Report – Advanced Reactors Need Clear Path to Success

Policy recommendations for advanced reactor deployment are published by a DC think tank in collaboration with a key nuclear industry trade group

  • Advanced reactors essential to meet climate goals
  • New regulation, investment will drive development

gni_neo3The Global Nexus Initiative (GNI), a joint project of the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Partnership for Global Security (PGS), this week released a policy memo that urges Congress and government agencies to make the path to deploying new, advanced reactors “clearer and better supported” in order to meet international climate objectives.

The report says in the somewhat stilted language of DC policy wonks that the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors has “the potential to be a more easily deployable and operationally flexible alternative to the large light water reactors that are dominant round the world today,” but, the report says, deploying these new reactors poses a unique set of challenges.

The new report, “A Framework for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Development: Policy and Issues,” introduces 10 policy recommendations to address these issues, which include accelerating development, regulatory reform, financing, and safety and security.

Funding Start-ups is Essential

Key among the recommendations is the acceleration of advanced reactor designs to the demonstration phase. In other words, place a lot of bets with startups to see which ones can prove the principles of their designs and graduate to mature levels of financial support.

The report recommends cost-sharing partnerships between government and private business to reduce the risk of investment and make more financing available.

BNA Bloomberg added in a news report on the study that advanced nuclear reactor technologies would be speeded up if the federal government increased spending to $2 billion annually on research and development test beds and demonstration projects, nuclear experts advised.

The numbers are impressive. Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, said that in order to move advanced nuclear reactors from the conceptual stage where they are today to the testing stages and eventual deployment, the government needs to increase its funding from its approximately $500 million per year to $2 billion per year over a 10-year period.

BNA quoted Todd Allen, a senior visiting fellow at Third Way, a policy research group, who said that government funding should be focused on early innovation for startup companies, of which some fraction will move up to commercial deployment.

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Nuclear Energy Experts Discuss Advanced Reactors Report. Left to Right – PGS President Ken Luongo, NEI Senior Director of Fuel Cycle & Technology Everett Redmond, Third Way Senior Visiting Fellow Todd Allen, and Clean Air Task Force Executive Director Armond Cohen – Photo credit NEI

Meeting Climate Change Goals

This is not just a case of priming the market. There is a profound societal objective behind it.  To avoid the effects of climate change, the electricity system will need to be near zero-carbon by midcentury, the report states.

This leaves a short, 10- to 15-year window of time for advanced reactors to reach demonstration and then deployment, so investment and development need to be expedited

With the Paris Agreement entering into force this month and many other U.S. and international efforts aimed at limiting carbon emissions, policymakers must make their commitment to carbon reduction a reality and soon. Additionally, the United Nations is calling for universal access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy by 2030 in its Sustainable Development Goals.

Next generation reactors can make important contributions to both of these objectives. In a press statement, PGS and NEI added the following points.

“[Advanced] reactors are at a crossroads between development and deployment, and there is a need for a focused and aggressive plan to move these technologies and their regulatory framework forward,” PGS President Ken Luongo said at a press conference at NEI’s offices.

“[T]he development of next generation reactors must be pursued with a strong sense of urgency if these reactors are to be available to support climate objectives,” Redmond said.

Adjusting Licensing to Review Advanced Reactors

The U.S. NRC needs to ramp up its ability to conduct a safety design review and issue a COL for multiple types of advanced reactors. The report recognizes regulatory agencies are not agile and that change will have to take place in stages.

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Simulation image of the core of the Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory

The GNI report recommends development of a phased and predictable licensing structure. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s existing regulations are designed for light water reactors; a new licensing process will need to be developed to account for the new technologies, which encompass small modular light water reactors and advanced nonlight water reactors.

NEI Senior Director of Fuel Cycle and Technology Policy Everett Redmond said,

“In regards to licensing, the U.S. process is currently and understandably light water reactor-centric and must be adjusted to enable the effective and efficient review of advanced reactor designs. A staged licensing process building on existing NRC processes should be implemented.”

Investors will be more likely to commit if there is assurance that a reactor can obtain an operating license and, because of the NRC’s status as an international model for regulation, this new process will facilitate the deployment of advanced reactors outside the United States as well.

GNI also emphasizes the importance of the safety, security and proliferation safeguards of the next generation of reactors. The report recommends that advanced reactor designs be “rigorously tested” to further strengthen technical systems and, in turn, public confidence.

Nonproliferation Goals

GNI opposes the use of reactor designs that increase proliferation risk by breeding surplus plutonium or using highly enriched uranium. This is an area where the report’s recommendations and the development paths of several nuclear start-ups may diverge.

Several of these designs, in various stages of development, involve the use of fuel enriched to 20% U235. On the other hand, the report does not appear to object to MOX fuel or to reactor designs which burn plutonium, such as the GE-Hitachi PRISM, which immobilizes it forever.

The report is the result of a workshop held in February and is the initiative’s second report since its launch in August 2015. GNI plans to hold one more workshop in 2017. After the last workshops are held, the working group will summarize its findings in a final report.

An archived webcast of the Nov. 3 press event is available on NEI’s YouTube channel.

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