Advanced reactor bill raises ‘red flags’

By Hannah Hess | 04/22/2016 07:15 AM EDT

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s head of operations yesterday tried to sell lawmakers on a strategy to license the latest nuclear technology.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s head of operations yesterday tried to sell lawmakers on a strategy to license the latest nuclear technology.

But Victor McCree had to contend with lawmakers who have their own plan to lay the groundwork for advanced reactors, and it goes beyond the administration’s comfort zone.

"I worry that we have technologies that are effectively smothered in the crib because [companies] can’t figure out what their regulatory process is going to look like, and therefore they can’t raise capital and they can’t proceed," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said during a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing.


"There’s a big X-factor, a big question mark around the process, if you’re not a traditional light-water reactor," Whitehouse said.

Eight days ago, EPW Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) teamed up with Whitehouse and Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to introduce legislation to reform the licensing process and restructure how NRC is funded.

But a hearing of the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee revealed concerns about safety and security, including NRC’s own fears that the legislation could handcuff regulators (E&E Daily, April 14).

The bill would change NRC to develop "technology-inclusive regulatory framework" — defined as using methods of evaluation that are flexible and predictable, such as risk-informed and performance-based techniques.

Critics warn that lawmakers didn’t properly explain those terms, which could lead to less rigorous standards for the approval of novel nuclear power technologies.

The legislation would also eliminate language that requires NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel to hold a hearing on new applications.

"That’s inherently dangerous technology that needs tough questions to be asked about it," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "I don’t think the public is going to be happy if they’re told ‘no hearings’ on this dangerous technology."

NRC concerns

McCree, who assumed NRC’s top career post last fall, cautioned that the bipartisan legislation would require "significant time and resources" over several years in areas where the agency’s internal planning process was well underway.

Current performance metrics allow fluidity at NRC to "account for emerging safety or security issues, changes in licensee plans and the like," McCree said. "As written, the proposed requirements would limit the NRC’s flexibility in this area."

At the Obama administration’s request, NRC earmarked $5 million for work on advancing small modular reactor (SMR) licensing practices in its fiscal 2017 budget proposal. Both House and Senate proposed spending bills include language to address this issue.

McCree said NRC staff expect to complete the first draft of their own strategy for licensing non-light-water reactor technologies soon and will discuss it in a public meeting in June.

NRC is also in the process of a downsizing measure, popular on Capitol Hill, that aims to streamline the agency.

Inhofe asked former NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield, who led the agency through an effort to right-size staff from 1998 through 2002, if the EPW Committee needed "to become a little bit more forceful overseeing" the agency.

Merrifield, who long ago served as an EPW staffer, told Inhofe it was "helpful to us to have our feet held to the fire."

Testifying on behalf of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council, where he now is chairman of a task force on advanced reactors, Merrifield encouraged the committee to press for further staffing cuts below NRC’s Project Aim 2020. That plan set a staffing target of 3,600 full-time employees by Sept. 30 (E&ENews PM, June 8, 2015).

NRC’s budget for fiscal 2017 would cut an equivalent of 90 full-time employees, surpassing the Project Aim goal, for a total reduction of roughly 280 full-time workers since fiscal 2014 (E&ENews PM, Feb. 9).

Not ‘global warming’ legislation

Yesterday’s hearing also showed the opposing motivations that drew climate change skeptics and some of the chamber’s most vocal environmentalists to support the same energy legislation.

Booker talked about how licensing advanced reactors would bring the United States closer to meeting the ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris climate agreement.

Inhofe responded: "This has nothing to do with global warming."

One thing senators and the nuclear industry agree on is that the commission’s current licensing process, with a design and certification that can cost billions of dollars and stretch for up to a decade, is one of the biggest obstacles for SMRs and advanced reactor designs that use coolants other than water.

"You have a situation in which it is very hard to get early investment in these new technologies," Crapo said.

Ashley Finan, policy director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, one of four industry witnesses who testified in support of the Senate legislation, presented charts showing the big money and time hurdles the private sector sees with the current NRC process.

"The investors and innovators have made it very clear that their most immediate and pressing concern is regulatory uncertainty," Finan said. "Climate change is urgent, the private sector is engaged and eager, and the time to fix this is really right now."

Shifting costs, less resources

The measure would also alter the fee structure for NRC, which has not changed since 1990. Under the current arrangement, NRC receives funding from Congress, and then has to recover 90 percent of that amount through fees and return the money to the Treasury.

Bill supporters praised language that would eliminate that 90 percent mandate. As more aging nuclear reactors go offline and the agency’s workload shrinks, companies claim, NRC has been billing existing operators more. Because advanced nuclear reactor companies rely primarily on investors, the bill seeks to change the model.

"Our bill directs the NRC to budget for industry-requested work and to preserve those funds solely for those purposes to improve the NRC’s timeliness," Inhofe said.

Currently, advanced reactor technology developers get one free meeting with NRC staff. After that, NRC charges approximately $270 per hour, per staff member, Merrifield testified.

"As members of the advanced reactor community are early-stage and entrepreneurially driven private companies, they lack the traditional resources to finance what can be very expensive regulatory fees," he said.

The Nuclear Infrastructure Council wants language added that would provide early stage engagement with no or limited cost to the developer, with an "appropriate cost share," perhaps 50-50, for later stages of the licensing process.

"Fewer resources are not good for the agency in protecting against a terrorist attack," said an animated Markey, demanding any of the witnesses to refute his claim.

Bill ‘premature’

Edwin Lyman, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, said the timing of the legislation is "premature."

Lyman told Congress to consider that the legislation might pose an unfair burden on taxpayers and put Americans at increased risk.

The history of the failed Next Generation Nuclear Plant project, a prototype of a modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, is an illustrative example, he said.

Mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the project was suspended after the Energy Department decided in 2011 not to proceed into the detailed design and license application phases. DOE’s decision cited the reluctance of vendors, owners and operators, and customers to commit to substantial upfront cost sharing.

"The main problem is the cost and difficulty of obtaining the necessary analyses and experimental data to satisfy regulatory requirements and ensure that new reactors can operate safely," Lyman said. "This is a fundamental issue we think Congress needs to address through oversight of the budget for nuclear energy [research and development]."

Whitehouse encouraged all the witnesses to submit written testimony on any "red flags." There ought to be a way to provide a revenue stream to these facilities, he said, without "short-circuiting safety."