US regulator ready for new reactor challenges

11 November 2015

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could license a non-light water reactor under its current regulatory framework, but needs input from the nuclear industry and the US Department of Energy (DOE) to optimize its planning and resources, commission chairman Stephen Burns has told the American Nuclear Society (ANS).

Burns made his comments to the opening plenary session of the ANS Winter Meeting in Washington DC. In his address, he looked to the work of the US regulator beyond 2016, with the challenges presented by small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced reactors. The NRC expects to receive the first design certification application - for NuScale's SMR - in 2016.

Burns highlighted the different roles of the NRC the DOE and industry as new technologies come forward, with the regulator ensuring the safety and security of new technologies, the DOE providing support with research and project development, and the industry initiating projects to put them into action.

"While the NRC's current regulatory framework is focused on light-water reactors, we believe we could license a non-LWR under the existing framework," Burns said. However, because the existing framework has developed primarily around light-water reactors (LWRs), the NRC recognized that "knowledge gaps" may exist for both NRC staff and prospective applicants, he said.

Furthermore, if the NRC were to receive an application for an advanced reactor within the next five years, it could face challenges related to research and modelling work in both technical issues and code development as well as critical skills gaps. "We are working with the DOE to address these gaps," Burns said.

The NRC always aims to review designs efficiently and effectively, Burns said. Its fees were "only a fraction" of the costs to develop and test a new reactor design, and preparation can be key to keeping costs in check. "Incomplete or inadequate information will likely increase costs since the NRC will spend more time and effort getting the data we need to determine whether the reactor could operate safely and securely," he said.

He also called on industry to keep the regulator informed as interest in SMRs and advanced reactors grows. "We need solid information from the industry to help us plan and change course to meet emerging demands," he said. "We need open communication with the non-LWR developer community and the DOE to optimize our planning and resources for any future applications."

The NRC's future workload would likely continue to include much of the USA's current reactor fleet and some new plants. While many of the new plants envisaged a decade ago did not reach the licensing stage, Burns said there was still "energy" in the nuclear sector. "As concerns about climate change grow, I believe there might yet be renewed interest in new nuclear in the future," he said.

Decommissioning rule

The NRC's future workload will also include more decommissioning activities, Burns said. The NRC currently oversees 19 units in various stages of decommissioning, including those reactors that ceased operations earlier than anticipated. Recent announcements of plans to close the Fitzpatrick, Pilgrim and Oyster Creek plants mean that more units will soon be added to the list.

The NRC has traditionally used the same regulations for plants undergoing decommissioning as for operating reactors. This means that, as decommissioning progresses, plants must ask for exemptions when the regulations for an operating plant cease to be relevant or appropriate for a unit that has closed down.

Burns said that the current approach was "sensible from a safety standpoint", but a reactor decommissioning rulemaking being drawn up by NRC staff would improve the effectiveness and transparency of the decommissioning process. A final rule is expected to be ready for consideration by the commission in 2019, he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News