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Up & Atom

The times they are a-changin’ and we need to change with them. Colloquially speaking, this is the overarching theme of SECY-18-0060, “Achieving Modern Risk-Informed Regulation,” an NRC Staff-authored paper that seeks Commission approval of several significant proposed revisions to the NRC’s regulatory framework. The May 2018 paper, only recently released to the public, represents another milestone in the agency’s “transformation initiative,” which seeks to identify and implement potential enhancements to the NRC’s regulatory framework, culture, and infrastructure. Such changes are intended to facilitate the NRC’s “effective, efficient and agile regulation of new technologies”—particularly advanced non-light water reactors (non-LWRs)—in a manner that still advances the Commission’s core safety and security missions under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended.

The NRC’s safety reviews of nuclear facility licensing submittals are thorough and technically robust, as they should be. However, as the NRC Staff acknowledges in SECY-18-0060, they can lead to “unnecessary burden” and “inefficient licensing processes” due to the “expenditure of undue effort on matters of low safety significance across all technical areas.” This recognition, it seems, has been amplified by the dramatically-changed market conditions now confronting the domestic nuclear industry, the global wave of interest in the deployment of new advanced reactor technologies, and the desire of Congress and stakeholders to ensure that the United States remains at the vanguard of nuclear technology innovation and regulation. Therefore, the NRC Staff considers the implementation of a more modern, risk-informed approach to regulation as critical to avoid erecting unnecessary barriers to technology advances, and to reflect the NRC’s commitment to “reviewing and licensing new reactor technology in a timely manner and in a way that relates directly to tomorrow’s technology.”

According to the Staff, such an approach would seek to adjust the scope and content of the NRC’s licensing reviews by (1) focusing Staff resources and expertise on the most safety-significant portions of a licensing decision; (2) directing Staff efforts at reaching a “reasonable assurance” conclusion based on entire-system performance rather than individual components; and (3) recognizing that new reactor technologies, while not yet supported by years of operating experience and performance data, may offer significant safety advantages relative to existing technologies due to their innovative designs.

Towards that end, the Staff is recommending the development of a new rule (putatively, a new 10 CFR Part 53) for the licensing of non-LWRs that would provide an optional risk-informed, performance-based, and technology-inclusive set of safety criteria for licensing the design and operation of advanced reactor technologies. Among other things, the new rule could focus on the most safety significant aspects of new reactor designs (and, relatedly, allow applicants to make safety cases based on the unique features of their designs); allow greater regulatory flexibility by reducing or eliminating the need for exemptions from current regulations in 10 CFR Parts 50 and 52; build on other performance-based, risk-informed efforts, such as the licensing of special nuclear material in 10 CFR Part 70; and consider previous rule proposals and feasibility studies for advanced reactors. From an organizational or process standpoint, the Staff also is proposing the use of (1) expert panels to guide reviews of incoming submittals for new technologies and major licensing actions; (2) internal small groups of NRC staff and management (i.e., “guiding coalitions”) to guide the licensing process; and (3) “tiger teams” comprising small groups of NRC staff who are empowered to identify alternative solutions to resolve licensing challenges.

Two other key recommendations included in SECY-18-0060 are revising the 10 CFR 50.59 “change process” and other similar requirements to allow additional flexibility for licensees to make facility changes without prior NRC approval, and initiating rulemaking to define high-level performance-based instrumentation and control (I&C) design principles (which would be implemented largely through newly-developed regulatory guidance documents that specify acceptable standards for meeting those design principles). The proposed changes to 10 CFR 50.59 could be particularly impactful if, as the Staff suggests, anticipated changes to the scope of that regulation substantially reduce (with no adverse safety impacts) the scope of plant changes that must be screened against the criteria in the rule. Notably, a 2015 staff assessment of 10 CFR 50.59 estimated that licensees conduct approximately 49,000 screenings and evaluations per year across the operating fleet—a substantial commitment of licensee resources. As with the non-LWR rulemaking discussed above, both of these contemplated rulemakings would make use of risk-informed principles.

We will continue to monitor the NRC’s efforts on these important regulatory fronts, including the Commission’s actions on the Staff’s specific recommendations and any future efforts by the Staff (e.g., rulemaking activities) to implement the Commission’s related directives.