U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently released a staff paper-SECY-18-0096-seeking Commission approval of a new proposed methodology for establishing “functional containment” performance criteria for non-light water reactors (non-LWRs).  This methodology would step away from deterministic containment design parameters and embrace a concept of “‘functional containment’ as a barrier, or a set of barriers taken together, that effectively limits the physical transport of radioactive material to the environment.”  If approved, the proposed methodology would be a critical step in developing a framework for licensing non-LWR designs.

Many current NRC regulations and guidance documents are prescriptive in nature and focus on problems unique to LWR technology—that is, the regulations tell you squarely what you need to do, providing limited opportunity to meet the end objective of the regulation in a different way.  For example, NRC guidance in NUREG-800 Chapter 3 provides detailed requirements for the strength and thickness of barrier concrete.  As the NRC has started to grapple with non-LWR designs, it has shifted its focus to more risk-based and performance-based methodologies—that is, the NRC would define the objective, and an applicant would have more flexibility in showing the NRC how its design meets the objective.  Under the performance-based methodology proposed in the SECY paper, the requirements imposed on physical barriers would be determined based on the risk of migration of radioactive materials and the other safety measures being used for containment.

The new methodology proposed by the NRC staff, therefore, does not prescribe the traditional structures, systems, and components (SSCs) required for functional containment, but rather focuses on performance requirements.  This methodology will give non-LWR designers more flexibility and provide a more integrated approach for developing a regulatory framework for non-LWRs.

A key component of the methodology is the “identification and categorization of licensing-basis events.”  The NRC staff recommends using the set of event categories initially developed under the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project and used in the Licensing Modernization Project as the baseline for developing performance criteria.  Based on these event categories, the performance criteria will be developed to meet fundamental safety requirements.  Once the performance criteria have been determined, it appears the developers of non-LWRs would consider the potential consequences associated with the identified events and assess the cost and benefits of potential SSC options to prevent or mitigate the migration of radioactive material.  The NRC staff is calling this approach the “Barrier Assessment” or “Bow Tie” method, as depicted in the figure below:

If approved, the prosed methodology for functional containment performance criteria will be incorporated into the draft guidance the NRC staff is currently compiling for non-LWR licensing.

If you would like more information please contact the authors.

This month, the NRC published an early draft regulatory guide on the content of license applications for non-LWRs.  The document is designed to help license applicants apply the NRC’s movement towards a risk-informed/performance-based regulatory approach towards the drafting of an actual license application.

The document is in part the result of the Southern Company-led Licensing Modernization Project, which has resulted in the issuance of a number of informal reports discussing licensing reform for non-LWR reactors.  This draft regulatory guide is designed to more formally capture the results of those reports and follow-on discussions.   It addresses the designation of licensing basis events; safety classification and performance criteria for structures, systems, and components; and evaluation of defense in depth adequacy.  importantly, it largely adopts detailed draft industry guidance set forth in March of this year, although with certain clarifications.  One area of particular NRC focus concerns probabilistic risk analyses (“PRA”), where the agency appears to show a little hesitancy with the broad use of PRA proposed in the industry guidance.

The draft guidance is being issued to support future discussions, in particular an Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards meeting tentatively scheduled for October 30, 2018.  For more about the Licensing Modernization project, or recent NRC and industry guidance on contents for non-LWR license applications, please contact the authors.

On Sunday, the popular TV show Madam Secretary gave a starring role to the climate and security benefits of nuclear power. The episode, titled “Thin Ice,” which is still available on the CBS website, proffered a full-throated defense of the climate benefits of nuclear power, turned a grassroots activist organization into a supporter of nuclear energy, and showcased how a nuclear powered ice breaker protected the Arctic from a foreign incursion. It capped with Secretary McCord convincing the show’s President to revise the national nuclear policy. As Michael Shellenberger opined following the episode (he also walks through the episode in detail), this marks a turning point for Hollywood, and “represents a popular culture breakthrough for the pro-nuclear movement.”  We encourage everyone to watch the episode!

From there, the week has only gotten better for nuclear innovation. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) completed “the first and most intensive phase of review for” NuScale’s Design Certification Application for its small modular reactor. The NuScale design review has six phases to its schedule; but the first review sets the tenor, as it establishes the NRC staff’s preliminary safety evaluation of the reactor and encompasses a large portion of the requests for additional information. NuScale performed admirably in both areas. Along with this significant milestone—which derisks the company’s regulatory path forward—NuScale also received US$40 million from U.S. Department of Energy to continue advancing its innovative new, passively safe reactor design. And even the issue of nuclear waste storage might see progress, as the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018 will get a vote on the floor of the House soon. The bill will move forward interim storage of spent nuclear fuel, and seek resolution on the licensing of a final national repository.

And apart from advancements on earth, NASA successfully tested KRUSTY, or “Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology,” a nuclear reactor for potential moon and Mars bases. NASA personnel stated after the successful Nevada trial that “[n]o matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.” NASA, along with Hollywood and Congress it seems, has taken a renewed interest in the role nuclear power can play in space exploration.

If you wish to learn more about any of these encouraging events, please contact the authors.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing February 6, 2018 to discuss the challenges facing America’s nuclear infrastructure, including advanced reactor development.  The hearing was called “DOE Modernization: Advancing the Economic and National Security Benefits of America’s Nuclear Infrastructure.” A video of the hearing can be watched here.

A background memorandum released in advance explained that the hearing would explore the following important topics:

  • National security implications associated with U.S. nuclear leadership and a domestic nuclear energy industry;
  • The outlook for domestic and international development of nuclear energy and application of nuclear technologies;
  • Challenges and opportunities regarding maintaining the components of a domestic nuclear fuel cycle; and
  • Options to develop and deploy advanced nuclear technologies

The hearing witnesses included (their statements are also provided below):

  • Mr. Art Atkins, Associate Deputy Administrator for Global Material Security, U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration: Witness Statement
  • Mr. Victor McCree, Executive Director of Operations, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Witness Statement
  • Mr. Ed McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy: Witness Statement
  • Mr. James Owendoff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management: Witness Statement
  • Dr. Ashley Finan, Policy Director, Nuclear Innovation Alliance: Witness Statement
  • Ms. Maria Korsnick, President and CEO, Nuclear Energy Institute: Witness Statement
  • The Honorable Bill Ostendorff, Former NRC Commissioner and Distinguished Visiting Professor of National Security, U.S. Naval Academy: Witness Statement
  • Dr. Mark Peters, Director, Idaho National Laboratory: Witness Statement
  • Mr. David Trimble, Director, Government Accountability Office, Natural Resources and Environment: Witness Statement

Summary of Key Issues for Advanced Reactor Community

During his opening remarks, Full Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) noted that “[a]t root today, is a question of our nation’s capabilities not only to propel nuclear innovation generally, but to ensure an infrastructure that is critical to our economic and our national security.” He promised to align U.S. policy with a changing world: “we must recognize the world looks different than it did at the birth of the nuclear age. Consequently, we must take steps to update the relevant policies. These policies must be forward looking to enable innovation and the development and deployment of new advanced nuclear technologies.”

Once witness questioning began, the Subcommittee quickly honed in on issues facing the advanced reactor community and expressed bipartisan support for U.S. government help to develop and deploy these innovative new designs. Among the issues discussed were the following:

  • SMR commercialization and deployment schedule

The first question asked at the hearing, by Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), was on small modular reactor (SMR) commercialization and when the U.S. was going to see SMR designs being approved and deployed in the commercial sector. In response, Ed McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy explained: “We are at a tipping point,” with the U.S. leading in design development but challenged in deployment of the technologies. He went on to note that NuScale project that can be “game changing” if successfully deployed.

Last year, reactor designer NuScale submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission the first SMR reactor design certification application  in the United States. The NRC recently approved–in a first of a kind decision–that NuScale would not need a safety-related electrical power system. This means that the NRC believes the reactor can remain in a safe condition in the event it loses electricity. Currently, all nuclear power plants in the U.S. have safety-related electrical power systems. And the fact that NuScale does not need one is a testament to the inherent different nature of SMRs—and the first time the NRC has recognized as such during its review of an application.

On that front, Victor McCree, the NRC’s Executive Director of Operations, explained during the hearing that the NRC’s decision about NuScale reflects a “philosophical” change that will lead to more efficient and effective reviews. Mr. McCree continued on to explain that an NRC approval of the NuScale design would open the market in a way that large reactors cannot, including by being more affordable and improving grid reliability. Mr. McGinnis further explained that with a number of large-scale reactors facing shutdown, getting SMRs into the pipeline is an imperative, and among other things, DOE was working on integrating SMRs with wind turbines and solar plants. With SMRs versatility and fast ramp up ability, Mr. McGinnis explained, SMRs could be paired with renewables to firm up their intermittent power and delivery of emissions free power.

  • Concern with amount of DOE funding to support SMR commercialization and deployment

Several members expressed concern that—with less than US$30 million invested in advanced reactors—whether DOE is really pushing for commercialization of SMRs. In response, Mr. McGinnis noted that a lot of work was being performed at the national labs and DOE continues to work on deployment matters.

  • High-assay LEU and Test Reactors

Mr. McGinnis from DOE also explained that DOE was working towards development of a fast neutron reactor and growing a capacity for high-assay LEU. Mr. McGinnis acknowledged that next-generation nuclear innovators need a test reactor, which itself would require high-assay LEU. He added that NNSA is taking seriously the challenge of developing a high-assay LEU capacity for testing and eventual industry use.

  • Deployment of US SMRs overseas

A number of members asked about deployment of US SMRs abroad. In response, Mr. McGinnis remarked that a number of countries are interested in U.S. SMR designs and watching their progress. He remarked that the U.S. is the world expert in designing SMRs, and that if the U.S. was able to prove the technology domestically it would open up the international market. The hearing participants also discussed ways to speed up the U.S. nuclear export approval process. On that last point, Congressman Bill Johnson (R-OH) noted that he intended to introduce legislation soon to improve the export control authorization process. At the end of 2017, Chairman Upton and Congressman Johnson sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry saying that the slow pace of DOE authorizations for commercial nuclear energy exports is having harmful consequences for U.S. competitiveness and national security. “While DOE is in the process of implementing some targeted reforms, more work remains to accelerate agency decision-making so that our domestic nuclear technology leaders have timely answers necessary to compete effectively with other nations’ nuclear programs,” the letter said.

  • NRC fee reform

When asked about if the NRC is undergoing reviews of its fee structure and looking for ways to improve methodology especially when non-LWR reactors look for licensing, Mr. McCree confirmed that the NRC is looking at this issue.

With a flurry of attention on advanced reactors lately, the hearing brings welcome attention the advanced reactor community needs. Please contact the authors with any questions.

Hogan Lovells had the honor Monday of hosting the Washington, D.C. launch party for Ambassador Thomas Graham’s new book “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century.”  As part of the launch party, Hogan Lovells partner Amy Roma sat down with Tom and three other distinguished guests for a panel on the future of nuclear power.  The other panelists included: Senator John Warner (former Secretary of the Navy; five term Virginia Senator), Mike Wallace (current Board member for Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation; former Constellation Energy COO and Vice-Chairman), and Jim McDonnell (Director of DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office).

The book has drawn strong critical acclaim. Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize recipient for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, calls this publication “the best book” written on the subject of commercial nuclear power. The book makes clear that “[n]uclear power is not an option for the future but an absolute necessity.” It also explains that:

Fortunately, a new era of growth in this energy source is underway in developing nations, though not yet in the West. Seeing the Light is the first book to clarify these realities and discuss their implications for coming decades. Readers will learn how, why, and where the new nuclear era is happening, what new technologies are involved, and what this means for preventing the proliferation of weapons. This book is the best work available for becoming fully informed about this key subject, for students, the general public, and anyone interested in the future of energy production, and, thus, the future of humanity on planet Earth.

The panel provided an exciting opportunity to marry the research and conclusions from Seeing the Light with the experiences and insights of those working to make the future of nuclear power—including next generation nuclear power—a reality. Some of the many insights from the panel included the following:

  • National Security Should Be Considered, as well as Climate Change: Seeing the Light clearly explains that the urgent threat of climate change requires nuclear power to work alongside renewables. In addition, the panel discussed at length that national security is also an important concern, and one that national leaders may also readily get behind. From an inability to power the nuclear navy to losing our seat on the table with regards to non-proliferation, the panelists repeatedly brought home the importance of having a robust commercial nuclear industrial base to keep the country at the cutting edge. The panelists expressed grave concern that a downward spiral in nuclear investment and talent threatens the U.S. on multiple fronts.
  • Effective Non-Proliferation Requires Peaceful Nuclear Power: While the book argues that the global nuclear non-proliferation treaties of the 20th century were not just giveaways from non-weapons states to the nuclear weapons states. Instead, they were agreements that in exchange for not engaging in nuclear weapons, non-weapons states would have assistance to develop a robust commercial, peaceful nuclear industry. And the U.S. has an obligation to these parties to assist them with their programs.  Moreover, the lack of a U.S. presence in foreign nuclear programs, weakens the U.S. voice on non-proliferation issues.
  • Ensuring New Nuclear Meets Top Safety and Security Standards. The panelists also all agreed that the use of U.S. technology abroad means that U.S. standards for safety and security, which are the highest in the World, will be incorporated into foreign reactor programs.
  • Top-Level Government Support Needs To Complement Private Action: All the panelists also agreed that the development of nuclear power in the 20th century was a true public-private partnership, with both Congress and the Executive Branch offering support. And this partnership delivered dividends countless times over back to the government and taxpayers. With a new wave of reactors moving forward around the world and the next generation of nuclear power on the horizon, the panelists agree that this needs to happen again, and that circumstances are right to make real progress towards this in the near future.

For more on the book, the panel, or on the potential role nuclear power can play in our future, please contact the authors.

 Late last week the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff released its non-light water reactor (i.e., advanced reactor) “Near-Term Implementation Action Plans,” and “Mid-Term and Long-Term Implementation Action Plans.”  These two plans follow up from the agency’s Vision & Strategy Statement for advanced reactors, and attempt to more concretely lay out the NRC staff’s next steps for developing a regulatory framework for advanced reactor licensing.  A few quick insights from the two documents:

  • Both plans are based on the same five to six strategies.  The first five are, in short: (i) develop knowledge and skills, (ii) develop computer codes and tools, (iii) develop a flexible regulatory review process, (iv) facilitate industry codes and standards, and (v) resolve policy questions (one difference here though is that the near-term plans focus on technology-inclusive issues, while the longer-term plans focus on technology-specific issues).  The near-term plan also specifically lists as a sixth strategy that the NRC would “develop a communications strategy.” But a communications strategy will certainly continue to exist and evolve as the NRC moves into the mid and long term.
  • Among the six near-term strategies, the NRC staff plans to prioritize strategies (iii) and (v), developing the regulatory review process and resolving common policy issues.  This is due to “stakeholder feedback on the draft near-term [plans] and recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards” (ACRS).  The ACRS letter making this recommendation can be found here.  This prioritization will help the agency be better prepared in case applications come in for approval to the NRC earlier than the agency expects.  The NRC’s overall plan is to be ready to address advanced reactor applications in 2025, but multiple parties have indicated they will be submitting applications earlier.
  • In the near term, strategy (iii), concerning the regulatory review process, is guidance-based and is designed to work “within the bounds of existing regulations.”  In the mid-to-long term, the NRC staff bifurcates the strategy: continuing a guidance-focused approach, while considering a rulemaking to develop an advanced reactor regulatory framework that is “is risk-informed, performance-based, technology-inclusive, and that features staff review efforts commensurate with the risks posed by the non-LWR [nuclear power plant] design being considered.”

    However, the rulemaking approach is only suggested as an option “if needed.”  In discussing its long-term strategy, the agency staff stated it “will evaluate the need for or potential benefits of such a rulemaking throughout near- and mid-term activities,” based on  whether or not it will improve licensing and regulatory effectiveness.  The upshot, though, is that a rulemaking is still very much on the table, and this furthers a long-running debate as to the extent regulatory reform is needed for advanced reactors to prosper in the United States.

  • The NRC staff appears to reinvigorate discussion of conceptual design assessments and staged review processes, which as we have discussed in a prior post the agency seemed to downplay in its final Vision & Strategy Statement.  Draft guidance for these two processes can be found in the October 2016 draft document, “A Regulatory Review Roadmap for Non-Light Water Reactors.”

These Implementation Action Plans, along with the feedback the agency staff received from stakeholders and the ACRS, will be helpful generally.  However, the increasingly likely option that reactor designers will be submitting designs to the NRC earlier than expected will present a true test of the NRC’s readiness.  According to the agency staff, “[i]n those cases, the NRC will work developers on design-specific licensing project plans . . . and the NRC may prioritize or accelerate specific contributing activities in [its action plans], as needed.”

If there are any questions on the licensing regime for advanced reactors, please reach out to the authors.

In prior posts we have touched on the importance of prototype and test reactors in enabling the eventual commercialization of advanced reactors.  To help in those efforts, the NRC recently issued early draft guidance on “Nuclear Power Reactor Testing Needs and Prototype Plants for Advanced Reactor Designs.”  This document has been issued to support a public meeting on the topic, currently scheduled to occur sometime in August 2017.

As described by the NRC, this guidance describes the (i) “relevant regulations governing the testing requirements for advanced reactors,” (ii) “the process for determining testing needs to meet the NRC’s regulatory requirements,” (iii) “when a prototype plant might be needed and how it might differ from the proposed standard plant design,” and (iv) “licensing strategies and options that include the use of a prototype plant to meet the NRC’s testing requirements.”

To add, the document also provides some discussion as to the differences between prototype plants, demonstration reactors, test reactors, first-of-a-kind reactors, and other terms that are often thrown around in this space.  It also discusses different categories of tests to be conducted, and provides an FAQ on the use of a prototype plant as part of a testing regime.  Appendix A is an annotated reprint of a section of a 1991 staff paper, and is entitled “Process for Determining Testing Needs”; and Appendix B provides an interesting discussion on “Options For Using a Prototype Plant To Achieve a Design Certification or Standard Design Approval.”

For any questions on the above, please contact the authors.

Fusion is the combining of two or more smaller atoms to create one larger atom, potentially releasing large amounts of energy in the process.  A typical example is the merging of hydrogen atoms to form helium – the core process that powers our sun.  Fusion energy is moving beyond theory and becoming of increasing interest as a means of power production.  Third Way lists seventeen organizations, both government and private, working on fusion energy projects.  Each is working on a different means of dealing with the core challenges for fusion energy, including keeping the reaction stable long enough to get significant energy out, managing the high-energy neutrons that may result, and constructing materials that can work in the harsh fusion environment.

There is significant capital entering the field, led by some big names.  For example, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is invested in Tri Alpha Energy, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is funding General Fusion, two leading fusion startups.  The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (commonly known as ARPA-E) supported a funding program for fusion energy that helped spur a number of innovative ideas.  Growth in the field continues to accelerate.  The United Kingdom venture Tokamak Energy recently turned on its ST40 fusion reactor, which hopes to create temperatures seven times hotter than the center of the sun in the pursuit of fusion energy.

As a first of a kind technology, nuclear fusion presents new regulatory questions, including if it should be regulated, how, and who should regulate it.  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stepped its toe into the waters in 2009.  The agency’s staff issued a paper noting that recent activities had drawn attention to the area, and raised “the possible need to regulate fusion energy and specifically the role of the NRC.”  By that point, concerns had already arisen in regards to exports – specifically as to whether the NRC should regulate exports of fusion-related components instead of the Department of Commerce.  The paper then discussed various options for how the Commission could proceed.

Later that year the Commission issued its voting record and response to the staff.  In it, the Commission asserted jurisdiction “as a general matter” over fusion energy devices whenever they would be of significance to the common defense and security or could impact public health and safety.  In supporting this position, Commissioner Svinicki (now Chairman of the agency) noted that the legislative history behind the 1954 amendments to the Atomic Energy Act indicated that “atomic energy” as used in the statute includes energy from fusion.  But apart from this declaration, the Commission left future regulatory efforts to when the technology demonstrates further progress, particularly by successful testing of a specific fusion technology.

It is possible this time may come sooner than most think.  Milestones in fusion research are being routinely surpassed, bit by bit, and increasing amounts of investment are entering the field.  Our team operates at the forefront of the next-generation nuclear energy frontier, and has spent some time on issues such as the NRC’s jurisdiction over new atomic energy technologies.  If you have a question in this area, do not hesitate to contact the authors.