President Donald Trump on January 14 signed into law the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), Pub. L. 115-86, after it was passed by Congress in late December 2018. NEIMA covers a wide variety of issues, but two main topics should be particularly welcomed by the nuclear industry: relief from US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) fee collection and the clear direction to speed the rollout of an NRC licensing framework for advanced nuclear reactors.
On the first topic, NEIMA seeks to reduce the burden of fees the NRC collects from licensees. NEIMA does not radically change the existing funding paradigm in which NRC must submit a budget request to Congress each year, with a large portion, approximately 90%, of its activities funded by the collection of “offsetting fees” from applicants and licensees. However, NEIMA is attempting to reduce the fees collected from current licensees through three changes.
First, although NEIMA is broadly supportive of advanced nuclear reactors, it specifically provides that the NRC may not include the costs necessary to establish an advanced nuclear reactor regulatory framework in its budget request to Congress each year. Second, NEIMA caps the amount of “annual fees” that the NRC can collect at the amount set forth in the NRC’s Fiscal Year 2015 rule, subject to an inflation adjustment. Third, NEIMA places restrictions on the amount of NRC “corporate support costs” that the NRC can request in its budget each year to a specific percentage. NEIMA defines “corporate support costs” as the non-payroll overheads (e.g., administrative services, financial management, human resources, and information technology support) that support the NRC’s regulatory mission. While these limitations will help reduce the amount of fees collected, they also will require the NRC to operate more efficiently and for Congress to fund these other activities.
On the second topic, NEIMA looks towards the future of advanced nuclear reactors. Specifically, NEIMA directs the NRC to develop and implement by Fall of 2019 “strategies” for licensing advanced nuclear reactors. Congress has requested, as part of this development, suggestions on actions Congress itself must take to support development of advanced nuclear reactors. NEIMA also directs that the NRC should consider increasing the use of risk-informed and performance-based evaluation techniques. These strategies must be implemented within the existing regulatory framework for nuclear reactors (generally Parts 50 and 52 of Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations). However, NEIMA also encourages the NRC to work with next generation reactor developers to jointly develop a licensing project plan and the option to request an NRC conceptual design assessment. To support these initiatives (and offset the limitation of fee collections), NEIMA provides $14.4 million dollars annually over five years to assist the NRC with implementation. To ensure accountability, NEIMA requires the NRC to provide Congress with a report explaining how it will, within two years, implement the advanced nuclear reactor licensing program. These strategies dovetail with what the industry and NRC have been discussing, but the additional resources should be well received and provide further momentum on these activities.
The remainder of NEIMA is a collection of helpful changes for the industry. For example, the legislation sets a specific deadline for completing Safety Evaluation Reports, and requires NRC staff reports to the Commissioners and then Congress if the NRC staff misses a deadline. NEIMA also specifies reports to the appropriate congressional committees on accident tolerant fuel, baffle former guides within pressurized water reactors, reports on actual evacuations and how such findings should inform the NRC’s emergency planning, encouraging private investment in research and test reactors, and developing local community advisory boards.