Chairman Dale Klein says they're part of the "nuclear renaissance." He has some advice for how to deal with their licensing issues.
The drumbeat for a global nuclear renaissance is giving some people a headache and that includes NRC chairman Dale Klein who complained about it at a conference by the same name in Alexandria, VA, last week. While NRC's head honcho is very interested in small reactors, he thinks the bigger picture will take "decades to unroll."
Business is booming at the NRC
Klein led off by telling his audience since 2007 the NRC has received 9 license applications for 15 new plants. He said the agency has been told by various utilities to expect another 11 applications for another 16 reactors by the end of 2009. The agency is under the gun to meet its self-imposed 42-month deadline for reviews of combined construction & operating license (COL) applications. That's 20 new applications and 31 new reactors.
Jaw boning session for NRC applicants
To get the applications reviewed on time, Klein said the industry must stop changing their minds about things. He did some serious jaw boning with reactor manufacturers and their customers. Now he didn't use these words like "stop screwing around," but if you sift through the window dressing of a government speech, it is pretty clear he's got a beef or two and wanted to get a few things off his chest.
He reminded permit applicants to use the Early Site Permit process and certified reactor designs. Some have planned to bypass both and may come to regret that decision Klein said. Essentially, he told the industry the agency is not issuing permits for tortoise hunting. It is reviewing applications for nuclear reactors. It is a serious business and he wants people to be realistic when they file their applications.
The problem Klein said is that only one-in-five of the designs being referenced in COL applications are certified reactor designs. He said that some design certification applications and COL applications lack the information NRC staff need to conduct their review. This is giving him and his agency a headache. It's a clear object lesson for promoters of small reactors who have captured Klein's attention.
Why small reactors matter
Klein said the NRC has been contacted by several designers of small, advanced reactors, and that his agency takes no position on which ones ought to succeed or fail. The commercial outcome, Klein said, depends on market issues.
That said he noted small reactors cost a lot less and may be very attractive for that reason in developing nations which need energy for economic growth. He said "reliable electricity can literally change people's lives." Klein clearly is focused on small reactors. He said,
My own view is that these small, advanced designs offer enormous possibilities for providing both electricity and process heat, and for improving the standard of living for people in the developing world in the near future, and perhaps even for people here in the U.S. in the long term.
Despite these attractions, NRC isn't seeing any interest by U.S. customers. He expects it sooner or later, and like his prior speech on licensing fuel recycling facilities, he encouraged industry to form technical working groups to start figuring out how to build small reactors, especially modular groups of them, for U.S. customers. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
NGNP is a special case
One of the small reactor designs that has a high profile is the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). One of them will be built at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) with construction expected to start in 2016.
Klein pointed out the high-temperature gas-cooled design is mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Currently, Klein said, NRC staff has briefed him on one pebble bed design and two prismatic core reactor designs (large image). Next month the NRC will deliver a report to Congress, jointly with the Department of Energy, on a licensing strategy for NGNP.
Here is the heart of Klein's message on licensing a small reactor like the NGNP.
This advanced technology presents several technical issues that we will need to address, including:
- Fuel performance
- Containment functional performance
- Safety and security issues
- Material performance under very high temperatures,
- The use of probabilistic risk assessment in the licensing process.
That's a whale of a lot of attention for small reactors from the chief nuclear regulator. Advocates for small reactors take note.
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See previous coverage of small reactors on this blog.There is an excellent discussion taking place on small reactors over at Rod Adams 'Atomic Insights' blog. See his article and very interesting comments that have spun off from it.
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