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The NRC Prepares for Advanced Reactor Designers to Come Knocking

Jennifer Uhle
Director, Office of New Reactors

Today’s conversations about powering civilization in the future often propose carbon-free energy sources. In addition to solar and wind, these conversations sometimes touch on advanced nuclear reactor designs. Designers have yet to submit any of these designs for NRC review, but we expect applications in the future and we’re preparing for them.

These technology approaches range from evolutions on proven technology (such as high-temperature gas reactors) to innovative concepts that would re-use the “waste” nuclear fuel from today’s reactors.

Jennifer Uhle, second from left, participates in the panel.

Jennifer Uhle, second from left, participates in the panel.

I recently took part in one of these discussions at the Third Way group’s first Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The NRC contributed to the summit due to its focus – what can agencies and legislators in Washington do to support development of advanced nuclear designs? The NRC’s only role is ensuring these designs meet stringent safety standards.

My portion of the discussion involved the NRC’s review of reactor designs to meet our mission of protecting public health and safety. As I told the audience, we carry out that work as efficiently as possible so that the NRC avoids becoming a roadblock to deployment of appropriate technologies.

The NRC’s looking ahead to potential applications for reactors cooled by something besides water. Our limited advanced reactor budget includes work to stay up to date on this “non-light water reactor (LWR)” technology development. Vendors are considering many non-LWR technologies for future licensing work. We’re taking a technology-neutral approach to stay properly positioned to efficiently review whatever vendors submit.

The summit also attracted non-LWR designers, venture capitalists, the Department of Energy, national laboratories, industry groups, universities, media, and think tanks, such as the Clean Air Task Force. Members of Congress attended the summit to discuss proposed legislation related to nuclear power.

Advanced reactor designers told the audience they’re targeting deployment in the 2020s to the 2030s, depending on where their designs are in development. The NRC’s preparation for potential advanced reactor applications includes our ongoing partnership with the Department of Energy. DOE’s support for research and design activities will help vendors gather the information they need for their design applications.

The next milestone in that partnership will be our second advanced non-light water reactor workshop, currently scheduled for June. This workshop will present DOE’s strategies to support the development, and NRC’s plans for efficient licensing of advanced reactors.

11 responses to “The NRC Prepares for Advanced Reactor Designers to Come Knocking

  1. Anonymous March 5, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Are current reactor daily releases of over 10 billion becquerels of unstable atoms per day per reactor causing low live birth rates in the united states ? tfr=1.9. World TFR=2.45 year 2014.

  2. Curtis Carr March 2, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    What some people don’t realize is that advanced reactors are a large part of the solution to deal with existing spent nuclear fuel (aka “waste). Any calls to limit their licensing due to current nuclear waste inventory is counterintuitive. Let’s dramatically decrease that “waste” by licensing reactors that can consume it as fuel.

    • Donna Gilmore March 2, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      Regarding comment “Advanced reactor promises of solutions to the waste”:
      1. They will not eliminate all the waste, so a solution for the waste is still needed.
      2. The “solution” is an unsubstantiated promise and there is evidence to the contrary that this will create more problems that it solves.

      I would like to see those proponents providing evidence of their claims rather than just unsubstantiated hope and promises. Unsubstantiated hope and promises is what got us into this mess in the first place.

      • Engineer-Poet March 3, 2016 at 11:24 pm

        I would like to see those proponents providing evidence of their claims rather than just unsubstantiated hope and promises.

        There were the natural reactors at what is now Oklo, in Gabon, roughly 2 billion years ago.  These reactors appear to have “operated” off and on for tens of thousands of years, and from what we can tell their fission products pretty much stayed put and did nothing.  Life on earth was only unicellular but went on without a hitch.  Is there anything specific you’re worried about, or is this just the inchoate paranoia I’ve become so familiar with in my dealings with anti-nukes?

        Unsubstantiated hope and promises is what got us into this mess in the first place.

        Au contraire, the promises of coal, oil and natural gas were all too well substantiated.  That’s how they got into such widespread use… and how their well-understood consequences got to such huge magnitude.

        Unlike carbon-based fuels, we have substantial evidence to prove that the fears of nuclear energy opponents have no substance to them.

        They will not eliminate all the waste, so a solution for the waste is still needed.

        We need to eliminate all the GHG emissions from our energy systems (and other things) in a rather short period of time, or risk massive climate disruption.  Actually, we probably need to extract on the order of a trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere that’s already there.  What’s YOUR solution to this waste problem?

        The solution to the fission-product problem is simple:  wait, and they go away by themselves.  That’s what “radioactive decay” is.  Uranium, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium… these are only “waste” if you don’t build reactors to use them as fuel.  Once you have turned them into fission products, you have extracted the vast majority of the potential energy in them and it can no longer be released in other ways.

        Most fission products have half-lives of 30 years or less.  If you made some strontium-90 or cesium-137 in the years of the Roman republic, they would be gone today save for barely-detectable, harmless traces.  Lead formed from the natural decay of uranium is poisonous forever.  Why are you so dead-set on having more lead in the world?

  3. stock March 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    It seems obvious that until the problem on nuclear waste is “solved” or at least decided, that it is just crazy to consider making additional radiation. Each reactor make the equivalent of 3 nuclear bombs of radiation PER DAY

    • Engineer-Poet March 3, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      My dear “stock”, I must correct you.  A 3400 MW(th) nuclear plant releases about as much fission energy every day as, not 3 15 kT bombs, but almost 470 of them.  That’s equivalent to about 1 every 3 minutes.  What makes a 15 kT bomb so destructive isn’t the amount of energy involved, but that it’s released in a minuscule volume in a microsecond.

      The fission products from this energy are neatly sealed up in Zircaloy tubes and are remarkably safe to have around compared to e.g. dumps full of coal ash.  There’s a bunch of canisters full of the stuff not all that far from me.  My worries about it are exactly zero.

      Moderator Note: Some verbiage removed to adhere to blog comment guidelines.

  4. CaptD March 1, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    I agree with the above comment 100%

    Also RE: “our mission of protecting public health and safety” I would urge the NRC to quadruple the number of random inspections being done and have them done by a team of at least three inspectors from outside the NRC region that oversee’s the nuclear reactor’s operator.

    If this had been NRC SOP, then the San Onofre multi-billion debacle probably would have never occurred. #SanOnofreGate The hashtag that will keep you up to date on the ongoing investigation into the multi-billion $ SCE-CPUC ripoff.

  5. Donna Gilmore March 1, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    Until you solve the problems with existing storage of nuclear waste and set higher standards for waste storage and for nuclear reactors, no work should be dedicated to new reactors. For example, the NRC allows storage of nuclear waste in thin canisters that cannot be inspected, cannot be repaired, can crack and leak after 20 years, with no early warning system prior to a radiation release and no plan in place to mitigate failure. You even allow empty spent fuel pools to be destroyed without another plan in place to mitigate failed canister.

    You allow reactor renewals even though you know the design life was 40 years and that that there are critical structures and components that cannot be inspected.

    • Dan Williamson March 2, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      Absent all the caterwauling about Yucca Mountain and “Mobile Chernobyl,” the storage situation would have been solved by now. So, which is it…….complain about the fix, or complain about the lack of a fix?? Intent on having our cake and eating it, too, are we?

    • Engineer-Poet March 3, 2016 at 10:49 pm

      Until you solve the problems with existing storage of nuclear waste

      Tell us, Donna, what are these “problems”?  Divers swim in the spent-fuel pools to maintain them; do you seriously claim that there is any leakage problem with the fuel?

      I wish that the NRC moderators would simply stop approving comments full of totally false claims and implications like yours.  They are completely contradicted by information here at this very site and are a waste of everyone’s time; the least our civil servants can do for us is refuse to publish them without corrections and waste the commenter’s time alone.  Instead, they act as language police.  Pathetic.

      set higher standards for waste storage and for nuclear reactors, no work should be dedicated to new reactors.

      Ah, it’s a ploy to get rid of the industry by constipating the regulatory process.  Gotcha.

      The fear-monger keeps telling what can only be called shameless lies:

      the NRC allows storage of nuclear waste in thin canisters that cannot be inspected, cannot be repaired, can crack and leak after 20 years

      NRC:  “Tests on spent fuel and cask components after years in dry storage confirm that the systems are providing safe and secure storage.”  Obviously, inspections are being carried out.

      NRC:  “Issued Oconee renewal on May 29, 2009 for 40 years”  Obviously not about to fail after 20 years.

      Estimates of the lifespan of dry cask storage have continued to grow. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that they are safe and effective for as long as 100 years.”  (Moderators, why aren’t you doing this fact-checking?  These are not matters of opinion, on which reasonable people can differ.  These claims are nigh unto paranoid ravings.)

      with no early warning system prior to a radiation release and no plan in place to mitigate failure.

      There are no internal mechanisms for radiation release or failure, and the exterior is subject to visual inspection continuously.

      You allow reactor renewals even though you know the design life was 40 years

      The initial licensing period was 40 years, which was the expected time to amortize the construction loans.  It has nothing to do with the expected life of the plant, which is determined by degradation of the non-replaceable components like the reactor pressure vessel.  Core designs which limit neutron leakage to levels well below what was assumed during design have extended this far beyond that original, first-cut estimates.  Areva has come up with cavitation peening, a method of reconditioning the surface of the reactor vessel by hammering it with collapsing bubbles.  This closes surface cracks and places the surface in compression, preventing new cracks from forming.

      If you actually cared for the environment, you’d weigh the CO2 emissions and environmental damage (clear-cutting old growth forests!) of the “alternatives” to nuclear power, and do your best to keep it operating until the carbon-free replacments were built, installed and running.  Instead you spout fear-mongering nonsense about things that have never hurt anyone, some of which are physically impossible.  You really do sound like a shill, wittingly or not, for the fossil-fuel industry.

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