US regulator OKs SMR emergency preparedness rule

16 August 2023

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has directed its staff to issue a final rule and associated regulatory guide that applies risk-informed, performance-based emergency preparedness requirements to small modular reactors (SMRs) and other new technologies.

Commissioners Christopher Hanson, David Wright, Annie Caputo and Bradley Crowell all voted to approve the rule (Images: US NRC)

The rule will come into effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which is expected to happen later this year.

The new rule builds on the NRC's existing emergency preparedness programme for large, light-water cooled nuclear power reactors, and acknowledges the technological advancements and other differences from large light-water reactors that are inherent in SMRs and other new technologies.

The rule's emergency preparedness framework adopts a technology-inclusive and consequence-oriented approach, the NRC said: "The requirements include a scalable method to determine the size of the offsite emergency planning zone around a facility. Applicants and licensees for SMRs and other new technologies can use the rule in developing a performance-based emergency preparedness programme as an alternative to the current offsite radiological emergency planning requirements."

The rule will apply to SMRs and technologies such as non-light-water reactors, new research and test reactors and medical radioisotope facilities. It excludes large light-water reactors with thermal capacities over 1000 MW, fuel cycle facilities and currently operating research and test reactors, which remain under the current regulatory requirements.

NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson said the "thoughtfully articulated final rule" was the culmination of many years of effort by NRC staff working with stakeholders to advance the emergency preparedness regulatory framework. "Simply stated, the NRC has always established its regulatory requirements to address the particular hazards presented by the facilities it licenses and regulates. The requirements vary for different types of facilities, but the standard is always the same - ensuring reasonable assurance of the adequate protection of the public health and safety," he said.

"SMRs and ONTs (defined in this rule to include non-LWRs licensed as power reactors, new non-power reactors, and medical radioisotope facilities) have wide ranging designs and risk profiles, and as such it makes sense to have EP requirements to account for their diversity. Their design attributes include smaller reactor cores, lower radionuclide inventories, and smaller, slower fission product releases, which may lead to low or no offsite dose consequences. SMRs and ONTs also differ from large LWRs as they are more likely to be sited adjacent to industrial facilities not licensed by the NRC. The staff has ably taken into account these factors to establish an alternative framework that is technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and performance-based," he added.

The final rule package was submitted to NRC commissioners for approval in January 2022. The four commissioners voted unanimously to approve it on 14 August. Two weeks earlier, a group of pronuclear organsiations - the Breakthrough Institute, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, ClearPath, the Clean Air Task Force, and Third Way - had written to the to the commission asking it to finalise the rulemaking, saying the ongoing regulatory uncertainty from the lack of a final rule meant would-be developers were faced with the prospect of preparing two separate emergency preparedness plans to allow for different regulatory scenarios.

Breakthrough Institute Director for Nuclear Energy Innovation Adam Stein said the commissioners "did the right thing" in approving the rule. "Finalising the emergency preparedness rule is a modest step towards modernisation, and many others remain. Notably, the NRC is under instructions from Congress to develop an entirely new, simplified licensing rule for advanced reactors, one that is firmly grounded in risk analysis, focusing on what the actual risks are, and that sets performance requirements," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News