Today there are 100 nuclear plants operating in the United States, providing roughly 17% of our electricity. They do so with water technology developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s and many of these plants are extending their licenses from 40 to 60 years after careful regulatory review. Even new design nuclear plants such as Westinghouse’s AP-1000 and General Electric’s ESBWR are fundamentally the same technology, which are described as evolutionary. Yet today there are many new innovative designs and technologies that are being developed that are not water based.
These innovators face enormous challenges in coming up with new designs utilizing coolants such as helium, molten salts, liquid metals and heat pipes. They’re also dealing with a regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has great expertise in dealing with water cooled reactors but limited, if any, knowledge of other reactors using different coolants and designs. To make matters worse, NRC regulations are totally water based, making it even harder to comply with regulations that are not applicable to more advanced and arguably safer designs.
To solve this problem, the regulatory process must be changed to allow for innovation to bring forward improved and safer nuclear power plants. These new plants would be more suitable to siting nearer to population centers for distributed power generation and for developing nations. Such changes as:
• Technology neutral safety criteria
• A phased licensing approach allowing for developers more certainty in the licensing process and for confidence of investors
• Realistic risk informed design criteria that would give credit for fundamental safety features in the designs.
We need to move to the next generation of nuclear technology but we cannot do it with a regulatory process that is inflexible and outdated.
How should regulators approach new nuclear technologies? How could we improve the licensing process for advanced reactors?