When examining the future of the nuclear industry, an important factor to consider is the adaptability of current processes and best practices to innovation and dynamism emerging in the next generation.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires companies building nuclear reactors in the U.S. to obtain construction and operating licenses to ensure the facilities meet federal safety and security standards. The current licensing framework is based on the designs and operation of large light-water reactors (LWRs). LWRs utilize technology dating back to the 1950s and are now giving way to the more efficient, advanced non-light-water reactor and light-water small modular reactor (SMR) designs. There has been a considerable push by industry leaders for the licensing and regulations to adjust accordingly. An overhaul of the licensing structure would increase efficiency and could be a vital step for the U.S. to take to remain competitive in the global nuclear energy space.
A key issue facing the propagation of promising small modular reactors (SMRs) in the U.S. today is licensing. Given that the United States is a major hub for nuclear R&D, limitations in the American industry inherently affect the global market and the capacity for emerging economies to adopt next-generation nuclear energy, particularly within the existing safety regime established by the U.S. and Japan.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy took a first step in this process by launching the SMR Licensing Technical Support (LTS) Program, selecting NuScale in 2013 as the first project to design, certify, and help commercialize SMRs in the U.S. Today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is engaged in pre-application activities with four reactor designs in total.
To expedite the process, there are many areas where licensing and regulation processes could be updated. Though they are in development, there are currently no SMR-specific emergency preparedness and safety regulations, only those geared towards LWRs. Early development-stage feedback by the NRC regarding compliant SMR design development is minimal, resulting in inefficiencies as companies must apply guesswork through multiple design iterations. Broadly, the high costs and long durations associated with applying the existing nuclear regulatory framework to advanced nuclear reactors have been major impediments to the commercialization of SMRs.
Amid increased scrutiny of the licensing process for new nuclear reactor designs, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) in order to revamp the NRC’s licensing framework. On May 18, 2016 the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee voted 17 to 3 in favor of the bill. The act sets out to provide a program that will develop the expertise and regulatory processes necessary to allow innovation and the commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors, and to provide a staged licensing process for more predictable, efficient, and timely reviews.
NEIMA has the support of nuclear leaders like the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and many others.
NuScale is slated to submit the first design certification application by the end of 2016, with a combined license application in late 2017 or early 2018. Nonetheless, NEIMA’s continued progress through Congress and increased activity from the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN)- launched by the White House in November 2015- will be vital in determining the landscape of SMR innovation and dissemination in the years to come.