Calling for collaboration

14 December 2004

Nils Diaz of the NRC opened the 2004 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting with a call for greater collaboration among nuclear regulators from around the world. By Thecla Fabian

Nuclear regulation is a “complex techno-legal construct that requires constant examination and management,” Nils Diaz, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), told the Washington, DC gathering of the 14-18 November 2004 American Nuclear Society (ANS) Winter Meeting. Improved regulatory management is needed to better serve the needs of both individual countries and the international community, and the multi-national collaboration is critical to achieving the needed improvements.

Worldwide, there are “more striking differences” in the regulation of nuclear power than in the technology and operation of nuclear power plants, Diaz said. Convergence on the regulatory framework and its tools would enhance predictability and decision making in the world community as a whole. At the same time, national licensing and regulatory authorities should remain strong and responsive to the needs of their individual countries.

Diaz identified four key areas of nuclear regulation that contain elements suitable for international regulatory collaboration:

  • Licence renewal (or plant life extension, periodic safety review).
  • Power uprates.
  • Unplanned extended shutdowns.
  • New reactor design certification.
Because safe licence renewals and power uprates contribute to the energy supply, economic stability and the well being of nations, these regulatory programmes and tools are amenable to bilateral or even multilateral exchanges.

Diaz found management of unplanned extended shutdowns to be another very important issue for which “the management of the regulator/industry interface and many of the regulatory treatment options is amenable to integrated international analysis, aiding each country’s decision making.”

Finally, “safety will be better served when certified designs can be accepted across borders as a commodity, fully respecting property rights and the licensing responsibility of regulatory authorities.” He called on regulators to “seek to develop the tools needed to certify new reactor designs, as well as to certify the related research programmes used to validate these designs, using bilateral or multilateral agreements.” This would facilitate safety and regulatory decisions worldwide, Diaz argued.

He stressed that the advance of nuclear power and other nuclear technologies in the 21st century will require regulations that are “better, more predictable, more useable, more consistent across borders and more risk-informed.”

As an example, Diaz said that design certifications already completed by the NRC could be reviewed and adopted by other nation’s regulators, “thereby utilising a broad range of expertise, research results and other resources.”

For future design certification efforts, international regulators can join the projects at the front end and participate in both the safety reviews and the related technical and research activities that support certification.

Although the idea of ‘certification consortia’ sounds strange now, it should become a 21st century reality, Diaz said, adding that he was not advocating international licensing.

What he is advocating is enhanced international cooperation among regulators to articulate and document regulatory decisions that are technical in nature. “I see significant opportunities in improving communications among regulators by sharing expertise, know-how, analytical capabilities, as well as data generated from research efforts to permit greater consistency worldwide,” Diaz said. He also sees opportunity for improving the timeliness of regulatory decisions “so safety issues can be promptly identified and resolved.”

New reactor designs should be certified in a manner that would greatly enhance the ability of all nations’ regulators to manage relevant licensing and regulatory activities.


Bill Magwood, head of the Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) nuclear energy programme office, said that worldwide, the revival of nuclear power is underway. He challenged observers who contend that the US nuclear field is at a crossroads, saying that it already passed through the crossroads five or six years ago, and now is moving boldly into a period of renewed growth.

In early November, the DoE made two preliminary awards under the Nuclear Power 2010 programme intended to bring at least one new nuclear power plant online within a decade. The DoE funded both consortia that are seeking to license a new plant design – Dominion Energy and NuStart – and would like to see both proposals move forward. “At least one new plant in the United States is possible by 2014,” Magwood said, adding that he hoped the DoE would be able to launch the programme in full form by the autumn of 2005.

The DoE is working mainly in the international arena under the auspices of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) on the more long-range Generation IV (Gen IV) nuclear programme, Magwood said.

The USA had to make a choice between emphasising Gen IV or focusing on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), proposed for construction at Idaho National Laboratory. The choice fell to NGNP, although the DoE has yet to make the final decision to move forward with that effort. Plans call for NGNP to be a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) with an associated hydrogen production facility. The DoE hopes to have the plant in operation by around 2020. Magwood said that one reason the DoE decided to focus on the NGNP is that leadership is coming from the private sector.

The NGNP also will offer a very internationalised opportunity for nuclear nations to develop “one technology, instead of four or five,” at a cost of about $2 billion. The NGNP also will reflect the changing market economy that is making the nuclear industry “look more like the aircraft industry,” with standardised components manufactured around the world.

The HTGR will be the launch project for the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), recently formed from parts of the old Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Argonne Laboratory West. INL has been given the US lead in peaceful nuclear technology research and development. Other DoE national laboratories, including Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos, will also have a significant role to play in developing the NGNP.

Magwood said joint international funding of the NGNP was a possibility, but no decision had been made yet. Citing France, Germany, Japan and China, he noted that there is a tremendous amount of expertise and experience in HTGR technology worldwide that the DoE would be unwise to ignore.


At least one new plant in the United States is possible by 2014


Congressional staffers offered an insiders’ perspective on congressional concerns and future nuclear initiatives.

Several months ago, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on sustainable sources of electricity and identified only three for the near term: clean coal, renewables and nuclear. Over the long term, fusion may offer a fourth option, said Peter Lyons, a member of the committee’s majority (Republican) staff.

Although serving on the majority staff, Lyons cautioned: “The election did not change reality.” Supporters must avoid politicising the future of nuclear energy because future nuclear energy initiatives will require a sustained bipartisan effort in Congress.

Sue Sheridan from the staff of Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), ranking minority (Democrat) member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, echoed Lyons’ concern, saying it would be helpful if supporters of nuclear initiatives took a bipartisan approach. “People who are invested in the process should have their worst critics in the room; that way, they get a sturdy bill.” She added that there has not been a bipartisan process on energy issues for the last two years.

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) is focused on five key points regarding nuclear energy:

  • Price-Anderson must be reauthorised because liability must be predictable.
  • Construction of new commercial reactors is needed to demonstrate that nuclear energy can move ahead. Some degree of federal assistance will be needed to jumpstart the first plants, but he is not sure what form that assistance will take.
  • Advanced reactors such as the NGNP are needed.
  • Over the long term, an advanced fuel cycle initiative is needed for better spent fuel management and better use of resources. In the near term, the repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is critical as a symbol that there is a solution to waste issues.
  • Workforce development is needed to assure a strong nuclear future.
The question of revising the licensing standard after a federal court voided the standard developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have to be resolved outside of Congress, said Sue Sheridan from Dingell’s staff. The controversy over the Yucca Mountain standard is “too hot for us to handle.”


The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is once again looking to nuclear energy to provide deep space propulsion and increased power for space missions, Theron Bradley, former chief engineer for NASA, told the ANS meeting.

Proposals for nuclear propulsion systems go back to the late 1950s. Over the years, NASA has launched 28 missions with radioisotope generators to provide auxiliary power through the use of radioactive decay heat. However, now NASA is once again looking to launch reactor systems to provide power for deep space and other missions.

Such reactors present a number of significant challenges, Bradley admitted. These include:

  • Building a reactor small enough to be launched efficiently, but durable enough to survive a near-earth mission failure without radiation release.
  • Developing an efficient heat rejection system. Between 70% and 94% of the reactor’s energy must be disposed as waste heat, requiring development of new materials for high-temperature radiative heat transfer.
  • Developing reactor systems that can operate reliably for at least 15-20 years without human intervention.
However, unlike Earth-bound reactors, space reactors will not be constrained by potential radiation effects on people over most of their active lives. Human radiation exposure will only be a concern during the early launch phase. After the reactor has moved beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the only consideration will be radiation effects on mission equipment.

NASA expects the flagship mission for its reactor-powered spacecraft effort, known as Project Prometheus, to be the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO), scheduled for launch around 2015. In September, NASA selected Northrup Grumman Space Technology as contractor for the proposed Prometheus JIMO spacecraft, which will orbit and explore three of Jupiter’s planet-sized moons: Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.

The ambitious deep space mission would not be possible without reactor propulsion, Bradley said. Development of the needed nuclear propulsion system is high-risk, high-value and high-cost. The three-pronged development effort focuses on the reactor itself, power conversion systems and propulsion methods.

In its space reactor effort, NASA is working closely with a number of other US federal agencies, including the DoE, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the NRC, the EPA, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as state officials. This interagency effort is coordinated through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

NASA also is working with a number of international partners, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Space Agency and other international space agencies, and several Russian laboratories.

As well as the technical challenges, NASA is facing a number of political and regulatory constraints. Bradley pointed out that space reactors are ‘less typical’ than commercial power reactors, meaning that the entire regulatory arena is still unclear. NASA is working with the NRC to clarify how these reactors will be regulated.

Public perception, and possible public opposition, is another major hurdle. So far, space reactors have lacked vocal supporters among scientists, politicians and members of the general public. The press and the public lack understanding of the tradeoffs between the potential risks and the potential value of space reactors.

NASA, in consultation with the EPA, already has begun the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) evaluation of a project that is still more than a decade away, and is working to engage congressional leaders to provide funding and support for JIMO. “We’ve had good support from the president and the Office of Management and Budget,” Bradley said.

The space agency also is reaching out to engage the DoE and the US national laboratories in the 10-year effort to meet the technical challenges in development of robust, reliable systems to meet the needs of JIMO and other deep-space missions.

At least one new plant in the United States is possible by 2014

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