NRC approves smaller safety zones for advanced nuclear reactors
BY: PETER BEHR | 08/15/2023 06:50 AM EDT
The decision is a win for developers who want small modular reactors to become a key zero-carbon power source. But critics worry of increased risks to public safety.
ENERGYWIRE | The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a long-debated regulation Monday that could make it easier to build small, advanced reactors at former coal power plant sites.
The rule — to be published after final edits — could boost the technology’s role in a future clean energy grid, advocates say. It will allow the NRC to approve a much smaller emergency planning zone for small modular reactors (SMRs); such areas are created around U.S. nuclear power plants to protect the public from airborne radiation or contaminated food and water if a nuclear reactor fails.
NRC Chair Christopher Hanson led a three-member majority of the commission to approve the staff-written draft rule. The fourth member, Commissioner Bradley Crowell, approved parts of the regulation and opposed others.
In a statement accompanying his vote, Crowell said approval of safety zones should be supported by written findings from the NRC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state government where the new reactor would be sited. Crowell also faulted the regulation for not setting requirements for emergency planning exercises, as required by the current rule governing emergency planning zones.
But Hanson said in a statement that he was confident the public would be adequately protected “through the NRC’s rigorous review of site-specific emergency plans, analysis of potential hazards, licensees’ demonstration of response capabilities through drills and exercises, and the NRC’s inspection and enforcement program.”
Hanson was joined by Commissioners Annie Caputo and David Wright in approving the new rule. Senate Republicans oppose reappointment of Democrat Jeff Baran to the commission, calling him an “impediment” to nuclear expansion. Hanson and Crowell are Democratic appointees, while Wright and Caputo are Republican appointees on the presidentially selected commission.
The rule has become a lightning rod for the nuclear industry and Republican legislators, who want faster approval of new nuclear plants, and for some environmental organizations, who warn the move could shortchange safety.
The existing regulation, in place for decades, requires a 10-mile zone around nuclear power plants to shield the public from radiation and a 50-mile area around the site to protect against contaminated food and water. The zones’ sizes have critical implications for evacuation planning in nuclear emergencies.
The new regulation will allow the NRC to approve a much smaller zone for small modular reactors if the developer makes a convincing case based on additional safety factors in the project’s design.
It allows an applicant to show that, based on the risks of the technology, the emergency planning zone can be smaller, Ryan Norman, senior policy adviser with Third Way, an advocacy organization supporting nuclear power, said in an interview.
Some developers will seek to shrink the emergency zone to the perimeter of the plant site, according to a study last year from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Nuclear industry officials and advocates say a much smaller emergency zone footprint could open the door for building carbon-free nuclear energy at the sites of old coal power plants, which have the advantage of strong existing transmission connections. A separate rulemaking process is underway to address how close nuclear reactors can be built to urban centers, Norman said.
Some leading SMR reactors would operate at significantly higher temperatures than current reactors, enabling them to supply as well as power important nearby industrial operations, said Adam Stein, director of the nuclear energy innovation program at the Breakthrough Institute, which supports a nuclear option for reducing power plant carbon emissions.
But the Union of Concerned Scientists called the emergency zone change “dangerous” in a statement on Monday.
“The cost of preparing for emergencies is relatively modest. And yet nuclear industry proponents have pushed to change the rules to facilitate constructing new nuclear reactors anywhere, even in densely populated areas where timely emergency evacuations might be extremely difficult or even impossible,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “People everywhere need to be aware of the NRC’s dangerous decision and its implications for their health and safety.”
Under the new process, developers could present an analysis for a range of “credible” reactor accidents and argue that within a smaller zone, people who did not evacuate would not face radiation exposures that exceed EPA public health and safety thresholds, Lyman said in an interview.
“The NRC staff would have to review that analysis. But they will have a lot of discretion. My concern is the applicants will fine-tune the analysis,” resulting in an inadequate protective zone, he said.
Organizations in favor of nuclear power had criticized NRC for taking too long to make a decision on the rule, which staff had submitted to commissioners in January 2022. Earlier this month, five groups — the Breakthrough Institute, the Clean Air Task Force, Clearpath Foundation, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and Third Way — wrote a letter calling on the NRC to take action.
“Commissioners are generally expected to vote on final rules in 60 days,” they wrote in the Aug. 1 letter. The delay on the rule, they wrote, was “in stark contrast to the NRC’s ‘efficiency principle’ of good regulation which states, ‘Regulatory decisions should be made without undue delay.'”
In an interview, Breakthrough’s Stein said the wait for the rule had affected the pace of development.
“Many developers have been trying to work out their approach to emergency preparations in the pre-application stage and have been delayed for more than a year now, waiting for this rule to be finalized,” Stein said.
The potential of SMRs to provide a key source of around-the-clock zero-carbon energy is championed by the industry as a critical contribution to the U.S. clean energy strategy after 2030, when developers hope the first of the new designs will be approved, built and operating. Instead of a single massive reactor with a capacity of more than 1,000 megawatts, SMR plants would string together separate reactor modules of 300 megawatts or less, with the size based on a utility’s needs.
But SMR developers still have to demonstrate the reality of their hopes of using factory-built components to reduce the huge construction costs overruns that have plagued large-sized reactors that must be built on site, from the bottom up.
Last year’s National Academies report said many issues remain.
“Some reactor vendors anticipate opportunities to deploy their reactors near or in urban environments or in the vicinity of industrial facilities that will use heat produced by the reactor. These applications of advanced reactors will present unique siting and emergency planning issues,” the report said. “Careful and early examination of such issues is necessary to define the future range of economic opportunities that are available for advanced reactors.”