US NRC releases draft paper on micro-reactors licensing strategies

23 September 2021

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has prepared a draft white paper outlining optional strategies for streamlining licensing of anticipated micro-reactors. Its goal is to identify ways to standardise licensing and maximise regulatory finalities, as permitted under existing laws and Commission policies.

The NRC said was releasing the 19-page paper to support an upcoming advanced reactor stakeholder public meeting and to facilitate discussion.

NRC said it “is considering strategies to streamline the license review process by maximising standardisation and finality through the use of design certification, standard design approval, and topical report approvals”. For the purpose of this white paper, the term “standardisation” refers to a micro-reactor design “that could be deployed to the majority of sites in the US without the need for site-specific features where the majority of safety issues could be resolved as part of a design certification and/or manufacturing licence”. One example would be to have a set of parameters developed as part of a variety of micro-reactor designs that can bound corresponding parameters of multiple sites without the need for customising the design for each of these sites. NRC is focusing on the following areas:

  • enhanced standardisation of the design (e.g., through the use of bounding design parameters in early site permits, bounding site parameters in design certification, and a minimal set of site-specific design features);
  • use of manufacturing licence to gain potential efficiencies at the combined licence (COL) stage, and use of other regulatory requirements, such as possession of special nuclear material and transportation; 
  • strategies for review of operational matters (e.g., technical specifications and operational programmes) at the design stage, either as part of the design approval (to the extent allowed under Commission policy), through topical reports, or through a design-centred review approach, in which the staff would review operational matters for the first micro-reactor application of a particular design.

In its conclusion, it says: “Because prospective vendors are interested in fabricating micro-reactors in factories and transporting them to preapproved sites, with the possibility of transporting them from one site to another, the NRC staff has explored strategies to streamline the review of such applications within existing regulations, Commission policy, and public laws. The areas explored by the staff include design certification, COLs, manufacturing licences, siting and external hazards, and environmental reviews.”

While a manufacturing licence could provide flexibility for designing and fabricating microreactors, fuel loading and transportation would require a number of other licences. Addressing operational programmes through a topical report at the design phase could streamline the review at the COL stage. Applicants may be able to adopt certain measures to enhance standardisation at the design phase; for example, they could provide design parameters that would bound the actual site characteristics at the COL stage, thereby reducing the staff review to simple verification. 

In addition, if the design does not depend on certain site -specific features, such as water and the need for external power, the scope of the COL application and the staff’s review will be substantially reduced. Additionally, because micro-reactors may have limited environmental impacts, a site -specific EIS may be unnecessary. “The staff therefore concludes that future rulemaking efforts could explore the streamlining of site hazards, operational programmes, manufacturing licences for fabrication and transportation, and environmental review.”

Photo: The 1.5MW Oklo Aurora Powerhouse (Courtesy of Gensler)

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