by Jim Hopf
Two bills concerning small modular reactors (SMRs) have been introduced recently in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The first bill, S. 512, instructs the Department of Energy (along with private partners) to develop two standardized SMR designs. The intent is to obtain final Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification of the two designs by 2018, and to have an NRC construction and operating license (COL) for two actual plants by 2021. ANS president Joe Colvin testified before the committee in support of the bill.
The other bill, S. 1067, provides $250 million in funding over the next five years for research and development on how to reduce fabrication and construction costs for SMRs.
Perspective on SMR Legislation
R&D toward reducing construction costs for SMRs (or nuclear plants in general) could be very productive, with up-front capital cost being the most significant impediment to the growth of nuclear power. Thus, S. 1067 should be beneficial, the only question being how much. My personal view is that it doesn’t go far enough.
Current policies provide financial incentives (such as tax credits and loan guarantees) to utilities to build and operate new nuclear plants. The main reason, however, for the recent escalation in new nuclear plant cost is the lack of a sufficient supply chain for large and/or nuclear-grade components. Therefore, it is possible that financial incentives to develop the supply chain would be an even more strategic investment than direct plant construction incentives, with respect to getting new nuclear deployed. How about tax credits or loan guarantees for fabrication plants and/or assembly lines to build whole reactors (in the case of SMRs) or large plant components (in the case of large reactors)? This should result in a significant drop in nuclear plant construction costs, which could make direct utility construction incentives unnecessary, at least over the longer term.
As for S. 512, some believe that the choice of (only) two standard designs to promote will stifle competition and innovation. There’s probably some truth to that. For me, the bigger issue is the schedule (i.e., a COL by 2021). This seems to be rather slow. In fact, it appears that industry may achieve a shorter schedule all on its own, without any government support at all.
For the two SMR designs that are simply scaled-down light-water reactors (i.e., NuScale and mPower), I believe that the companies in question are planning to file COL applications in the near future. I certainly hope that the COL application will not take about 9 years! My understanding is that the (private) companies’ timelines corresponded to having the first modules actually in operation by about 2020. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which plans to deploy (mPower) SMR(s) at one of its existing nuclear sites, is planning on forgoing the COL process, and opting for the old reactor licensing process, so it they can get started on SMR construction even earlier. If the government is (supposedly) helping, why is its timeline (i.e., merely having a reactor licensed by 2021) even longer?
A Real SMR/Nuclear Wish List
As discussed yesterday, SMRs may not make economic sense if the financial burden associated with security and emergency planning is no smaller than it is for large reactors. The much smaller potential release from these reactors should be considered when determining such requirements. At a minimum, SMRs deployed at existing plant sites should be able to just make use of the existing emergency plans, and be able to mostly just make use of existing site security. If the NRC does not take the initiative here, legislation may have to be an option.
Another (aggressive) approach would be to have an SMR licensing process similar to that used for used fuel dry storage casks. With casks, once the NRC grants a license for a specific cask design, they can be fabricated and deployed from that point forward, without having to obtain any kind of license for each individual unit. (The NRC can and does have inspectors overseeing cask construction, but further license applications are not required.) Casks of a given design can even be deployed at different sites without additional licensing action. The only requirement is that the utility document all important site-specific parameters (such as maximum seismic accelerations) and show that they are bounded by the design’s generic licensing analyses.
I see no reason why a similar approach could not be used for SMRs. Such a change would be significant, because having to go through an NRC licensing process for each individual reactor module may add substantially to the overall cost of the unit, given its small size. At a minimum, a utility should be able to get a license to deploy a specific SMR design at a specific site, and then be able to add units without further license applications.
For nuclear in general, I think an effort should be made to reign in the cost and time associated with NRC licensing, particularly for follow-on COL applications for an already-licensed reactor design. A telling example of how onerous things are at present is the fact that one of the main legislative issues in Missouri this year was on the question of whether the utility should be able to charge customers in advance for just the cost of licensing (not building!) a new nuclear plant in the state. Even though this plant will merely be a copy of a licensed reactor (Calvert Cliffs would be the lead application for the design in question), the licensing process is expected to take several years and cost on the order of a hundred million dollars; a burden so great that it requires the attention of the state legislature. The NRC simply must do better than this.
I personally think that a COL application for a copy of an existing design (which supposedly is mainly about site characterization issues) should take no more than two years, and not cost anything close to $100 million. I also think that this is something that legislation can, and should, require.
Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.