Advanced nuclear reactors promising smaller, simpler, and safer nuclear energy are moving closer and closer to commercial reality.  As we recently blogged, Oklo Inc., a California-based company, recently submitted the nation’s first application to construct and operate a non-light water advanced reactor.  In response to this trend, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is exploring a new framework for advanced reactor licensing.  To help inform future regulatory engagement, blog author Sachin Desai co-authored a historical study of the NRC’s licensing framework with a member of the NRC staff—Technology-Neutral Licensing of Advanced Reactors: Evaluating the Past and Present NRC Framework.

The study, found on page 37 of the most recent issuance of the Nuclear Energy Agency’s Nuclear Law Bulletin, carefully reviews the history of the US nuclear regulatory framework, and dives into the question of why the current framework is light water reactor (LWR) focused.  It explores the development of the original 10 CFR Part 50 framework, and identifies key points in the creation of the alternative 10 CFR Part 52 framework where trade-offs were made in favor of standardization for “evolutionary light water reactors”—setting aside a more technology-inclusive licensing process for small modular and non-LWR reactors.  As the article notes, “while advanced design applicants could use 10 CFR Part 52 to certify an advanced reactor design, the NRC acknowledged that the design standardization approach and associated prototype testing [contemplated in the Part 52 framework] might not be economically feasible for advanced reactor designs.”

The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act requires that by the year 2027 NRC establish a “technology-inclusive” regulatory framework advanced reactor licensing.  But “technology-inclusive” (or, “technology-neutral,” as often referred to) will have to elevate from being more than a buzzword to a critical part of any new reactor regulatory framework.  Advanced reactors present new design features (e.g., natural circulation and convection, new types of fuel, and modular formats) that can benefit significantly from different regulatory approaches.  One of the key aims of the study is to demonstrate how and why certain choices were made in development of the current regulatory framework, so that this historical context is in mind as the industry advances towards a new regulatory framework.  Only by knowing where we have been can we understand where we need to go.

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