Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Wake up, America: 8 actions to boost advanced nuclear and enhance US energy security

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Rep. Byron Donalds, R, represents Southwest Florida District 19 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

America has the brightest minds, top-notch science, the necessary capital and the inherent willingness to once again be the international leader in nuclear technology. However, a new age is upon us — the age of advanced nuclear deployment.

Advanced nuclear reactors are no longer our grandparents’ nuclear technology, but the American nuclear permitting apparatus hasn’t caught up. Our nation’s permitting rules implicitly assume that it’s okay to take years or decades to successfully license and construct a nuclear reactor. Let me emphasize — exorbitant regulatory costs, outdated licensing processes, and unnecessary red tape will NOT accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors in the United States.

In order to promote America’s energy security, reduce self-imposed regulatory burdens, and spur innovation, the following eight deliberate actions can be taken to enhance the deployment of advanced nuclear technology in the United States.

1. Encourage pre-application NRC engagement

To begin, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should further encourage applicants to voluntarily engage in pre-application NRC interactions. This voluntary mechanism serves as a means to sharpening reactor applications and resolving key technical issues prior to submitting an application — thereby streamlining the licensing process and reducing costs stemming from a decreased amount of back-and-forth with NRC staff. In fact, I introduced H.R. 1007 which includes an incentive for nuclear entities to participate in pre-application activities with the NRC.

2. Maximize NRC’s “risk-informed, performance-based” licensing approach

Next, the NRC should utilize a risk-informed, performance-based approach to the maximum extent practicable. I recently introduced H.R. 4676, which requires the NRC to take such an approach. Risk-informed licensing review focuses on the most important safety risks — compared to a line-by-line application review and being nitpicky about non-safety significant items. Specifically, many advanced nuclear reactors integrate safe components, features and fuels into their designs. Thus, the NRC should minimize emphasis on low-risk, non-safety significant application blunders during licensing review. Additionally, the NRC should utilize a performance based-approach, which allows the licensee to demonstrate regulatory compliance by methods of their choice — thereby modernizing the NRC’s prescriptive and antiquated licensing procedures.

3. Strike mandatory uncontested application hearings

Moreover, the NRC is statutorily required to hold hearings for every nuclear reactor application — even if the application is uncontested. The NRC licensing process presents various public engagement opportunities. However, requiring a hearing for every application may unnecessarily take several months of NRC staff commitment and hundreds of thousands of dollars — just to rubber stamp a single application that has ZERO opposition. While mandatory hearings may have been helpful decades ago, today’s hearings serve little purpose and often don’t change the outcome of the application. H.R. 4676 also includes a provision to strike the mandatory hearing requirement for uncontested applications, thereby streamlining the NRC licensing process and expediting the deployment of advanced nuclear technology.

4. Reform the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards

Additionally, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, or ACRS, must be modernized to accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors. The ACRS was statutorily mandated in 1957 to provide an independent review of every nuclear reactor application — which initially provided significant value as virtually everything nuclear was novel. But today and moving into the future, the ACRS requirement to review every application is unnecessary, duplicative, costly and timely — especially since NRC staff already reviews the application in totality. To match innovation with regulatory modernization, we cannot let the ACRS become a bottleneck in the licensing process. Therefore, I introduced H.R. 4675 which narrows the scope of ACRS review to particularly uncommon applications, eliminates redundant ACRS subcommittees to streamline the independent review process, and removes the ACRS from NRC’s cost-recovery requirement to decrease financial burdens for applicants. 

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