This year’s Utility Working Conference Virtual Summit, held on August 11, had a dynamic opening plenary and a packed roster of informative sessions. Following is a recap of a 4:00 p.m. (EDT) session that took place.
Shaping a regulatory framework to support future innovation
Session organizers Amir Afzali and Brandon Chisholm of Southern Company crafted a session titled “Advanced Reactors: Innovation in Nuclear Technology Needs Agile, Efficient, and Predictable Regulatory Framework” in the Regulatory Relations track of the UWC Virtual Summit. The panel discussion was focused on how to enable innovation in a regulated industry to support advanced reactor deployments within 10 years. “The right regulatory framework can enable innovation, and right-sizing the regulatory requirements incentivizes innovation,” Chisholm said during his opening comments.
- Alice Caponiti, deputy assistant secretary for reactor fleet and advanced reactor deployment in the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, talked about DOE efforts to address technology gaps through national laboratory research and about collaborative activities to decrease timelines and investment costs for advanced designs. She mentioned the Licensing Modernization Program (LMP), established to resolve accident identification issues for advanced non-LWRs, which was industry-led and supported by the DOE. “Getting this work through the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] staff and accepted by the commission was an important milestone,” Caponiti said.
- “Coming up next, we are working on an industry-led cost-shared effort on establishing license application content guidance that is risk-informed. This effort is called the Technology-Inclusive Content of Application Project (TICAP),” Caponiti said. She also mentioned that experience gained from the DOE’s authorization process for the Versatile Test Reactor may help inform commercial licensing.
- Marc Nichol, senior director of new reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that the NEI has a large scope of engagement with the NRC on review efficiency. “What we found is the more information you put in the application, the more information the NRC will review, so it’s about getting those applications to the right level of detail,” Nichol said.
- The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) mandated a new Part 53 licensing method that would be risk-informed, technology-inclusive, and consequence-based. “What we would like to achieve is a Part 53 where it is so advantageous for an applicant to use that nobody would ever choose to go through Part 50 and Part 52 again,” Nichol explained. To craft Part 53, Nichol encouraged “a blank sheet of paper approach” that goes back to the fundamentals of the Atomic Energy Act while being mindful of regulatory precedent.
- Brian Smith is deputy director of the division of advanced reactors and non-power production and utilization facilities in the NRC Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. At the beginning of his talk he acknowledged that many session speakers were there to discuss the same initiatives—the LMP, TICAP, Part 53, the Advanced Reactor Content of Application Project (ARCAP)—and he called that out as a positive. “It’s a good indicator to show how much interaction there has been in this area and the amount of coordination that’s been going on,” Smith said. The NRC set an advanced reactor vision and strategy in 2016 and created near-, mid-, and long-term action plans. “The pace of these reviews and interactions has picked up dramatically this year,” Smith said.
- Smith was asked if the NRC’s licensing actions will support planned reactor demonstrations during the 2020s. “Yes,” he replied, “we are working to complete reviews in a timely manner.” He encouraged preapplication engagement to reduce risk in a project.
- Jeffrey Merrifield, a former NRC commissioner, spoke about collaboration between the NRC and other organizations, including the Nuclear Energy Agency. He applauded the memorandum of understanding on advanced reactor and small modular reactor licensing recently signed in 2019 between the NRC and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, noting that SMRs can unite two countries that to this point have followed different technology paths: light-water reactors in the United States and pressurized heavy-water reactors in Canada.
- Merrifield joined the conversation about the LMP, TICAP, ARCAP, and Part 53 and urged the NRC to set a clear timeline for its advanced reactor licensing and stick to it. “In my view, I think we are in the era when deterministic approaches are on the wane,” he added. “I do believe—and this has always been a dirty word, leading back to when I first started as an NRC commissioner in 1998—but I think we need to start talking about risk-based. I think we do need to consider approaches that are more akin to risk-based approaches going forward.”