This Monday evening, September 12, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4979, the Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act of 2016, a bill geared towards creating a viable path forward for advanced reactors (the House Bill). The House Bill is sponsored by Representative Robert Latta, an Ohio republican, and 18 co-sponsors.

The House Bill, which includes fusion as part of the suite of “advanced reactors,” has multiple important features. First, it creates a Congressional finding that “[t]he development of advanced reactor designs would benefit from a performance-based, risk-informed, efficient, and cost-effective regulatory framework with defined milestones” (emphasis added). These are long-sought wishes for the advanced reactor community, which has complained that the current regulatory framework is geared towards large light water reactors and acts as a barrier towards innovation.

In addition, the House Bill requires DOE and the NRC to enter into a memorandum of understanding to share expertise, computer modeling resources, and notably, facilities. In this regard, the House Bill seeks that not only DOE maintain and develop facilities to support the development of advanced reactors, but also that the NRC has access to those facilities, as needed.

The House Bill would also require DOE to provide a report to the House and Senate within 180 days of enactment “assessing the capabilities of [DOE] to authorize, host, and oversee” private advanced reactor projects.

Of particular interest is section 6, entitled “Advanced reactor regulatory framework,” which requires the NRC within one year to submit to Congress “a plan for developing an efficient, risk-informed, technology-neutral framework for advanced reactor licensing.” This report must discuss, among other things, options on how to expedite the application process, potential cost-sharing plans, and options for the use of “phased review processes,” in which the NRC can “review and conditionally approve partial applications, early design information, and submittals.” Moreover, the effort the NRC puts towards developing this new regulatory framework will not be charged to the industry fee base until after 2020. These activities, therefore, would presumably be funded by Congress.

The regulatory regime advocated by Congress in Section 6 of the House Bill could be game-changing for the advanced reactor community. The NRC has acknowledged that the current regulatory regime and design criteria are geared towards light water reactors, creating immense regulatory uncertainty for new entrants. Moreover, the current non-phased NRC regulatory approach creates a chicken-and-egg problem: the cost of licensing is so high no new entrant can afford it on its own; at the same time, funding to support the steps towards licensing a new reactor is nearly impossible to attain without a license; regulatory uncertainty associated with non-light water reactor designs further exacerbates this problem.

The House Bill is not a perfect package, but it is a necessary and welcome piece of legislation for the nuclear community. Congressional action will go a long way in giving the NRC a clear mission statement for advanced reactors, in a time when the agency has been otherwise cutting related programs due to budget stress.

The House Bill goes next to the Senate. There, Senator James Inhofe has sponsored a separate bill, S. 2795, entitled the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (the Senate Bill). On June 23, 2016, the Senate Bill was reported out of Committee and put on the legislative calendar for full Senate consideration. The Senate Bill shares many of the same fundamental goals as the House Bill, particularly the creation of a technology-inclusive, risk-informed, phased advanced reactor licensing framework, to be created off of the industry fee base. But it is structured very differently. Moreover, the Senate Bill includes certain provisions not in the House Bill, concerning research reactors, the NRC’s fee structure, and cost-sharing options, among others.

Given the differences between the two bills, and the current election-year climate, it will no doubt take some time before a final bill is signed. Nonetheless, it is clear that advanced reactor legislation is moving forward as a bipartisan initiative with a common goal to create a flexible and performance-based, technology-neutral, phased approach to nuclear reactor licensing. Congressional action is necessary to help ensure U.S. energy security and technological leadership, and that nuclear power can play a key role in the nation’s response to climate change.