The Trump Administration has a golden opportunity to advocate a reform in the nuclear regulatory process that would help the environment and enable the United States to regain world leadership in nuclear technology: a time limit on reactor permitting.
It now takes 40 months or more for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide whether or not to approve a design for a new reactor. Other countries like China and South Korea certify a reactor in half that time, without sacrificing safety.
NuScale, an Oregon-based nuclear company, recently submitted an application to the NRC for safety certification of its design for a small modular reactor that’s one-quarter the size of a reactor that powers nuclear submarines. Its application was more than 12,000 pages long and it’s estimated that the certification process will cost the company $1 billion. If and when the reactor design is approved, the company will need to apply for a dual construction and operating license. NuScale has already lined up a customer in Utah for the 50 megawatts of electricity that the reactor will generate, but says at this rate the reactor won’t be able to go online until 2026.
Not only has the NRC been surprisingly irresolute on improving the certification process, but it also has taken six years or more to renew the operating licenses of some existing nuclear power plants like Entergy’s Indian Point reactors in New York and Pilgrim in Massachusetts. Such delays are worrisome, given that both the River Bend and Waterford nuclear plants here in Louisiana have applications pending before the NRC to operate for another 20 years. A company can’t plan for the future if it doesn’t know if its facilities will be allowed to operate.
It’s no secret that China is overtaking the U.S. in the development of advanced nuclear technology, and part of the reason is that it’s easier and much cheaper to get a reactor certified and built in China.
The China National Nuclear Corporation plans to build a 600-megawatt prototype of an advanced reactor based on a design developed by a Seattle-based start-up company. Called a traveling wave reactor, it is designed to run on depleted uranium, a waste product from the enrichment process. Instead of going to the NRC to certify its reactor design, the Seattle firm is using China’s nuclear regulatory authority.
Here in the U.S., nuclear energy has provided great economic and environmental benefits since the first reactors began producing electricity in the early 1960s, and it will continue to do so for many more decades. Nuclear energy is safe, reliable and affordable. But building small modular and advanced reactors would be much easier if nuclear regulation was less difficult.
Wesley C. Williams
professional in residence
LSU Craft and Hawkins Department of Petroleum Engineering