Micro-nuclear Reactor Licensing in the United States

We met with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently to discuss several basic questions about their licensing process. You can see some of the answers and our findings below. Overall, the meeting was incredibly productive, and we’re excited to keep chatting with them.

Best part: they didn’t even charge us for the cumulative 90 minutes of their time we consumed!

Start with why…

Why does the NRC protect against radiation and the public health and safety?

  • They view radiation as a boogie man which is perceived to be far, far more dangerous than it actually is.
  • Yes, it will kill you in small doses. So will arsenic, traveling directly into a MACK truck at 60 miles per hour, and the uncontrolled release of combusting hydrocarbons. But just like those, radiation is an industrial hazard which we understand extremely well and know how to protect against it.
  • As such, we believe many of the NRC’s rules are disproportionately “protecting” against a hazard which is not nearly as dangerous in reality as we make it out to be.
  • Regardless, the rules are written how they are, and we’re tragically stuck with them for the time being. In order to compete, we’ll need to adapt and understand the rules and how to apply them.
How long will it take to permit new reactors?
  • Kairos has spent nearly 18,000 hours with 3 years of pre-application work and an estimated 20 months of actual work.
  • They also submitted 11 topical reports on key issues e.g. fuel qualifications, mechanistic source term, quality assurance program, etc.
  • Just coming in with an application and expecting it to be done in a couple years is a big stretch.
  • That being said, they are well on their way to licensing a new system. They’ll license a test reactor and receive a construction permit.
  • Topical reports take 500 to 1000 hours of review time and
  • White papers will be 50 – ~100 hours.
  • That’s expensive. The current rate for the NRC’s time is $290/hour. So just for their topical reports, they spent $290/hr * 1000 hrs/report * 11 reports = $3,190,000.
  • Their HERMES construction review was ~18,000 hours, or $5.22MM paid to the NRC.
Will the review time be shorter for microreactors?
  • For smaller systems i.e. test reactors, research reactors, or first of a kind prototypes, the NRC believes the list of requirements will be shorter.
  • They cover this extensively in their white paper, Micro-reactors Licensing Strategies.
  • For smaller source term (aka less nuclear material) there’s inherently less danger. As such, some of the rules could be different or exceptions could be made.
    • The law requires they apply minimum regulation as needed to meet their objective of protecting public health and safety.
    • Developers will still need to prove they can shut down the reaction, make it sub-critical, keep it cool, and limit reactivity releases.
    • They want to review systems and build confidence that they’re going to work how we say they’re going to work.
    • In our opinion, the best way to do this is actually build one and test it.
Are there economies of scale? I.e. after we get the first one licensed, will the second and third be easier to license?
  • In essence, yes. Once they’ve reviewed additional applications and design changes are minimal, they’ll capitalize on prior reviews and reference what they’ve already reviewed.
  • Design Certifications: acquiring a design certification allows a developer to skip the review process every time; however, Design Certifications are a separate application which gets written into the CFRs and is a longer, more complicated process.
  • A simpler approach is to apply for a Standard Design Approval. They’re similar, and while the Standard Design Approval requires an application every time you want to build a new system, it is much easier to attain and doesn’t have to be written into law.
A fundamental advantage of microreactor systems is having an ability to iterate, discover opportunities to make improvements, and enhance the system with minimal capital costs. How does the design process allow for this?
  • In short, it’s challenging but not impossible.
  • They want to review all of the system and understand each component. Any changes could have a change on the overall performance of the system.
  • One approach they agree with is TerraPower’s Natrium reactor which separates the nuclear island from the balance of plant.
  • Any of their reviews will focus on the changes made from previous designs.
  • It’ll work the same in operating licensing space.
  • Part 50.59(2) in Title 10 of the CFRs outlines 8 criteria for changes to the reactor, test, or experiments. If a change results or creates a hazard not identified in the final safety analysis report, then you have to get an amendment to the license. Here are the 8 criteria:
    1. Result in more than a minimal increase in the frequency of occurrence of an accident previously evaluated in the final safety analysis report (as updated);
    2. Result in more than a minimal increase in the likelihood of occurrence of a malfunction of a structure, system, or component (SSC) important to safety previously evaluated in the final safety analysis report (as updated);
    3. Result in more than a minimal increase in the consequences of an accident previously evaluated in the final safety analysis report (as updated);
    4. Result in more than a minimal increase in the consequences of a malfunction of an SSC important to safety previously evaluated in the final safety analysis report (as updated);
    5. Create a possibility for an accident of a different type than any previously evaluated in the final safety analysis report (as updated);
    6. Create a possibility for a malfunction of an SSC important to safety with a different result than any previously evaluated in the final safety analysis report (as updated);
    7. Result in a design basis limit for a fission product barrier as described in the FSAR (as updated) being exceeded or altered; or
    8. Result in a departure from a method of evaluation described in the FSAR (as updated) used in establishing the design bases or in the safety analyses.
How does NEPA and the environmental siting rules play into this? And how does this impact reactors potentially being mobile i.e. used at one site and then taken to another?
  • It all starts with NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act):
    • NEPA requires federal agencies to examine how the operations they regulate impact the environment.
    • Nuclear reactors may have an environmental impact, albeit small at best. If they are determined to likely have an impact, then the NRC is required to write and submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
    • An EIS typically takes 5 – 7 years to complete.
    • Alternatively, an Environmental Assessment (EA) takes 1 month to 2 years to complete.
    • There is a loophole in NEPA. If the NRC can prove a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) i.e. show that the system won’t have a significant impact on the environment, then an EIS won’t have to be performed.
    • The NRC is currently perusing this themselves i.e. generate a Finding of No Significant Impact and then just submit an EA (instead of an EIS).
  • The rules are not currently setup to make nuclear reactors mobile because current regulations require a site approval for any site they operate. Current licensing framework doesn’t allow for a mobile system.
  • They recognize this is a problem. The attorneys in conversations they’ve been in, the Atomic Energy Act doesn’t prevent them from licensing mobile reactors, but they’ll have to do an environmental review at each new site.
  • They’re addressing this by envisioning a General Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) that has a site envelope and plant parameter envelope that would be approved.
  • It’s going to take policy changes on the part of the commission and rule changes in order to do it.
  • There’s a working group with International Atomic Energy Agency that’s thinking about those things (not NRC issue with site based licensing), but how do approve the transport?
  • Transportation of it is going to need to get blessed also with DOT.
  • Transport package is going to need to get certified regardless of the reactor type.
  • Moving a reactor with “partially spent fuel” will be regulated the same as moving completely spent nuclear waste.
  • If you had a Generic Environmental Impact Statement and generic review that investigates generic review (the reactors impact on the environment and it’s impact on the environment), then you could have a generic swath of land that you could go to.
    • This is the principle we should apply if deploying in oil and gas fields.
If we need to make policy changes, then how do we do that most effectively?
  • New rules take 5 to 7 years to write and bring into effect.
    • We have to spend some time in advance of that coming up with the strategy for the rules.
    • There may be some pilot efforts.
  • NRC Commissioners: more than 2 of them can’t meet together without it being a public meeting
    • We could publish opinions or interviews from each of them for how we can make some of these changes.
    • Usually what they’re hearing from are the designers. They want to hear directly from customers and other parts of industry, too.
Is there a different rate/cost for smaller teams to work with the NRC?
  • No.
  • Strategies:
    • DOE can provide grants that help fund NRC fees.
    • Universities don’t pay fees for research or test reactors.
  • They don’t charge (fee exemption) if it’s something that would be generically applied beyond one individual or company.
  • Fee exemptions can always be requested, but not they’re not always granted.
Planning to work with the NRC
  • They do their budgeting two years in advance. So if you’re planning on submitting an application to them in 2025, then they want to be aware of that now! If you’re planning on submitting sooner than that, then you’re already behind as they don’t have resources adequately allocated to reviewing your application.
  • They prefer designers to engage early and often in the pre-application process. The pre-application process gives the NRC experience working with reactor designers.
    • From a technical standpoint, the pre-application process gives the NRC’s team of engineers an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the design prior to the formal application period. They have a chance to ask dumb questions without the risk of public embarrassment.
    • Said bluntly: while they are exceptionally intelligent, both reactor designers and the NRC staff are still human beings with all of the strengths and flaws inherently present to being human. Building relationships with them expedites the ability to transfer information, communicate effectively, and “get shit done.”
Reading List

They provided this list ahead of time. It’s all fantastic literature which does a great job of outlining how they’re thinking about licensing small systems.

  1. Licensing Process Fact Sheet 
  2. NUREG/BR-0298, Nuclear Power Plant Licensing Process
  3. Micro-reactors Licensing Strategies, ML21235A418
  4. NEI White Paper “Micro-Reactor Regulatory Issues, ML19319C497
  5. Regulatory Review Roadmap For Non-Light Water Reactors 
  6. NRC staff pre-application engagement white paper, ML21145A106 
  7. Guidance for a non-power reactor application is in NUREG-1537.  NUREG-1537 Part 1, “Format and Content” is ML042430055 and Part 2, “Standard Review Plan and Acceptance Criteria” is ML042430048. – COME BACK TO THIS ONE
  8. All Regulatory Guides are found here.
    1. Regulatory Guide 1.232, Developing Principal Design Criteria for Non-Light Water Reactors
    2. Regulatory Guide 1.233, Guidance for a Technology-Inclusive, Risk-Informed, and Performance-Based Methodology to Inform the Licensing Basis and Content of Applications for Licenses, Certifications, and Approvals for Non-Light Water Reactors
    3. Regulatory Guide 1.247, TRIAL – Acceptability of Probabilistic Risk Assessment Results for Non-Light Water Reactor Risk-Informed Activities

General Advanced Reactor Rulemaking and Guidance in Development

  1. Part 53 – Risk Informed, Technology-Inclusive Regulatory Framework for Advanced Reactors 
  2. Physical Security Rulemaking 
  3. Emergency Preparedness Rulemaking 
  4. Regulatory Guide 1.242 (Draft Guide-1350), Performance-Based Emergency Preparedness for Small Modular Reactors, Non-Light-Water Reactors, and Non-Power Production or Utilization Facilities
  5. Other guidance being developed for advanced reactors is here.

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