A great deal of interest has developed recently in the implementation of small reactors in the United States and abroad. Small reactors may offer a significant number of advantages over larger reactors. The diversity of size, design, configuration, and construction features and their planned utilization for nonelectrical power applications as well as traditional power applications pose significant challenges to the current U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulatory structure. The current structure is geared toward nontransportable, commercial, electrical power-producing, light water-cooled reactors utilizing traditional nuclear fuel designs. The NRC is currently engaged in a number of preapplication discussions concerning small reactor designs encompassing three distinctively different technologies. These are integral light water reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and liquid metal-cooled reactors. Light water reactor technology-based power generation small reactors will fit best in the current NRC regulatory framework.

In response to the anticipated licensing workload, the NRC has implemented organizational changes and has increased its focus in areas supporting the licensing of small reactors. Although the licensing of small reactors has to comply with the requirements imposed by the Atomic Energy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, there are significant design differences among the various proposed small reactors and the currently licensed reactor designs that result in a number of issues that need to be resolved to properly comply with these statutory requirements. Given the diversity of small reactor designs, a regulatory structure that provides licensing flexibility combined with the required degree of safety assurance would be needed. This is likely to involve a risk-informed and technology-neutral regulatory approach.