NEI issues guidelines for regulatory interactions

06 July 2018

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has issued guidelines to help advanced nuclear reactor developers in their interactions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). A regulatory engagement plan will help reactor developers' early interactions with NRC staff and can reduce regulatory uncertainty and add predictability to licensing advanced technologies, the NEI said.

NuScale's SMR, which would be housed inside steel containment vessels and submerged in a large pool of water below ground level in the reactor building, is being reviewed by the NRC (Image: NuScale)

The US nuclear industry is currently enjoying significant interest in advanced nuclear technology development, with "dozens of organisations" - from innovative venture capital startups and established nuclear companies to government research establishments - currently working on innovative reactor designs, the NEI said.

Advanced reactor designs offer the potential for lower construction and operating costs, rapid modular manufacture and deployment, enhanced safety and operational efficiency, and more efficient use of fuel resources. Many designs promise more versatile applications than existing commercial nuclear power plants, such as greater ability to adjust their output to suit an electric grid supplied by intermittent wind and solar power, or the option of providing high-quality process heat for applications ranging from industrial use to large-scale desalination and hydrogen production.

The designs and operating characteristics of such reactors are radically different from the large light water-cooled reactors currently in commercial use in the US, for example using gaseous, molten metal or molten salt coolants. As a result, both the industry and the NRC are preparing for necessarily different licensing and regulatory processes, the NEI said yesterday.

One advanced reactor concept - NuScale Power's 50 MWe small modular reactor (SMR) - is currently undergoing US regulatory review. "Even based as it is on proven light water reactor (LWR) technology, pre-application interactions with the NRC were not as effective as desired, taking more than eight years and costing USD12 million in regulatory fees," the NEI noted. The developers of several other advanced non-LWRs are involved in pre-application interactions with the regulator.

Given the large differences in these new reactor designs from the existing LWR fleet, as well as wide variations in the extent of development of each design, the NEI's new document, Guidelines for Development of a Regulatory Engagement Plan, recognises the need for early interactions between NRC staff and prospective reactor developers, vendors or site applicants. The guidelines, which were developed with input from the industry and NRC and support from Nuclear Innovation Alliance, set out steps to develop a Regulatory Engagement Plan (REP) with the aim of enhancing communications and decision-making, thereby helping to minimise regulatory risk.

There is no regulatory requirement for an REP, and the guidelines note that the topics and appropriate level of detail a prospective applicant would wish to include are entirely voluntary and should be agreed upon in discussions between the applicant and NRC staff.

"The development of the REP is an important accomplishment in NEI's activities toward creating a stable and predictable licensing framework for advanced reactors," NEI Senior Director for New Plant, SMR and Advanced Reactors Mike Tschiltz said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News