New reactor licensing of U.S. commercial power reactors

Rendering of the Aurora powerhouse by Gensler/Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A brief controversial history of new reactor licensing

Beginning in 2006, driven by directives from the United States Congress, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the US nuclear power industry embarked upon an application and licensing process for a “Nuclear Renaissance” of new commercial atomic power plant projects. The industry lobby and government regulatory revival effort, backed by federal subsidies, was launched to end a long hiatus of no new reactor licensing announcements in the nation since the last unsuccessful industry order was made in 1978. The original licensing and construction campaign, commenced in the 1960s, had been described in a February 11, 1985 Forbes cover story, “Nuclear Follies,” as the “largest managerial disaster in business history” with many projects failing due to uncontrolled construction cost overruns, and indeterminate construction delays, followed by a cascade of nuclear reactor cancellations and abandonment.  The 21st century’s so-called “renaissance” has been more of a relapse. Of the 30+ units ordered since its launch, all but two units were either suspended or terminated. Of the four units that made it to the construction phase — in South Carolina and Georgia — the two in South Carolina have been abandoned, with nearly $10 billion in sunk costs still shrouded in corruption findings and a felony conviction. Only the Georgia project —Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 — remains under construction, but it is many years behind schedule and the original estimated $14 billion cost-of-completion has now more than doubled.

The current new licensing effort for nuclear power plants

Congress, the nuclear industry and the NRC are now proceeding with a renewed commercial reactor licensing program through design certification process and the application for Combined Operating Licenses (the NRC licensing review for both the construction permit and the operating license).

New reactor licensing currently before the NRC is basically divided into three categories of nuclear technology:

1) Large Generation III Light Water Reactors (1000 to 1650 megawatts electric)

No utilities are seeking  new construction/operating licenses for earlier reactor designs (Gen I and II). The Gen III light water reactor designs are hailed as “evolutionary” light water reactors with a typical power rating of more than 1000 megawatts electric (Mwe). Gen III designs include the Pressurized Water Reactors designs for the Westinghouse AP1000 and France/China’s Evolutionary Power Reactor, Hitachi/General Electric Advanced Boiling Water Reactors, General Electric/Hitachi Economical Simplified Boiling Water Reactor. Despite the NRC granting and issuing new construction licenses to some US utilities, the demonstrated  failure of previous applicants awarded licenses to control the cost of construction and unreliable completion times caused  many Chief Executive and Financial Officers to have second thoughts and suspend or cancel the initiation of new Gen III construction projects in the US.

2) Small Modular Reactors (generally between 160 to 300 Mwe)

The U.S. “Nuclear Renaissance” proved to be an empty propaganda slogan, with almost all new large light water reactors canceled and the two in Georgia not yet completed. Consequently, the nuclear industry and the NRC are rebranding their promotional campaign by claiming that the future of nuclear power is achievable through the construction of thousands of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) rolling off factory assembly lines.  The SMR designs are anticipated to be certified as both Light Water and Non-Light Water Reactor designs. The SMR concept is not only to accelerate site start-ups of smaller units and incrementally expand electricity generation but to also to provide variable power output from each site by powering the modular units off and on to meet variable demand. However, the cost of electricity from the smaller modular units congregated on the same site and operated from a common control unit is projected to be even more than the electricity generated at non-competitively struggling large nuclear power plants now.

There remain the associated concerns not only of the real economic costs but also corporate limited liability protections from catastrophic nuclear accidents, despite their claims of inherent “walk away safety.” The unmanaged nuclear waste generation also remains, which is common among all nuclear power technologies. There is also the ever growing concern that the intended global export of SMR technology will accelerate the proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons materials.

For example, NuScale Power, LLC is owned and controlled by Fluor Corporation, a major United States nuclear weapons manufacturer since 1944, which now also operates the U.S. nuclear weapons facilities at both the Department of Energy’s Pantex and Y12 complexes.

Additionally, the NonProliferation Policy Education Center has charged that the Natrium SMR that Bill Gates’ TerraPower is pursuing to license, build and export can be backfitted as a dual-purpose reactor to produce plutonium to make nuclear weapons as well as electricity.

3) Advanced Non-Light Water Reactors

The NRC and the nuclear industry are currently working through the development of a new licensing policy and regulations for Advanced Non-Light Water Reactors. Urged by legislated directives from Congress as lobbied by the nuclear industry, the NRC is proceeding with a “customized” review process intended to streamline the approval process for novel, unproven reactor designs.

However, on January 6, 2022 the NRC staff rejected a combined construction/operating license application for an “advanced reactor” filed by a California corporation, Oklo Incorporated. The company had planned to design, construct and operate its pilot “Aurora PowerHouse” microreactor (1.5 to 4 megawatts electric) at the Idaho National Laboratory. But staff’s initial review of the application and 22 months of back-and-forth requests for more information determined that Oklo engineers provided “insufficient information to establish a schedule or conduct a full review of the Aurora custom combined license application.” Oklo repeatedly failed to answer questions on design safety and nuclear accident protection. The legal counsel for Beyond Nuclear and 27 more safe energy, consumer advocates and environmental groups petitioned the NRC in July 2020 requesting the agency to revoke the application request as “grossly incomplete.” Instead, the NRC rejected the public interest petition only to labor on for seventeen more months before the staff would arrive at the same conclusion.

Support Beyond Nuclear

Help to ensure a safer, greener and more just world for all