reactor” must improve over existing reactors in the following four-core attributes. According to back, it must: produce cost-competitive clean electricity, be safer, produce less waste, and reduce proliferation risk.

General Atomics has a reactor concept called the Energy Multiplier Module or EM2. Back said the EM2 should be able to generate 50 percent more electric power from the same amount of heat. “We do this by producing the electricity from higher temperature heat.”

On the safety front, the EM2 is contained in materials that can survive accident temperatures over 2 times higher and would not be subject to failure like those in Fukushima. “While challenges remain, our results so far have been promising. If they hold up, we will revolutionize this industry,” Back said.

The General Atomics EM2 would also generate only 20 percent of the waste of a current reactor for the same amount of power. Also, the innovative design of EM2 keeps the fuel in the reactor for 30 years, without the need to refuel or reposition fuel rods, Back said.

This reactor, if it performs as designed, would produce power at perhaps 40 percent lower cost than today’s existing nuclear reactors, and with a capital investment per EM2 unit in the $1.5 billion range, Back said. “It would be produced in a factory, reducing proliferation concerns and potentially reducing licensing costs, and shipped to the site and installed within 4 years, again keeping costs down,” Back said.

But “radically new concepts” like the EM2 entail some risk. Even successful technology ventures could require at least 10 years to produce any revenue. General Atomics has already invested $40 million in the EM2 concept.

“If this Committee’s objective is to stimulate the development of new advanced reactor concepts, we would suggest that it is in this early phase of development that it would be relatively inexpensive to involve the NRC for early consultations with potentially very high impact,” Back said. “Every advanced reactor concept that involves significant long lead development would benefit enormously from being able to work with the NRC at an early stage.”

Other changes should be made to the NRC cost structure as it relates to licensing advanced reactors, Back said.

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