NRC chair outlines reforms for advanced reactor reviews
- The chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) laid out a six-step plan on Tuesday to reform her agency's regulatory approach for a new generation of advanced reactors now in early-stage development.
- NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki told a Washington audience her agency will develop new phased processes to review non-light water nuclear plants, such as small modular reactors, and help industry develop new standards for the technologies. NRC will also develop collaboration plans with vendors and assist with community outreach, she said.
- The announcement comes as lawmakers and industry groups press the NRC to review and shorten its regulatory processes to help bring new reactor technologies to market.
Current NRC regulations are not inadequate, Svinicki told the audience Tuesday at a nuclear summit hosted by Third Way, a centrist think tank. They simply were designed for large, light-water reactors that operate around the U.S. today.
Increasingly, the nuclear sector wants those rules to change. The Nuclear Energy Institute in January pressed the NRC to streamline review processes for a new generation of small plants and advanced reactors, which would use coolants like helium, liquid metal or molten salt instead of water. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) echoed those calls in a video address to the conference.
Svinicki's said her six-part agenda to reform NRC review processes would answer those concerns:
- Develop the "knowledge, competency and capacity" to perform regulatory reviews of non-light water reactors;
- Acquire computer codes and analytical tools to assist advanced reactor reviews and verify safety findings;
- Develop a flexible review process that allows for "conceptual design reviews or other phased or staged licensing processes;"
- Facilitate industry codes and standards for advanced reactors and SMRs;
- Develop a "technology inclusive" regulatory policy that works for various advanced reactor and SMR technologies, and;
- Develop a strategy for community engagement on new reactor technologies.
Of those priorities, Svinicki said the third — the development of flexible and phased regulatory reviews — is particularly important.
"I think we're hearing clearly that having staged and phased engagement with the regulator is a preference [of industry]," she said. "It may be a business imperative, quite frankly, for them. So we've heard that and we are responding accordingly."
Svinicki said her staff will design "regulatory engagement plans" to guide vendors through the NRC process, outlining when companies can expect to get feedback on conceptual plans, white papers and other permitting processes.
"I do take heart of Sen. Whitehouse's comment that the current framework is not the most effective way to structure review of these new technologies," Svinicki said.
NRC will aim to identify policy issues specific to advanced reactor and SMR technologies and construct a regulatory framework that works for multiple technologies, the NRC chair added.
"What we're trying to do is take a policy manifestation and solve it one time for all technologies have a solution or an approach to it that it is robust enough to encompass the very divergent advanced reactor technologies that are out there and will possibly come our way," she said.
Svinicki's comments come during tough times for the U.S. nuclear industry, wounded by the cancellation of the V.C. Summer plant expansion in South Carolina last year. The industry is pinning its hopes on a new generation of advanced reactors and smaller plants, but the U.S. companies furthest along on these SMR technologies — Oklo and NuScale — are still likely about a decade from commercialization.
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