GAO Asked To Review NRC’s Advanced Nuclear Approval Process

Two members of Congress are calling on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is equipped to approve in a timely fashion advanced nuclear reactors that are vying to come to market.

“Recent NRC actions concerning certain licensing activities raise questions about the agency’s capability to manage effectively first-mover applications for new, advanced technologies,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to the GAO.

Capito and Rodgers are, respectively, the Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Republican Leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) has been pursuing new reactor designs that are expected to be smaller, safer, and more economically competitive than the Light Water Reactor technology currently in use.

The Department of Energy’s efforts are bolstered by legislation, including the 2018 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act and the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that appropriated nearly $2.5 billion for the DOE’s advanced nuclear program.

A key component of moving advanced reactor designs forward is implementation of a more streamlined regulatory process. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, for example, directed the NRC to develop a regulatory framework to license and oversee advanced reactor technologies no later than Dec. 31, 2027, the letter noted. But recent NRC actions “concerning certain licensing activities raise questions about the agency’s capability to manage effectively first-mover applications for new, advanced technologies,” the letter’s authors wrote.

The letter cites a 2019 report to Congress, in which the NRC stated it is “fully capable of reviewing and making safety, security, or environmental findings on an advanced reactor design if an application were to be submitted today.” The authors noted, however, that the same report acknowledged that “the efficiency of existing processes and requirements could be improved.” And in a draft white paper, the authors noted, NRC staff said the agency would “leverage flexibilities in existing regulations and identify options for changes to regulatory requirements that could provide additional flexibilities.”

In the letter, the authors said they “seek to understand if and how those improvements are being pursued and how NRC staff, in communication with the license applicant, will leverage existing flexibilities.”

Among other things, Capito and Rodgers are asking the NRC to explain how it is:

  • Assessing various organizational approaches to establish the most effective structure to review applications efficiently;
  • Implementing flexible regulatory approaches to review forthcoming applications, and
  • Working with license applicants during pre-application and initial license review phases to communicate key issues.

A bill approved in February lifted a 1996 ban on nuclear power production in West Virginia. Shortly after the bill was signed into law, Capito, during a committee hearing, cited the “tremendous potential” of advanced nuclear reactors and noted that shuttered coal plants could provide ready potential sites for the deployment of that technology.

West Virginia’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, is also exploring the potential to use advanced nuclear technology in the state at retired coal plants. And during an April Atlantic Council event, Manchin and Jeff Lyash, president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, both voiced support for deploying small modular reactors at retired coal plants.

Last January, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems signed agreements with NuScale Power to facilitate to deploy NuScale’s small modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory.

In Washington, the Grant County Public Utility District with Energy Northwest and X-energy have signed a memorandum of understanding for the development of an advanced nuclear reactor demonstration project.