In late December the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an updated and seemingly final “NRC Vision and Strategy Statement” for non-light water (a.k.a. advanced) reactors (Final Vision Statement).  We previously reviewed the Draft Vision Statement, as well as comments received on it from advanced reactor companies, in an October blog post.  While much of the vision statement remains the same in the final version, in core areas there are significant departures from the draft.

As we discussed in the October post, the core aspects of the Draft Vision Statement were the creation of a “conceptual design assessment” (CDA) and staged standard design approval process for advanced reactors.  In the Draft Vision Statement, these were found in Section 5, titled “Non-LWR Regulatory Review Options and Flexibilities.”  This section also provided a helpful overview of the NRC regulatory process and ways it could be applied to advanced reactors.  In the Final Vision Statement, this section has been completely removed.  Also eliminated are the sample deployment timelines for advanced reactors under the 10 C.F.R. Part 50 and Part 52 processes, which were found in Section 6.

These changes may be the result of comments received on the Draft Vision Statement, also discussed in our October post.  Commenters on the Draft Vision Statement, which included the Nuclear Energy Institute, Transatomic Power, and X-energy, generally criticized the NRC process as too slow.  They instead proposed revised timetables that anticipated advanced reactors under construction in the 2020s.  Certain commenters indicated that the NRC should be prepared to receive pre-application submissions in just a couple years from now, much earlier than estimated in the Draft Vision Statement.  The commenters also challenged the CDA and staged review process, arguing that they must have meaningful results to be justified.  Transatomic Power further recommended that the CDA concept be ditched.

The Final Vision Statement still advertises that a CDA and staged review process may be implemented for advanced reactors in the future, but now there is no formal discussion of what they may look like.  The Final Vision Statement, as with the draft, only suggests that any such approaches will remain, at least initially, within the scope of the current regulatory environment: “Activities in both of these areas are initially expected to be within the scope of the current regulations, with possible development of a revised regulatory framework for non-LWRs in the long-term.”

In lieu of specific timelines, the Final Vision Statement now states more generally that “the NRC plans to achieve its strategic goal of readiness to effectively and efficiently review and regulate non-LWRs by not later than 2025,” in order to allow for construction “by the early 2030s.”  It acknowledges that the advanced reactor community may wish to submit design applications and start construction “in the near-term”—i.e., earlier than the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) goal of having two non-LWR designs reviewed and ready for construction in the early 2030s.  But the Final Vision Statement does not address the issue in detail.  Instead, it only states: “the NRC will work with vendors on design-specific licensing project plans and the NRC may accelerate specific readiness activities, as needed.”  As in the Draft Vision Statement, the NRC states that it is capable of reviewing such applications earlier, but these “will not benefit from the efficiencies gained as the non-LWR vision and strategies are implemented.”

Additional changes were made in the Final Vision Statement, particularly in the Section 4 discussion of agency near-, mid-, and long-term strategies to enhance technical readiness.  These changes focus the strategies a little more on identifying regulatory gaps as well as on improving readiness to review fuel fabrication and fuel cycle issues related to advanced reactors.  These may have been in response to comments, discussed in our October post, that the Draft Vision Statement left out a sufficient discussion of fuel fabrication facilities.  Nonetheless, the NRC strategies discussed in the Final Vision Statement remain at a very high level.

The Final Vision Statement appears to reflect that the NRC took in the criticisms to its draft CDA and staged review process for advanced reactors, but it leaves no clear replacement for the removed information.  In addition, the Final Vision Statement reflects that the NRC is still sticking to the DOE timeline for development of advanced reactors, which envisions construction only in the early 2030s, although it leaves open the door for earlier action if applications do actually come in.

This timeline is likely to be disappointing to many advanced reactor companies who anticipate submitting applications to the NRC sooner than the DOE timetable expects.  To the extent the advanced reactor community wants to seek earlier action from the NRC, it should continue to communicate with the agency about anticipated timelines for specific projects.   More generally, the community can submit formal comments and letters, as well as participate in NRC-sponsored events, such as the March 2017 NRC Regulatory Information Conference, and the April 2017 DOE-NRC Advanced Reactor Workshop.

For more information about the NRC Final Vision Statement on advanced reactors, or about advanced reactor and nuclear power licensing in general, please feel free to contact the authors.