Whether you’re a large multinational corporation or a growing business new to the nuclear industry, figuring out how to license a new and innovative reactor technology can be a complex and time-consuming task: a task made even harder when you’re considering building a reactor prototype before applying to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a design certification, combined operating license, or an export license to export a complete reactor design. The NRC understands the challenge and is willing to meet with potential applicants to discuss the path for licensing a new design.

The downside...After the first meeting or so, the meter begins to run and the NRC starts to bill potential applicants for NRC staff time. 

The upside...When there are new, generic issues applicable to a range of reactor designs, the NRC will often hold public meetings to which its fee structure does not apply. These meetings can provide a useful forum to ask questions and gain insights.

The NRC conducted one such forum on advanced rectors in early September. During the meeting, the NRC and co-host, the Department of Energy, provided some important insights into key regulatory issues potential advanced reactors applicants are likely to face, including:

  • Who licenses my prototype reactor? The NRC. While many potential applicants have been exploring whether there might be a quicker and cheaper way to construct a prototype under DOE’s authority, DOE confirmed that it doesn’t issue reactor licenses, doesn’t have the legal authority to authorize the construction of a commercial prototype, and isn’t interested in constructing a new DOE reactor. The message was clear—not only do various statutes squarely address this point, but DOE’s practical insights should save potential prototype developers a lot of money is legal fees evaluating this issue. Simply put, if you’re looking to construct a prototype more likely the NRC’s 10 CFR Part 50 regulations will govern.
  • My technology is completely new, does the NRC even know how to license it? Good news—they likely do! The NRC went through a long list of “new” advanced reactor technologies that the NRC has licensed, or conducted a complete technical review for DOE, in the past. Do you have a liquid metal reactor? They’re seen it. A fast reactor? They’ve seen it. A high temperature gas reactor? They’ve seen it. While each new reactor design will present new issues for the NRC to consider, the agency was clear that they have significant experience performing technical evaluations for non-Light Water Reactor designs.
  • My reactor doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a large-scale LWR, is the NRC ready for that? Again good news—given the significant interest in small and modular reactors (which often overlaps with advanced reactor discussions) over the last decade or so, the NRC already has a head start on identifying a number of NRC requirements that may need to be adjusted or evaluated to accommodate different size reactors and different types of technology (e.g., control room staffing, security, emergency planning, source terms, accident analyses, insurance, etc.). While each applicant will need to work through these issues with the NRC as they pertain to their specific reactor designs, the NRC has spent a considerable amount of time in recent years identifying these issues and how they could be resolved.

We have been looking at these issues over the years for a number of advanced reactor, SMR, and commercial non-power reactor clients, and during the Workshop, the NRC and DOE confirmed many of the things we have also come to conclude. Most importantly, the Workshop confirmed that the NRC has the capability and a path forward to license a number of different reactor designs. These are words that should make potential investors and Boards of Directors very happy to hear. The path forward won’t always be free of weeds—and potential applicants will need to work with the NRC to ensure that novel licensing issues can be resolved in a way that makes sense from both a safety/security as well as commercial perspective, but by looking to the lessons of the past, the NRC’s extensive efforts over the last few years, and the language of the Atomic Energy Act and the NRC regulations, licensing an advanced reactor—as a prototype or otherwise—does not present as much of a regulatory uncertainty as one might otherwise believe.