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Small Reactors Closer to Licensing and Construction

Feb. 27, 2014—The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has made substantial progress in addressing policy issues associated with small reactor designs and is ready to review design certification applications as they begin to come in this year, NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis told the Nuclear Energy Institute’s biennial small reactor forum this week in Washington, D.C.

Designs for small modular reactors are steadily making their way from the drawing board to licensing and construction, as U.S.-based firms position themselves to compete in the promising global market for these compact generating plants. The NRC expects to receive an application in the third quarter of 2014 to certify the first of two designs selected for the Energy Department’s cost-share development program, with the second design following in 2015.

The administration in 2012 announced a $452 million cost-shared program between the Energy Department and the industry to develop up to two small reactor designs—300 megawatts or less—over six years. The department selected Babcock & Wilcox Co.’s mPower and NuScale Power’s SMR designs. DOE’s cost-share initiative for small reactors is modeled on its successful Nuclear Power 2010 program, which supported the development, certification and licensing of two large reactor designs and culminated in the issuance of NRC licenses to build and operate the four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors that are now under construction in Georgia and South Carolina.

Construction is not far off for the first small reactor, with the Tennessee Valley Authority expected to apply to the NRC in the second quarter of 2015 for a construction permit to build B&W’s mPower design. The goal is to have an mPower reactor operating by the early 2020s, with the NuScale design following a few years later.

Apostolakis said the commission has directed the NRC staff to incorporate risk-informed approaches in reviewing small reactor applications, taking into account the relative safety importance of various systems, structures and components.

He said he believes this approach can succeed, citing the agency’s efforts to develop a risk-informed approach to quality assurance requirements for nuclear power plants. The method ranks systems and equipment by their actual safety significance and applies quality assurance measures commensurate with that.

Apostolakis said one licensee found that only 5 percent to 6 percent of the equipment considered “safety-related” under NRC regulations is actually risk-significant. “This shows how conservative those classifications can be,” he said. However, the NRC staff and the industry had difficulty reaching agreement on how to treat the vast majority of systems, structures and components that have low to moderate safety significance. “I think that is why [the rule] did not become popular,” he said.

A longtime proponent of risk-informed regulation, Apostolakis said he is not deterred by the agency’s experience to date. The NRC has a much better understanding of risk-informed regulation than it did a decade ago, he noted, and he believes it can be successful in licensing small reactors. He added that using this approach will increase efficiency because “we will not waste resources on things that are not risk-significant.”