Advanced nuclear developers are calling on President Donald Trump to continue government support of the disruptive technologies which could enable off-grid settlements to spring up all across America.
“Industry shouldn’t have to bear 90% of the regulatory burden. The government should fund the NRC in a more effective way,” said Caroline Cochran, founder of OKLO, a California nuclear technology startup seeking to build a single megawatt advanced reactor to replace diesel generators in largely off-grid markets. Cochran said the current user fee structure should instead resemble that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where the government evenly splits the regulatory costs with pharmaceutical firms for medical devices and drugs.
In June 2016, the DOE awarded OKLO and seven other advanced nuclear developers, including Transatomic Power, a total of $2 million in vouchers as part of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, or GAIN program. Under GAIN, OKLO is working with DOE national laboratories to model the simulated use of depleted uranium as a fuel and study legacy data of metallic fuels as the developer works toward filing a design certification application with the NRC.
“None of this is possible without the continued government support,” John Hopkins, chairman and CEO of NuScale Power LLC, reminded attendees at Third Way’s annual advanced nuclear conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 21. “With other so-called new technologies: jet engines, everything; it has always started with state funding. We’ve got to continue to have that moving forward with this administration.”
Hopkins called on the new administration to continue support of public-private partnerships and U.S. Department of Energy-funded research and development initiatives, including an Obama-era DOE program to help advanced nuclear reactor developers and manufacturers. Hopkins also said the nuclear industry needs to push to preserve loan guarantees of up to $18.5 billion and figure out how to use production tax credits for new reactors from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 before they expire at the end of 2020.
NuScale recently submitted the first-ever design certification application for small modular reactors (SMRs) to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after more than half a billion dollars in investment and what the company described as 2 million hours of work. The company, majority-owned by Fluor Corp., itself benefited from DOE support, with the agency in 2014 awarding it $217 million in matching funds to develop the reactor design. NuScale has invested more than $300 million on its own.
Hopkins said NuScale is hopeful that its design will be docketed by the NRC within the next few weeks. The first of NuScale’s commercial 50-MW factory-built SMRs are slated to be installed at the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, in partnership with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS. The proposed 600-MW plant will consist of up to 12 SMRs, and will be operated by Energy Northwest.
Costly NRC and consultation reviews paid for by developers, along with insufficient funding for the agency itself, were repeatedly cited as barriers to commercialization by speakers at the conference.
Cochran said she is confident that OKLO will make it through the regulatory process and has found NRC staff to be “amiable” to making changes to accommodate advanced nuclear designs in a review and certification process intended for existing light water reactors. “Not saying it’s going to be easy but we do believe it is possible and we are moving forward on that,” she said.