On Wednesday, November 15, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff published a revised and final regulatory basis document in support of its rulemaking to reform emergency planning requirements for small modular and advanced reactors, including medical isotope reactors.  This rulemaking promises to significantly reduce costs for next generation nuclear plants by employing individualized, risk-informed requirements as opposed to rigid deterministic ones.

Fifty-seven individuals, companies, and organizations commented on the draft regulatory basis document.  The NRC staff made a number of edits to respond to the comments, including further incorporating risk-informed concepts into the text of the regulatory basis, and increasing discussion of the agency’s framework for establishing the size of emergency planning zones for new reactor designs.  According to the NRC’s rulemaking schedule, a proposed rule is due to be published early 2019, with a final rule in 2020.

This action by the NRC coincides with exciting developments for the US Department of Energy.  This week the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) at Idaho National Laboratories successfully completed low-power operations after being brought out of standby since 1994.  As explained in industry press, the restart of TREAT is a big success story for the agency, which refurbished the facility a year ahead of schedule and $20 million under budget.  TREAT specializes in testing new reactor fuels under heavy irradiation conditions, to see how they perform particularly in accident scenarios.  Testing new fuel designs is a linchpin to commercializing new reactor designs, as many of them rely on completely new concepts for nuclear fuel.

TREAT may also be getting company.  This same week, the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved an exciting new bill markup, HR 4378, the “Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act of 2017.”  This piece of legislation tries to deliver on repeated calls to build a new test reactor in the United States.  It calls for a fast-neutron test facility to be completed in the mid-2020s that supports (among other things) high-temperature testing, testing of different coolant types, medical isotope production, and which is designed to be upgrade-able over time.  Funding is set aside, with $35 million in 2018, scaling up to $350 million from 2023 to 2025.

For more on any of these topics, feel free to contact the authors.

The value of nuclear power’s reliability and resiliency are getting a closer look.  The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently issued a grid study calling for FERC to better value essential reliability and resiliency services performed by baseload generation, including nuclear.  Recent natural disasters have also reemphasized the real value of resilience, and the role advanced reactors can play in this regard.

The recent hurricane activity has highlighted the frailty of current power grids.  As a result of Hurricane Irma, over half of Florida lost power.  More than a week after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still largely without power, potentially for months.  While there are a number of factors that contribute to power loss and restoration, it is noteworthy that while Hurricane Harvey dropped torrential rainfall down onto Texas–leading to the curtailment of many of the region’s generation sources–the area’s two nuclear power reactors continued to provide essential power, due to a strong design and good training.

In a changing environment, recent weather patterns may become more common.  Especially in remote areas such as islands, reliable power for health care, airports, and basic services is going to be increasingly valued, as well as reliable heat for desalination capacity.  Modern reactors are designed to handle extreme circumstances, including aircraft crashes, which most generation sources do not have to consider.  Advanced reactors, many of which are being designed to operate underground or in a portable manner, are likely going to be even more protected from environmental challenges and responsive to environmental disasters. This should help put governments and utility operators at ease when an extreme weather event arises.  Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently stated in fact: “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in? . . . That’s the type of innovation that’s going on at our national labs. Hopefully, we can expedite that.”

The question then becomes: how can next-generation reactors effectively market and achieve market compensation for these benefits? This is a question that is hinted at in the DOE’s grid study, and may become a bigger part of the market compensation discussion in the future.

For more on the topic of advanced nuclear reactors and resiliency benefits, please contact the authors.

On Wednesday, May 10 from 9:00 AM to 11:30 AM, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will hold a public meeting to discuss the draft regulatory basis for its rulemaking on emergency preparedness (EP) for small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced reactors.  The regulatory basis document outlines the agency’s overall approach to the rulemaking, and the background and developments leading up to it.  Participants can attend in person at the NRC or by phone.

In its regulatory basis publication, the NRC posits that its new regulations on EP will be consequence-oriented and performance-based, allowing for recognition of the inherent safety benefits of SMRs and advanced reactors.  It leaves open the possibility that for some plant designs, “the potential exists for [the Emergency Planning Zone or ‘EPZ’] to be contained within the site boundary.”

Comments on the regulatory basis document are due by June 27, 2017, and this public meeting can help those members of the advanced reactor community interested in filing comments.  Getting this rulemaking right can have a significant impact on the cost of and public perception of next-generation nuclear technologies.

For more on the EP rulemaking, please contact the authors.