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Frequently Asked Regulatory Questions

Below are answers to the questions we are most asked about the U.S. regulatory landscape for commercial nuclear development. If you’d like more information how GAIN can support your regulatory needs, contact Jim Kinsey, Regulatory Affairs Interface, at [email protected] or 208-569-6751.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

What is the NRC’s job in regulating nuclear power?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the nation’s civilian use of nuclear power to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote common defense and security, and to protect the environment. The NRC carries out this mission through an extensive regulatory process with five main components:

  • Developing regulations and guidance for applicants and licensees
  • Licensing or certifying applicants to use nuclear materials or operate nuclear facilities
  • Overseeing licensee operations and facilities to ensure that licensees comply with safety requirements
  • Evaluating operational experience at licensed facilities or involving licensed activities
  • Conducting research.

Is there any other agency in the U.S. government that functions like the NRC?

There are several other federal agencies that have similar functional features. For example:

How is the NRC’s budget established?

Congress establishes the NRC’s budget each fiscal year. The NRC is required by law to recover most of its annual budget through user fees (e.g.,) fees charged to NRC applicants and licensees.

Jurisdictions and Responsibilities

Who makes the decision to license a nuclear power facility?

It is helpful to distinguish the act of “seeking a license (or permit)” or “applying for a license (or permit)” from “granting or denying a license (or permit).”

The decision to seek a license or permit rests entirely with the prospective owner/licensee that wishes to build and operate the facility. This decision is typically based on the projected need for energy, the anticipated economic benefit of the facility, and the investment necessary to build it and meet the NRC’s safety and environmental requirements.

The NRC makes the decision to grant or deny a license based on whether the applicant has demonstrated that the requirements in the NRC’s regulations can be met during the construction and operation of the facility. If the applicant meets the requirements given in the regulations, then the NRC can be expected to approve the license.

What does an operating license allow the owner-operator to do?

The NRC operating license addresses a number of related topics, including the approval for the licensee to:

  • Operate the reactor facility at an identified full steady state power level
  • Receive, possess, and use nuclear materials (i.e., nuclear fuel, storage and processing of low-level waste, etc.)

These approvals are based on an ongoing requirement that the licensee continues to implement and satisfy the various configurations, restrictions, and commitments included in the license application that were reviewed and approved by the NRC, including facility security. These license conditions include both technical requirements (i.e., plant configuration reflected in the licensee’s Safety Analysis Report) and administrative requirements (i.e., compliance with antitrust provisions).

What are the key considerations regarding reactor siting?

It is noted that the NRC does not select the site that is proposed for the construction and operation of a nuclear power facility. That selection is made by the prospective licensee based on a number of considerations (environmental, economic, potential nearby hazards, proximity to population centers, etc.).   

Two key areas that both the licensee and the NRC address during the reactor facility development and licensing processes include the assessment of:  

  • Offsite radiological releases from the reactor facility that may occur during normal operations and during abnormal or accident conditions to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety. NRC has specific requirements and acceptance criteria for making this assessment.
  • Assessment of external hazards and their potential effect on the design and operation of the reactor facility. These hazards may include flooding, seismic events (naturally occurring or man-made), or nearby highways or rail lines used to transport hazardous materials.

What are regulatory engagement plans and why are they important?

​Regulatory engagement plans (previously referred to as licensing project plans) are prepared by reactor developers to help define and manage interactions with the NRC staff. The reactor developer should prepare the regulatory engagement plan considering factors such as:

  • What regulatory feedback or decisions are important to developing, financing, and deploying a reactor design?
  • What resources are available to support regulatory interactions as well as the underlying research and development?
  • What are the relative costs and schedules associated with various forms of regulatory feedback?

The NRC staff will interact with reactor developers and provide insights on the NRC’s ability to support a proposed plan as well as the estimated costs and schedules for various elements of a regulatory engagement plan. The plans are important to the NRC staff in their budgeting and planning process. The plans are important to both developers and the NRC staff in that they support the NRC staff and reactor developer in reaching an agreement on the desired outcomes of defined interactions and estimated costs and schedules for defined reviews. The regulatory engagement plans should pay particular attention to near-term activities needed to support the critical decision process and the development of submittals and NRC review plans. Longer-term licensing and construction strategies for commercial units can be useful to align the licensing processes with research and development activities, business models, and resolution of associated public policy matters. Uncertainties in these areas need not prevent interactions and progress on near-term activities related to the selection of key design alternatives and the development of a preliminary design.

When should nuclear reactor developers begin their interactions with the NRC?

The NRC encourages early pre-application interactions with reactor designers. The Advanced Reactor Policy Statement reads:

  • To provide for more timely and effective regulation of advanced reactors, the Commission encourages the earliest possible interaction of applicants, vendors, other government agencies, and the NRC to provide for early identification of regulatory requirements for advanced reactors and to provide all interested parties, including the public, with a timely, independent assessment of the safety and security characteristics of advanced reactor designs. Such licensing interaction and guidance early in the design process will contribute towards minimizing complexity and adding stability and predictability in the licensing and regulation of advanced reactors.
  • Most reactor developers begin interactions with the NRC with informal interactions with the NRC staff, similar to how the NRC staff interacts with members of the public. These interactions allow the NRC staff to learn about preliminary design concepts and provide the reactor developer with information on regulations and agency processes. These early interactions will likely evolve with the reactor developer preparing a regulatory engagement plan to support longer-term interactions with the NRC staff and applications for licenses, certifications, or approvals to the NRC. NRC and industry guidance to help developers initiate and manage pre-application interactions with the NRC are available on the NRC website.

How much does the NRC charge for applications and pre-application interactions?

Each year the NRC receives its entire appropriation from Congress, spending that money to carry out its activities. The agency is required to recover approximately 90% of its annual budget from the companies and people to which it provides services. This includes applicants for NRC licenses, NRC licensees, etc. The fees collected are not used directly by the NRC but instead are provided to the U.S. Treasury.

The NRC bills reactor developers for interactions with the NRC staff after limited initial discussions leading to regulatory engagement plans. The charges include staff time spent preparing for and attending meetings, review of submittals, and other activities prior to or during the reviews of applications for a license, certifications, or approvals. The hourly rate in FY24 is $300. An important part of the regulatory engagement plan is to define expectations, expected NRC staff hours, and related costs. This allows developers to plan for NRC charges and best define expectations for interactions with the NRC within the design and financial management plans associated with the reactor project. 

For the current fiscal year, Congress directed the NRC to develop the regulatory infrastructure for advanced nuclear technologies. To complete this task the NRC will use part of its funding not recovered from fees (referred to as off-fee base). The NRC staff are interacting with industry, standards development organizations, and technology working groups. They hope to resolve policy issues, develop guidance documents, and improve the agency’s infrastructure for advanced reactors using these off-fee base funds provided through the Congressional appropriations process.

Additional information about NRC fees are available on the NRC website.

What kind of decisions and finality can reactor developers expect to receive from pre-application interactions with the NRC staff?

​The NRC staff described in a draft regulatory roadmap a number of possible outcomes from regulatory interactions (from preapplication stage though the eventual licensing application stage). The outcomes include the following:

  • Information exchanges such as information on reactor design concepts, technical information, regulatory requirements, or guidance. 
  • Initial feedback from NRC staff-level interactions in meetings or correspondence that do not result in documents for referencing in subsequent applications or binding regulatory positions.
  • Conditional staff findings provided in correspondence, “preapplication” or “preliminary” safety evaluation reports, topical report safety evaluations, or other records that a proposed design feature, analysis method, or operational program conforms to regulatory requirements or is otherwise acceptable provided that testing, analyses, or other activities are completed and provide the expected results. These findings would be technically conclusive and would not be revisited assuming any conditions of approval are met and that the design has not changed in such a way as to invalidate the staff’s findings. These findings do not however have finality with respect to future Commission decision making and could be subject to hearing opportunity as part of a future licensing proceeding. 
  • Conclusive staff findings provided in correspondence, safety evaluations, or other records that an applicant has provided sufficient justification to conclude that a proposed design feature or operational program conforms to regulatory requirements or is otherwise acceptable. Conclusive findings are developed and documented using established agency processes and include the appropriate reviews but do not have finality with respect to future Commission decision making or licensing proceedings.

Final agency positions are those established in regulations, issued licenses or certifications, Commission decisions and orders, and other documents issued following the review and approval by the Commission or delegated official. The NRC processes for changing final agency positions are defined by regulations such as 10 CFR 50.109, “Backfitting,” and 10 CFR 52.63, “Finality of standard design certifications.”

What are the roles of the State and the NRC in reviewing the financial aspects of constructing, operating, and decommissioning a nuclear power plant?

The NRC recognizes the traditional responsibility of the States in regulating utilities for determining the need for the facility and the cost of the facility. The State Public Service Commission and the regulated power producer generally exchange information and a hearing is held by the State Public Service Commission before the State can pass judgment on a request for a new power facility. The NRC does require that power producers ensure that they have the financial resources to construct and operate the facilities safely and to provide funds for decommissioning. (It’s noted that the licensing process requires that applicants submit a decommissioning report that contains a certification that financial assurance for decommissioning will be provided. The costs for providing this assurance are frequently included as a surcharge on the energy produced.)  Separately, the NRC performs a benefits assessment as part of its responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions.

The NRC requirements in 10 CFR 50.33(f) differentiate between utilities, such as those whose rates are regulated by the State Public Service Commission and for whom adequate funding assurance is assumed, and independent power producers, who must provide information regarding the source of funding for construction, fuel, and operations. Under the NRC requirements in 10 CFR 50.33(k), 10 CFR 50.75, “Reporting and Recordkeeping for Decommissioning Planning,” and 10 CFR 50.82, “Termination of License,” the applicant must provide information regarding funding assurance for decommissioning activities.

Can State, county, local, Tribal, or other Federal (not NRC) agencies reject or not approve a license (or permit)?

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, delegates the licensing action to the NRC, so only the NRC can approve or deny the application to construct and operate a nuclear power plant. However, the NRC will consider any comments provided by the State, county, local, Tribal, or other Federal agencies during the period of the NRC’s review and analysis. In addition, some of these federal agencies (such as EPA) and state agencies have separate authorities to specify conditions or reject other permits that the applicant must obtain, such as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The NRC will consider the views of any cooperating agency; however, the NRC is the lead agency and as such has the responsibility to review the license application and develop the draft and final ElS.

What are the respective responsibilities of the licensee and the NRC once a nuclear plant is licensed and operating?

The owner/licensee is responsible for the safety of the reactor, and for the protection of the public and environment, in addition to implementing requirements provided by the regulator.  From a regulatory requirements standpoint, the reactor facility makes a transition to the operating phase when both the licensee and the NRC confirm that all acceptance criteria associated with the construction licensing structure (combined license or construction permit) have been satisfied.  The NRC then provides authorization to load fuel, which is defined as the point at which facility operation begins.  At that time, the NRC’s regulatory oversight structure transitions from a construction focus to the Reactor Oversight Program (ROP).  

There are three key strategic performance areas within the ROP: reactor safety (avoiding accidents and reducing the consequences of accidents if they occur), radiation safety for both plant workers and the public during routine operations, and safeguards (protection of the plant against sabotage or other security threats). The NRC evaluates plant performance within the ROP by analyzing two distinct inputs: inspection findings resulting from the NRC’s inspection program, and performance indicators reported by the licensee.  However, the licensee remains solely responsible for identifying and addressing issues that may affect the overall safety of the plant.

NRC & Environmental Impact Statements

What is an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) review of an applicant’s license application includes determining the environmental effects of constructing and operating the proposed nuclear power facility on a particular proposed site. The NRC would prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for each major Federal action to fulfill its responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). NEPA requires that all Federal agencies consider environmental values in conducting their work.

An EIS is a written analysis of the reasonably foreseeable effects of an activity on the environment, including the air, water, animal life, vegetation, and natural resources, and on any property of historic, archaeological, or architectural significance. The review evaluates cumulative, economic, social (including environmental justice), cultural, and other impacts.

Which State, Tribal, county, or local agencies does the NRC contact during the review of the application and the development of the EIS?

The NRC staff contacts State offices for input during its analysis of the license application. These offices include organizations dealing with health and human services, cultural resources, and environmental protection and natural resources. The NRC staff also contacts county or local agencies, specifically those that may provide the staff with cultural and historic or socioeconomic information related to the staff’s review of the application. The NRC staff also contacts recognized Tribal nations that may have ties to the land in the vicinity of the proposed plant. Although the NRC does not provide copies of the application to State, Tribal, county, or local agencies, the applicant may provide it directly to specific offices, and the NRC makes it available electronically via the NRC’s website. The NRC publishes a notice in the Federal Register indicating the receipt of the license application shortly after it receives the application. The notice indicates where hard copies are available and how they can be obtained. The NRC makes arrangements to have a hard copy of the application available at a public library close to the site.

How would the NRC engage with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a cooperating agency when reviewing an EIS?

The Corps and the NRC have developed a memorandum of understanding to work together, with the NRC as the lead agency, to produce one EIS that meets the needs of both agencies. The memorandum streamlines the agencies’ regulatory processes associated with the authorizations required to construct and operate nuclear power plants. The memorandum established a framework for early coordination and participation between these two organizations to ensure the timely review of proposed nuclear plant applications.

NRC Licensing Processes

Can an NRC-licensed Research Reactor or Test Reactor be utilized to generate revenue?

Yes – Research Reactors and Test Reactors can be utilized to generate revenue.  This allowance is described in Section 106 of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) legislation in the portion that addresses “Encouraging Private Investment in Research and Test Reactors”.  An excerpt from that portion of the legislation reflects that:

“… the licensee shall recover not more than 75 percent of the annual cost to the licensee of owning and operating the facility through sales of nonenergy services, energy, or both, other than research and development or education and training, of which not more than 50 percent may be through sales of energy…

Additional information regarding this part of the NEIMA legislation, along with examples of how it might be implemented, are included in a set of NRC public meeting slides on the topic that are available on NRC’s website at https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML19263A651.

It is suggested that a future NRC license applicant intending to pursue revenue-generating activities at a research or test reactor confer with the NRC regarding their project implementation approach and associated regulatory requirements.

What are NRC-Licensed Research Reactors and Testing Facilities (Test Reactors) and what can they be used for?

These reactor types are defined by Section 31 of the Atomic Energy Act regarding Research Assistance.  This section provides a summary of a broad set of potential uses in the conduct of research and development activities as follows:

  1. nuclear processes;
  2. the theory and production of atomic energy, including processes, materials, and devices related to such production;
  3. utilization of special nuclear material and radioactive material for medical, biological, agricultural, health, or military purposes;
  4. utilization of special nuclear material, atomic energy, and radioactive material and processes entailed in the utilization or production of atomic energy or such material for all other purposes, including industrial or commercial uses, the generation of usable energy, and the demonstration of advances in the commercial or industrial application of atomic energy;
  5. the protection of health and the promotion of safety during research and production activities; and
  6. the preservation and enhancement of a viable environment by developing more efficient methods to meet the Nation‛s energy needs.

A Research Reactor’s key output is typically the radiation it produces, and not the small amounts of thermal energy produced. The most common use of this radiation (primarily neutrons and gamma rays) is for the conduct of experiments.

Test Reactors generally have higher thermal energy outputs, with testing facilities defined by NRC regulations [10 CFR 50.2] as meeting the following criteria:

  1. A thermal power level in excess of 10 megawatts; or
  2. A thermal power level in excess of 1 megawatt, if the reactor is to contain:
    •  A circulating loop through the core in which the applicant proposes to conduct fuel experiments; or
    • A liquid fuel loading; or
    • An experimental facility in the core in excess of 16 square inches in cross-section.

The highest thermal output NRC-licensed test reactor currently operating is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Center for Neutron Research, at 20 MWth. Kairos Power is pursuing an NRC Construction Permit for its Hermes Test Reactor at 35 MWth.

Both Research Reactors and Test Reactors receive and operate under Class 104(c) licenses from the NRC [10 CFR 50.21].

There are currently 31 Research and Test Reactors licensed and operating in the US. More information regarding their locations, and on Research and Test Reactors in general, can be found on NRC’s website at https://www.nrc.gov/reactors/non-power.html

Additional discussion of Research and Test Reactors is also available through an NRC  “Backgrounder” available on the NRC’s website at https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML0402/ML040280402.pdf

What are the available licensing approaches and their expected timelines?

The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) requires the NRC to develop performance metrics and milestone schedules for “requested activities of the Commission.” A summary of the advanced non-light water reactor licensing timelines established by the NRC for the three licensing paths discussed in the question below are as follows:

  • 36 months     Construction Permit (CP)
  • 36 months     Operating License (OL)
  • 30 months     Combined license (COL) referencing a certified design
  • 36 months     Combined license not referencing a certified design

It’s noted that these timelines are generic and can be shorter or longer depending on the specific needs of the license applicant, the extent to which the applicant engages in pre-application interactions with NRC, and the NRC staff’s resources.  It’s also noted that the above summary does not address all possible licensing pathways and strategies (Early Site Permit, Standard Design Approval, etc.)

Does a design need to be certified first, before licensing?

No – a design does not need to be certified before it’s approved by the NRC for siting and construction, and then later approved to commence operations. There are three primary paths to commercial reactor facility licensing, structured within two groups of regulatory requirements (10 CFR Part 50 and 10 CFR Part 52):

  • A construction permit (CP) application followed by an operating license (OL) application (referred to as a CP/OL) (Part 50)
  • A combined license (referred to as a COL) that refers to a certified design (Part 52)
  • A combined license (COL) that doesn’t refer to a certified design (Part 52)

Only path # 2 among the above three options would require a design to be certified first within the overall licensing process for a reactor facility deployment project utilizing that path. (Note that the NRC has reviewed, approved, and issued fourteen combined licenses to date that refer to certified designs. The two Vogtle units being constructed by Southern Nuclear Operating Co. are among this group.)

Each of the two regulatory structures (CP/OL or COL) has potential advantages and disadvantages to be considered:

10 CFR Part 50 (CP/OL path # 1 above)

  • Allows construction to begin earlier in the licensing process
  • Flexibility during construction
  • Lack of regulatory finality on Construction Permit issues deferred into NRC’s OL review
  • Potential for delay in OL issuance (e.g., design evolutions during construction)
  • Repetitive hearing opportunities for public intervention
  • Little recent licensing experience

10 CFR Part 52 (COL paths # 2 & 3 above)

  • More finality from licensing process
  • Changes during construction necessitate licensing actions
  • All regulatory reviews must be completed before construction can begin
  • NRC has significant recent experience issuing certifications/licenses
  • Has not yet resulted in operation (Vogtle 3 & 4 nearing completion)

Does the status of “demonstration” change anything?

No – the use of term “demonstration” does not change anything within the commercial regulatory framework directly associated with NRC licensing.

The NRC does not have regulations specific to “demonstration reactors,” nor does it use this term in its licensing processes.  It’s a term that does not have any specific meaning within the agency’s licensing and regulatory processes.  

Although the NRC does not define or use the term “demonstration reactor” in its regulations, the nuclear industry, DOE and its national laboratories, and other stakeholders use this term in various documents and media to refer to a facility that could be used to demonstrate a new technology, safety feature, or design. The term has been used in conjunction with a wide range of reactors, including testing facilities and first-of-a-kind commercial reactors that could collect data and demonstrate that a particular technology can be constructed and operated safely.

It’s also noted that while the NRC does not place any regulatory considerations on what might be considered a “demonstration project”, states acting within their authority can pass specific laws that impact projects they define in statute as demonstration projects. 

What are the NRC fees associated with initial licensing and then operation, and who pays these fees?

The NRC assesses service fees to recover the costs of NRC work that provides specific benefits to identifiable recipients, such as licensing activities, inspections, and special projects. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) requires the NRC to recover, to the maximum extent practicable, approximately 100 percent of the Commission’s budget authority for the fiscal year, not including certain amounts excluded from this fee-recovery requirement.

The NRC fees that apply to the licensing and operations stages of a commercial nuclear plant’s lifecycle are as follows:

Initial Licensing: The prospective licensee is required to pay for all NRC staff resources that are specifically applied to the review of the license application, including NRC’s support of licensee-requested pre-application meetings. The reactor developer typically pays these fees for a design certification application. The licensee (owner-operator) pays these fees for a construction permit, operating license, or combined license application, and may arrange to share some of these costs with the associated reactor developer, depending on internal project contract arrangements. The NRC’s hourly billing rate for these efforts is established each year as a part of its annual budgeting process. (For information, the NRC’s hourly billing rate for FY24 is $300.)  

Plant Operation:  During the operations phase, the licensee is required to pay fees in two primary categories. There is an annual fee that NRC allocates to its ongoing and fixed activities (staffing of the site Resident Inspector program, NRC headquarters and regional office support, low-level waste surcharge, etc.)  This fee is established each fiscal year by essentially dividing the NRC’s budget in this area by the number of operating reactors. For FY21, this annual fee was $4,749,000. (Note: The NRC established a variable fee structure in 2016, recognizing that small modular reactors with smaller power outputs should not be directly included in the fleet of large operating reactors when calculating their annual fee. This variable and reduced fee approach has not yet been implemented, since there are currently no SMRs operating.) 

Duration of NRC License – how long does a Nuclear plant actually operate, and what are ongoing costs/inspection requirements?

The Atomic Energy Act allows the NRC to issue licenses for commercial power reactors to operate for up to 40 years. This license is based on licensee adherence to the applicable regulations described in Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The 40-year limit on the licenses was imposed for economic and antitrust reasons, rather than technical limitations of the nuclear facility.

NRC regulations allow the renewal of licenses for nuclear power facilities for up to an additional 20 years, depending on the outcome of an assessment to determine whether the nuclear facility can continue to operate safely and whether the protection of the environment can be ensured during the 20-year period of extended operation. Neither the Atomic Energy Act nor the NRC’s regulations contain specific limitations on the number of times a license may be renewed. The process of conducting the assessment and renewing the license, called “license renewal,” includes a clear set of requirements.  (Note:  Most of the plants in the existing operating fleet have extended their licenses to 60 years by completing the “license renewal” process.  A number of plants are currently engaged in NRC licensing interactions to further extend those licenses through a “subsequent license renewal”.)

Are there high-level descriptions of the licensing processes available from NRC?

The regulatory processes associated with issuing licenses, certifications, and approvals are described in various regulations and guidance documents.  A summary is provided in “Nuclear Power Plant Licensing Process” (NUREG/BR-0298).  

A related document with more discussions of the environmental reviews performed to support the siting and construction of nuclear power plants is provided in “Frequently Asked Questions About License Applications for New Nuclear Power Reactors” (NUREG/BR-0468).

Advanced and Non-light water reactor Technologies

Does the NRC support a staged licensing approach for advanced reactors?

Staged licensing is an approach involving reductions in regulatory uncertainties that are achieved by incremental spending during the reactor design process. The NRC staff described in a draft regulatory roadmap the flexibility provided by various preapplication interactions and actual applications for licenses, certifications, and approvals. The roadmap includes the use of informal interactions, creation of important reference documents (e.g., topical reports, consensus codes and standards), preapplication activities in the conceptual or preliminary design process, standard design approvals, and applications provided under Parts 50 or 52 of NRC’s regulations. The possible outcomes from regulatory interactions (from preapplication stage though the eventual licensing application stage) include informal feedback, NRC staff findings, and final agency positions. Reactor developers will interact with the NRC staff while preparing and maintaining a regulatory engagement plan outlining possible licensing approaches, expected submittals to the NRC, and other aspects of a staged licensing approach for their specific design.

white paper prepared by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance clarifies the use of a standard design approval within a staged licensing approach to get NRC feedback on major portions of a reactor design. The paper includes discussions of standard design approvals, topical reports, and other vehicles and factors to help reactor designers develop regulatory engagement plans best suited for their technical and financial positions.

How is the NRC preparing to review possible non-light water reactor designs?

​The NRC has issued its “Vision and Strategy for Safely Achieving Effective and Efficient Non-Light Water Reactor Mission Readiness” and associated implementation action plans (IAPs). There are six individual strategies addressed in the IAPs. They are:

  • Acquire/develop sufficient knowledge, technical skills, and capacity to perform non-LWR regulatory activities.
  • Acquire/develop sufficient computer codes and tools to perform non-LWR regulatory reviews.
  • Establish a flexible non-LWR regulatory review process within the bounds of existing regulations, including the use of conceptual design reviews and staged-review processes. This flexibility will accommodate potential applicants having a range of financial, technical, and regulatory maturity, and a range of application readiness.
  • Facilitate industry codes and standards needed to support the non-LWR life cycle (including fuels and materials).
  • Identify and resolve technology-inclusive (not specific to a particular non-LWR design or category) policy issues that impact regulatory reviews, siting, permitting, and/or licensing of non-LWR nuclear power plants (NPPs).
  • Develop and implement a structured, integrated strategy to communicate with internal and external stakeholders having interests in non-LWR technologies.

The NRC staff is routinely interacting with stakeholders on the activities related to the six strategies. Notices for and summaries of these interactions are provided on the NRC website.

Does the NRC use different standards or regulations to determine if non-light water reactor technologies are safe enough to be licensed?

The NRC expects, as a minimum, at least the same degree of protection of the environment and public health and safety and the common defense and security that is required for current generation light-water reactors (LWRs). Furthermore, the Commission expects that advanced reactors will provide enhanced margins of safety and/or use simplified, inherent, passive, or other innovative means to accomplish their safety and security functions.

The combinations of design features and operational programs used to provide protections may be different for non-light water reactors because of differences in fuel forms, coolants, inherent characteristics and passive safety systems. For example, offsite emergency preparedness and the possible evacuation of nearby populations are an integral part of risk management for the current large light water reactors. The smaller size, lower probability of severe accidents, slower accident progression, and smaller accident offsite consequences per module that characterize small modular reactors and non-light water reactor designs have led the U.S. Department of Energy, reactor designers, and potential operators to revisit the determination of the appropriate size of emergency planning zones, the extent of onsite and offsite emergency planning, and the number of response staff needed. The NRC is considering possible changes to regulatory requirements for emergency preparedness for small modular reactors and other new technologies (see NRC website for additional details).

Does the NRC propose to prepare new regulations to support non-light water reactor designs?

The NRC’s near-term activities involve developing capabilities and guidance to support interactions with reactor developers and potential applications made under existing regulations in Part 50 and Part 52. The use of the existing regulations developed primarily for large light water reactors will require exemptions from some requirements that will not apply to specific non-light water technologies as well as developing new requirements to address technical concerns related to those technologies. An example of how regulatory requirements might be adjusted for non-light-water technologies is provided in the draft advanced reactor design criteria. The NRC is assessing the possible costs and benefits of incorporating a technology-inclusive regulatory framework into NRC regulations (sometimes referred to as Part 53) and has included within the mid-term implementation action plans a decision point on whether or not such a rulemaking is warranted. 

In addition to a larger overall framework for non-light-water reactors, the NRC will likely pursue rulemakings in specific areas to support small modular reactors and non-light-water reactor technologies. An example is possible changes to regulatory requirements for emergency preparedness for small modular reactors and other new technologies (see NRC website for additional details).

What was the origin and basis for the 72-hour requirement for light-water reactor passive plants?

One of the principal design requirements from EPRI’s advanced light-water reactor (ALWR) utility requirements document (URD) for so-called passive nuclear plants is that passive systems should be able to perform their safety functions, independent of operator action or offsite support, for 72 hours after an initiating event. After 72 hours, non-safety, or active systems may be required to replenish the passive systems or perform core and containment heat removal duties directly. These active systems may be needed to provide defense-in-depth capabilities. 

The 72-hour requirement for passive safety systems was developed by the nuclear industry (via EPRI) in the early 1990s and has become a design basis requirement proposed by vendors and approved by the NRC for passive plants. Discussions on the use of the 72-hour requirement for selected safety issues and their approval by the Commission can be found in the following SECY papers and respective SRMs. 

SECY-94-084, “Policy and Technical Issues Associated with the Regulatory Treatment of Non-Safety Systems in Passive Plant Designs,” dated March 28, 1994 and the SRM, dated June 30, 1994. Review the discussions on the Regulatory Treatment of Non-Safety Systems, Safe Shutdown Requirements, and Control Room Habitability. 

SECY-95-132, “Policy and Technical Issues Associated with the Regulatory Treatment of Non-Safety Systems in Passive Plant Designs,” dated May 22, 1995 and the SRM, dated June 28, 1995. Review the discussions on Safe Shutdown Requirements, the Regulatory Treatment of Non-Safety Systems, and Control Room Habitability. 

SECY-96-128, “Policy and Key Technical Issues pertaining to the Westinghouse AP600 Standardized Passive Reactor Design,” dated June 12, 1996 and the SRM, dated January 15, 1997. See discussion on post-72 hour actions where the Commission approved the staff’s position that the site be capable of sustaining design basis events with onsite equipment and supplies for the long term (7 days). 

General Topics

What is low-level waste and how is it managed?

Low-level wastes, generally defined as radioactive wastes other than high-level wastes and wastes from uranium recovery operations, are commonly disposed of in near-surface facilities rather than in – a geologic repository (like Yucca Mountain) that is required for high-level wastes. Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. From nuclear power plants, this waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water-treatment residues, equipment, and tools.  Low-level waste may also arise from the use of radioactive material in medicine, research, and industry. Such waste includes luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. The radioactivity can range from just above background levels found in nature to much higher levels in certain cases, such as parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant.

Low-level waste is classified in accordance with NRC regulations (10 CFR Part 61, “Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste”), from least to greatest hazard, as Class A, B, C, and Greater than Class C. The first three classes can be disposed of at licensed commercial disposal facilities. By law, DOE is responsible for the disposal of low-level waste that is classified as greater than Class C. Licensees typically store low-level waste onsite, either until it has decayed away (as is the case for much short-lived waste generated by medical and research users) and can be disposed of as ordinary trash, or until amounts are large enough for shipment to a low-level waste disposal site in containers authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  There are currently four facilities in the US that are licensed within their respective Agreement States to receive and dispose of low-level waste (South Carolina, Texas, Utah, & Washington).

How is spent fuel stored, and what are the licensee and NRC roles associated with its storage?

There are two acceptable storage methods for spent fuel after it is removed from the reactor core:

  • Spent Fuel Pools – Currently, most spent nuclear fuel is safely stored in specially designed pools at individual reactor sites around the country.
  • Dry Cask Storage – Licensees may store spent nuclear fuel in dry cask storage systems at independent spent fuel storage facilities (ISFSIs) at the following sites:
    • At Reactor – Licensees may use dry storage systems when approaching their pool capacity limit.
    • Away-From-Reactor – Licensees may use dry storage systems at one of the following locations:
    • Decommissioned Reactor Sites – After terminating reactor operations and removing structures used in reactor operations, the licensee stores spent fuel on-site pending off-site transport to either a site-specific ISFSI that is authorized to receive the spent fuel, or a permanent geologic repository licensed for disposal
    • Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF) – Dry cask storage at an away-from-reactor site pending disposal at a permanent disposal facility

The respective roles of the applicant/licensee and NRC regarding spent fuel storage are generally the same as their roles within the reactor facility licensing process – the licensee proposes, and NRC reviews/approves with associated license conditions.

What is High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium?

Our existing fleet of reactors runs on uranium fuel that is enriched up to 5% with uranium-235—the main fissile isotope that produces energy during a chain reaction.

By definition, HALEU is enriched between 5% and 20% and is required for most U.S. advanced reactors to achieve smaller designs that get more power per unit of volume. HALEU will also allow developers to optimize their systems for longer life cores, increased efficiencies and better fuel utilization. It’s noted that many advanced reactor technologies plan to use HALEU in developing and manufacturing their fuel.

DOE and its national labs are working on two chemical processes to provide small amounts of HALEU to vendors in the near-future. Both methods involve the recycling of used nuclear fuel from government-owned research reactors to recover highly enriched uranium (greater than 20%) that can then be down-blended to make HALEU fuel.

For the longer term, DOE is partnering with Centrus to manufacture 16 advanced centrifuges for deployment at an enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio.  The company’s AC-100M machine was developed through the years with support from DOE and will demonstrate HALEU production.  The HALEU will be used for advanced reactor fuel qualification testing and reactor demonstration projects. The AC-100M technology is expected to be available for commercial deployment at the conclusion of the demonstration.

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