Blog author Sachin Desai, along with a member of the NRC staff, both acting in their individual capacity, recently published an article in the American Bar Association’s nuclear law publication entitled “Preparing for Advanced Reactors: Exploring Regulatory and Licensing Reform.”  The article reviews advanced reactor licensing reform efforts, discusses an NRC staff recommendation for a new, risk-informed rule for licensing new reactors (colloquially called “10 CFR Part 53”), and also explores a novel concept to adapt the NRC’s adjudicatory licensing process to reach initial licensing decisions on complex regulatory questions.

The first part of the article starts with useful background as to the NRC’s regulatory reform efforts to prepare for advanced reactors, including among other things the NRC’s Vision and Strategy statement on advanced reactor licensing, and Guidance for Developing Principal Design Criteria for Non-Light Water Reactors.  It then discusses a significant NRC staff paper to the Commission, entitled Achieving Modern Risk-Informed Regulation, which proposes creating an “optional, technology-inclusive, risk-informed, performance-based rule for reviewing the design and operation of advanced reactors.”   According to the article, the licensing path “could potentially become a new part of the NRC regulatory framework—a ‘10 CFR Part 53.’”  This is covered more in a prior blog entry here.

The second part of the article starts by describing the current NRC adjudicatory framework, which is based on a requirement in the Atomic Energy Act that “provides applicants, the public, and the NRC’s own staff an opportunity to make their safety cases before an independent adjudicatory body,” particularly the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board Panel.  Currently this hearing process is most often used by citizens’ groups to challenge license applications, but the article posits that “the NRC’s adjudicatory process and the diverse pool of expert administrative judges” within these licensing boards (consisting of both legal and technical judges working together), may be “well suited to advanced reactor licensing.”

The article asks then whether there are circumstances in which specific, reasonable disagreements by the NRC staff and an advanced reactor applicant on a regulatory interpretation or licensing question can be brought before this panel (or a modification of it) to resolve on a fast timeline.  The licensing board can then issue a “tailored, precedential, decision on that particular disagreement,” with options for review by the NRC Commission.  Implementation of this approach will raise policy questions and likely require modification of the NRC’s regulations around adjudicatory proceedings, but it is nonetheless one option to explore further as licensing of advanced reactors approaches on the horizon.

For more about this blog post, please contact Amy Roma and Sachin Desai.