The end of October has seen some activity at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that is of interest to non-light water (advanced) reactor startups. We provide a brief review of two notable events.
First, the NRC recently released an early draft “Regulatory Roadmap” for Advanced Reactors. The document is “is intended to help designers prepare technology- or design-specific licensing project plans.” It reemphasizes that although advanced reactors contain less radioactive materials and have passive safety features, the lack of operating experience is a concern. In the draft roadmap, the NRC staff therefore heavily advocates for “early interactions between the NRC staff and designers to help develop regulatory approaches commensurate with risks from the technologies,” and much of the roadmap elaborates on this theme.
On page 7, the staff provide a diagram describing how applicant interactions with the agency can play a role throughout the regulatory review process. They provide detail on many of the various types of interactions that applicants can have with the agency, from initial feedback meetings to sharing of topical reports and research plans. The draft roadmap also provides some discussion on the steps in the NRC licensing process, and ends with a discussion on how applicants can and should develop “licensing project plans” early on in “the overall program to develop and deploy a new reactor technology.”
Although an early draft document still subject to management and legal reviews, the Regulatory Roadmap is a useful read for nuclear startups on how to approach the NRC as their reactor or related technology progresses.
Second, the NRC Commissioners took an unexpected turn and recently rejected a staff proposal regarding the NRC’s fee structure. As part of a broader fee-restructuring effort under its “Project AIM” cost-cutting initiative, the staff asked for Commission approval to analyze four fee structure changes: (1) moving the annual reactor license fee from a flat fee to a per-MWh basis; (2) moving from an hourly service fee to a combined/flat fee for operating reactor regulatory review activities; (3) charging a flat fee for certain materials program license amendment reviews; and (4) charging hourly fees for NRC involvement in contested hearings, which currently are mostly paid through the general flat annual fee.
The three-member Commission (two slots are currently empty) rejected these proposals almost in their entirety, with Chairman Burns stating outright in the Commission Voting Record that “I am not convinced that pursuing these proposed improvements would ultimately result in meaningful improvements to the license fee process or make our fee process more transparent and equitable.” Instead, the Commission encouraged the staff to move ahead on other process-oriented reforms.
This presents a mixed bag for advanced reactors. Certainly advanced reactors, many of which are designed to be smaller than traditional light-water reactors, would have benefited from a fee schedule that was on a per-MWh level. In May of 2016, the Commission finalized a fee structure for light-water small modular reactors (defined as less than 1,000 MW thermal) in which such reactors would be billed on a per-MWh basis. However, advanced reactors were not included as part of that rulemaking. That being said, the Commission indicated back in May that advanced reactors would be reconsidered when the agency is more familiar with them, so the door is not closed in this regard. Other aspects of the Commission decision, such as not billing licensees for agency costs related to contested hearings, could prove beneficial to first-of-a-kind advanced reactors as they work through the regulatory process.