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US eyes safety rules for small modular reactors, as nuclear touted at UN climate meeting

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is considering new safety rules for small modular nuclear reactors, new types of facilities that aim for faster permitting and construction, possibly relying on off-site development.
  • Earlier this year, NuScale Power submitted designs for a new type of reactor to NRC — an initial step towards permitting smaller facilities that could be developed and deployed quickly.
  • NRC has made available a regulatory basis document in support of a rulemaking that would develop new emergency preparedness requirements for SMRs and other new technologies (ONTs), such as non-light-water reactors and medical isotope production facilities.

Dive Insight:

U.S. nuclear proponents have been active at the U.N. climate meeting in Bonn this month, touting the environmental and other benefits of the technology. While the Vogtle facility in Georgia is the only nuclear power plant undergoing expansion in the U.S., with two units under construction, nuclear advocates are looking to smaller, modular reactors as a growth area for the sector.

It’s in this context that federal regulators are looking to develop new safety rules for this emerging technology.

In a notice published in the Nov. 15 Federal Register, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it is not yet taking comment on the possible new rules, but will open a formal public comment period after a proposed rule is published. For now, the NRC is releasing a “regulatory basis document” that lays out the case for new safety measures.

“There is sufficient justification to proceed with rulemaking to develop a clear set of rules and guidance for [emergency preparedness] for SMRs and ONTs,” the commission said. The agency added that the document also concludes that “the principle of using a dose-at-distance and consequence-oriented approach to determine the appropriate size of an emergency planning zone can be applied to SMRs and ONTs.”

According to the basis document, new designs “typically have lower probabilities of severe accidents because of their smaller size or innovative safety features, which would also likely lower impacts to public health and safety from any radiological emergency.”

NuScale has already made plans for the first 12-module plant it will construct. The project will be owned by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and located at the Idaho National Laboratory. The project has a target commercial operation date of 2026.

Debate over smaller nuclear reactors comes as the industry finds itself in turmoil. The bankruptcy of Westinghouse, a reactor designer, has caused project delays and cancellations in the United States. And competition from cheaper natural gas has forced some units into early retirement. At the same time, the Trump Administration and some states are pursuing policies that would help keep plants afloat.

Source: Utility Dive

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