- Nuclear facilities with small modular reactors and other new technologies could take advantage of an alternative emergency preparedness framework under a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposal and guidance.
- Existing regulations developed for large light-water reactors require a 10-mile plume emergency planning zone (EPZ) and 50-mile ingestion EPZ to prevent food and water contamination.
- Alternative performance-based emergency preparedness plans could set smaller EPZs for small modular reactors and other new technology such as non-light-water reactors and certain non-power production or utilization facilities. Critics, including some regulators, expressed concern about condensing the zone and the danger that may pose.
The alternative emergency preparedness framework would set the EPZ as an area in which public radiological exposure is projected to exceed a certain level over a 96-hour period.
NRC is seeking comment on specific questions in its proposal, including: should the proposed alternative framework be expanded to include existing light-water reactors; is an eight-year emergency drill and exercise cycle appropriate for SMRs and other technologies; and if federal, state, local, and tribal authorities can successfully interdict contaminated food supplies, is an ingestion EPZ necessary.
The Nuclear Energy Institute expressed support for the proposal when the commission approved it.
"This innovative approach allows for emergency planning requirements to reflect the simplified designs and unique characteristics of advanced reactors, while protecting public health and safety," Doug True, NEI's Chief Nuclear Officer said in a statement.
Others questioned the commission staff's rationale behind the proposal.
NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran objected to the proposal as "a radical departure from more than 40 years of radiological emergency planning" in comments accompanying the proposal. The proposal would allow facility operators to end the EPZ at the site's boundary, which would exempt operators from offsite radiological emergency planning and the Federal Emergency Management Agency from evaluation of the site's emergency plans.
FEMA repeatedly expressed concerns about NRC's draft of the proposed SMR/ONT emergency preparedness regulations.
"FEMA believes that the NRC staff conclusion that the proposed methodology for offsite emergency preparedness maintains the same level of protection as a ten-mile EPZ is unsupported," Michael Casey, director of FEMA's Technological Hazards Division said in a letter to NRC.
"This proposal is based on a fallacy," Edwin Lyman, Director of Nuclear Power Safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Utility Dive.
"The evidence demonstrates the 10-mile EPZ for existing reactors is not adequate and it certainly doesn't support reducing the zone," Lyman said.
Lyman pointed out that residents within 10 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant sustained radiological exposures following the 2011 disaster. NRC should consider expanding the 10-mile EPZ requirement, he said.
Commissioner Baran expressed concern over the commission's request for comment on applying the alternative emergency preparedness framework to existing light-water reactors. UCS's Lyman shared Baran's concerns.
Baran also said the proposed rule does not consider the possibility of accidents affecting multiple SMRs. A key lesson of the Fukushima accident was that a natural disaster can affect more than one reactor, Baran wrote. Baran also objected to the proposed elimination of an ingestion EPZ for SMRs and other new technology.
NRC will accept comments on the proposed regulations and guidance until July 27.
So far, no one has built and operated an SMR, but NRC approved the Tennessee Valley Authority's application for a permit to build and operate an SMR at its Clinch River site.
The proposed emergency preparedness requirements could clear the way for advanced reactor designs.
The United States had 96 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 58 nuclear power plants in 29 states at the end of December 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration. The oldest operating reactor began commercial operation in December 1969 and the newest reactor came online in 2016.