GAO: NRC needs to do more to prepare for advanced reactor licensing

August 28, 2023, 12:00PMNuclear News

A Government Accountability Office report released last week on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s preparedness to review and approve advanced reactor applications finds—to scant surprise from nuclear advocates—room for improvement.

The 48-page report, Nuclear Power: NRC Needs to Take Additional Actions to Prepare to License Advanced Reactors, had been requested in February 2022 by two prominent Capitol Hill supporters of the technology—Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In their request, the lawmakers asked the GAO to consider a series of questions, including, among others: what steps the NRC has completed in its preparations to review and approve applications to license advanced reactor technologies; how the NRC is assessing various organizational approaches to establish the most effective structure to review applications efficiently; what innovative and flexible regulatory approaches are being implemented to review forthcoming applications; and how agency staff is working with license applicants during the preapplication and initial license review phases and communicating key issues to establish a predictable schedule with clear, achievable milestones.

Findings: While noting that some of the modifications made by the NRC to its licensing process have better prepared it to review advanced reactors, the GAO found that those changes “do not fully address ongoing challenges related to clarity of guidance, sufficient staffing, and developer engagement with the ACRS [Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards] that affect NRC’s ability to review advanced reactors.”

Recommendations: The GAO has recommended that the NRC chair direct staff to do the following:

  • Develop procedures for establishing and managing a review schedule for an incomplete application, including applications for first-of-a-kind designs.
  • Finalize draft preapplication guidance to clarify the extent to which advanced reactor developers should participate in preapplication activities.
  • Establish benchmarks and measures to assess its recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives and strategies to determine their effectiveness, to help the NRC retain and hire the staff necessary to license advanced reactors.
  • Clarify in information provided to advanced reactor developers how and when they should engage with the ACRS during the licensing process.

Capitol Hill comments: “With this report, the GAO confirms that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to do more to prepare to efficiently review and approve advanced nuclear reactor designs,” Sen. Capito said. “The United States should lead the world in developing and deploying reliable advanced nuclear energy, and Congress is poised to provide the NRC the tools and direction to enable the safe use of these technologies. We took a major step forward in accomplishing these shared goals with the inclusion of my bipartisan bill, the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy [ADVANCE] Act, in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure the ADVANCE Act is signed into law this year.”

Rep. Rodgers added, “Restoring American nuclear energy leadership is essential for reducing emissions; providing reliable, affordable, clean energy to Americans; and for building durable economic and strategic relationships around the world. This report’s recommendations align with the Energy and Commerce Committee’s bipartisan legislative efforts and reinforce the need for a modern, efficient, predictable regulatory environment to ensure a robust nuclear industry. I look forward to continuing this important bipartisan work to help usher in the next wave of American nuclear energy.”

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