Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA-02) introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) (H. 3306) into the House of Representatives on June 18. According to a press release from the congresswoman’s website, NELA will help to “create high-quality jobs, strengthen national security, reduce foreign energy dependence, and promote emissions-free energy.” Original co-sponsors of the bill include Representative Denver Riggleman (R-VA-05), Representative Conor Lamb (D-PA-17), and Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA-01).

The House bill is the companion to Senate Bill 903 (S. 903) that Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with 14 other original co-sponsors, reintroduced on March 27. Senators Murkowski and Booker, along with seven other bipartisan senators, originally introduced NELA on September 6, 2018, as Senate Bill 3422 (S. 3422). Although the Senate Subcommittee on Energy held hearings on S. 3422 in November 2018, it took no further action before the end of the 115th Congress. The bill consequently lapsed, requiring the senators to reintroduce it as S. 903. The bill now has 17 co-sponsors in the Senate.

In January, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) staff hosted a public meeting with industry representatives to discuss the staff’s progress in reviewing recommendations for the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) framework enhancement initiative. The objectives of the ROP enhancement initiative are to evaluate whether the baseline inspection program remains relevant for the current environment, eliminate redundant or unnecessary inspection areas, maximize efficient and effective use of resources, and incorporate flexibility in program implementation, where appropriate.

In 2018, the NRC solicited ideas for enhancing the ROP, which resulted in an industry proposal based on four points: US fleet maturity, improved safety margins, improved risk assessments, and greater use of risk-informed decisionmaking. Part of this proposal includes redefining labels for findings and combining Columns 1 and 2 of the Action Matrix. If the industry proposal prevails, it would mark a paradigm shift, considering Columns 1 and 2 have been in existence since the pilot program for ROP enhancement was introduced in 1999. As was stated at the public meeting, combining Columns 1 and 2 would be a long-term change. A proposal to remove Section 71152 of the Inspection Procedure, for problem identification and resolution, was also raised at the meeting but was generally dismissed.

This blog post is the first in a series that will track further progress on the ROP enhancement initiative.

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 November 19, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Commissioners approved the Staff’s proposed rulemaking plan for expanding physical security licensing options for advanced reactors.

As we previously reported, the NRC Staff sent a report to the Commission on August 1, 2018, that evaluated four options for revising regulations and guidance on physical security for advanced reactors. The report recommended revising applicable regulations and guidance and attached a proposed rulemaking plan. The report noted that the rulemaking would retain the current framework for security requirements in 10 CFR Part 73, but would provide alternatives for the physical security of advanced reactors. According to the report, changes to physical security for advanced reactors would

  • eliminate the need for future applicants to propose alternatives or request exemptions from physical security requirements;
  • recognize technology advancements and design features associated with the NRC-recommended attributes of advanced reactors; and
  • replace prescriptive regulations with risk-informed, performance-based requirements, among other benefits.

On October 11, the US government issued its long-awaited US Policy Framework on Civil Nuclear Cooperation with China. Those hoping that the policy announcement would revive stalled applications for exports of technology or equipment to China or open a pathway for future exports were mostly disappointed. While the announcement effectively revived stalled applications, the new policy framework “presumptively denies” all applications to transfer new technology to China, including any exports of technology or equipment for small modular reactors (SMRs) and non–light-water advanced reactors.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently issued Revision 3 of Regulatory Guide (RG) 4.2, “Preparation of Environmental Reports for Nuclear Power Stations.”  Revision 3 provides a long-overdue update to RG 4.2, which was last revised in 1976.  Given the numerous changes to applicable environmental statutes, regulations, and executive orders since that time, the NRC issued two interim staff guidance (ISG) documents in 2014.  Revision 3 incorporates guidance from those ISGs insofar as it relates to information that an applicant must include in its Environmental Report (ER) for any requested permit, license, or other authorization to site, construct, and/or operate a new nuclear power plant.  Prior to issuing RG 4.2, Revision 3, the Staff published a draft version thereof in February 2017 and responded to comments received on the draft.

A bipartisan group of nine US senators introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), S. 3422, on September 6. According to a press release announcing the bill’s introduction, NELA will “boost nuclear energy innovation and ensure advanced reactors can provide clean, safe, affordable and reliable power to meet national and global energy needs.” The legislation was introduced by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Booker (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Chris Coons (D-DE).

If enacted, NELA would provide support for advanced reactors, including a program to provide a source of low-enriched, high-assay uranium to advance nuclear reactor technology development. According to the sponsors, the bill plans to incentivize public-private partnerships among the federal government, research institutes, and private industry. The bill also includes education initiatives, workforce development, and training for nuclear science. In addition, NELA would direct the US Department of Energy (DOE) to provide a “versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility” by no later than the end of 2025.

Of particular note for advanced reactor fuel designs, NELA authorizes the issuance, through sale, resale, transfer, or lease, of low-enriched uranium from DOE stockpiles of high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel to support fuel testing and nuclear demonstration projects. This program would make available high-assay low-enriched uranium, with at least two metric tons of uranium-235 available by the end of 2022 and 10 metric tons available by the end of 2025.

NELA also directs DOE to create programs to support demonstration projects for advanced reactor designs, identify areas for fundamental nuclear research, and grant the private sector increased access to the results of federally funded nuclear research. NELA specifically directs DOE to enter into at least four separate nuclear demonstration project agreements by 2028, and to explore advanced materials research and fuel designs through fundamental research. The bill also would allow the Secretary of Energy to establish a long-term pilot program to enter into a power purchase agreement for nuclear power for up to 40 years. The pilot program would be intended to give “special consideration” to “first-of-a-kind or early development nuclear technologies that can provide reliable and resilient power” to off-grid locations.

For more than two decades, the NRC and industry have worked independently and together to assess the viability of scalable emergency planning zones (EPZs) for small modular reactors (SMRs) and other advanced reactor designs. In a preliminary finding made public last week in an Advanced Safety Evaluation, the NRC Staff agreed with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) request for exemptions related to emergency planning, submitted as part of TVA’s Clinch River Early Site Permit application (ESPA). That conclusion included exemptions from the 10-mile EPZ requirement. This event marks the first time that the NRC Staff has concluded that a plume exposure pathway (PEP) EPZ with a radius of less than 10 miles may be appropriate for a commercial nuclear power plant utilizing an SMR design. This development suggests that the NRC Staff is willing to consider less expansive EPZs when licensing SMRs, and presumably other advanced reactors, when the applicant has provided sufficient analysis and technical bases for doing so.

The NRC Staff sent a report on August 1 to the Commissioners that evaluates four options for revising regulations and guidance on physical security for advanced reactors. The Staff is recommending a limited-scope rulemaking that retains the current overall framework for security requirements in 10 CFR Part 73, but provides alternatives for advanced reactors for physical security. The Staff estimates that such a rulemaking could be completed within 44 months of the Commission’s authorization.

The NRC’s physical security requirements for large light-water reactors (LWRs) are intended to protect against attacks and sabotage. In addition to other measures, commercial power reactor licensees meet physical security requirements through the use of an armed guard force at an estimated cost in excess of $5 million per year at a given site.

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.