Our government seems on a tear to hug Mother Earth and to decarbonize the planet with advanced U.S. nuclear reactors. None of these plants yet exist; all still are being designed. Some of them, like Bill Gates’ Natrium fast reactor, are prodigious producers of weapons-grade plutonium.
Before the United States actually builds or exports any of these machines, though, the Department of Energy (DOE) asked for outside views on producing very enriched uranium fuels for these machines (i.e., enriched to nearly 20 percent uranium 235). It is a level of enrichment our diplomats have discouraged Iran from producing. Meanwhile, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has asked for comments on possibly relaxing licensing requirements for advanced reactors on the basis of their claimed safety advantages.
I sent each agency comments (below) and recommended DOE create a truly independent review panel to assess the proper timing of federal investment in these plants’ commercialization and fueling. My letters spotlighted two concerns. The first is DoE’s questionable timing in backing the production of enriched advanced reactor fuels. DOE is proposing to start work on producing fuel for these reactors well before their actual operation or economic viability have been demonstrated. The second is the NRC’s risky relaxation of the licensing rules and watering down of what is explicitly required under U.S. law.
In the first case, DOE is simply ignoring its embarrassing nuclear commercialization track record. Historically, our government has prematurely pushed commercial nuclear activities with disastrous results. To spotlight just a few examples: The physical enlargement of American reactors in the 1960s and 1970s and relaxation of safety and containment standards (under the Atomic Energy Commission), the commercialization of fast breeder reactors (the terminated Clinch River Breeder Reactor Program), the fabrication of mixed oxide fuels (the recently terminated Savannah River Project), and the construction of large modular reactors (including the financially risky VC Summer AP1000 reactors — now terminated — and the large Vogtle plant, which is now wildly behind schedule and over budget).
DOE should avoid such fiascos. Asking for outside comments and information helps but it’s hardly sufficient. In addition, DOE should create an independent, balanced peer review group that include knowledgeable experts that are not yet on record promoting advanced reactors and their related support activities.
With regard to the NRC’s proposal to credit advanced reactor designers claims that advanced reactors pose much less of a safety concern, the commission needs to be careful that it doesn’t stretch its discretion beyond the letter of the Atomic Energy Act (Section 182). The act stipulates that the government determine that “adequate protection of public health and the common defense and security” is assured before licensing any nuclear project (rather then the NRC’s watered down formulation that it only needs to determine that there is “reasonable assurance” of such protection). There’s clearly a difference, one I urge the Commission to recognize in assessing the safety merits of advanced reactor license applications.
Click here to access the letter sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Click here to access the letter sent to the Department of Energy.
January 3, 2022
To the members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and staff:
My name is Henry Sokolski. I am Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization, which is primarily focused on the national security implications of the further spread of nuclear weapons-related technologies that also is concerned about promoting nuclear security and nuclear safety internationally. My letter is in response to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) request for comments on the agency’s proposed Risk-Informed, Technology-Inclusive Regulatory Framework for Advanced Reactors (Docket ID NRC–2019– 0062).
The NRC is developing new requirements for the licensing and regulation of advanced nuclear reactors in response to the instructions of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA, Pub. L. 115 439). I note that NEIMA instructs the Commission to carry out the Act’s instructions in a manner “consistent with the role of the Commission in protecting public health and safety and common defense and security.”
In my view, the preliminary proposed rule language for the new licensing framework the NRC sets out for the licensing and regulation of advanced nuclear reactors does not fully meet the law’s requirements.
The Commission states the new approach would (with our emphasis): (1) Continue to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and the common defense and security, (2) promote regulatory stability, predictability, and clarity, (3) reduce requests for exemptions from the current requirements in 10 CFR parts 50 and 52, (4) establish new requirements to address non-light-water reactor technologies, (5) recognize technological advancements in reactor design, and (6) credit the response of advanced nuclear reactors to postulated accidents, including slower transient response times and relatively small and slow release of fission products. The proposed rule would add 10 CFR part 53, ‘‘Licensing and Regulation of Advanced Nuclear Reactors.’’
I will restrict my comments to the fundamentals of the Commission’s new approach, specifically points (1) and (6) above.
The Commission says it will continue its standard of “reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and the common defense and security.” That sounds good, and we know that is the safety and security standard the NRC has been applying. But the standard in the Atomic Energy Act (Section 182) is “adequate protection to the health and safety of the public,” not “reasonable assurance of adequate protection.”
The Act makes clear, over and over, that the Commission’s responsibility is to protect the public. Acknowledging that perfection is unattainable, the Act softens the decision-making requirement for public protection with the qualification of “adequate.” So, what the law expects is that the commissioners provide adequate protection, which in practice they themselves define.
What the commissioners have done over the years, however, is to water down the nuclear safety standard by adding another qualifier—”reasonable assurance”—to the standard they have to apply, so it has become “reasonable assurance of adequate protection,” which on the face of it is a weaker standard.
Does changing the words make a difference in safety decisions? Yes, it clearly does. Honesty requires acknowledging that commissioners are often not familiar with the technical details underlying the decisions before them. It’s a lot easier to rationalize that you have carried out your safety responsibilities to provide adequate (not perfect) protection if you have the extra crutch of “reasonable assurance.” It makes a commissioner’s job easier, but the public is not getting what the law mandates.
The Commission should consider also that the Atomic Energy Act mandates that its counterpart at the Department of Energy, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, apply the adequate protection standard (with added emphasis): “The Board shall recommend to the Secretary of Energy those specific measures that should be adopted to ensure that public health and safety are adequately protected. (Section 312). This makes for a strange, one might say embarrassing, state-of-affairs—the DOE legal standard, which follows the law, is stricter than that of the NRC.
Advanced Reactor Characteristics and Safety
It is not entirely clear what the NRC has in mind in announcing it intends to “credit” the characteristics of advanced nuclear reactors in evaluating license application. At one level it is a truism: of course, in evaluating safety the NRC reviewers would analyze an advanced reactor design in terms of its characteristics. But the specific emphasis on this in the new approach suggests that the NRC thinks advanced reactors have safety advantages so the regulations can be relaxed. I hope this is not what the Commission intends, but in any case, the NRC should clarify the point.
At a minimum, the NRC seems to be saying that in moving to what it calls advanced reactors, there is no need to reach for a higher safety standard. The impression that is left is that above all, the commissioners do not want to imperil the introduction of the new types of reactors. This is at odds with the historic approach of, say, the airline industry. When it introduced jet aircraft it expected to meet a much higher standard than was the case with propeller aircraft. The difference is of course that airlines have to attract passengers, so the public has a significant say in airline safety, whereas it has almost no say when it comes to safety of nuclear power plants. It is up to the commissioners to represent the public. They need to be more diligent in doing so. That is why the NRC should use the stricter safety standard of the Atomic Energy Act’s—“adequate protection”—rather than a “reasonable assurance” of such.
The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
January 3, 2022
The Honorable Jennifer M. Granholm
Secretary of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
My name is Henry Sokolski. I am Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization interested in nuclear issues, especially those concerning nuclear proliferation. This submission is in response to the Department of Energy (DOE) invitation (Response to RFI, dated 12/14/2021) for input on the planning for establishment of a DOE HALEU Availability Program.
My principal concern as regards HALEU is that widespread use of it would encourage acquisition of independent national enrichment facilities throughout the world and that these would be producing product close (in enrichment terms) to weapons grade uranium. It is for this reason that the United States has objected to Iran producing such material.
The Energy Act of 2020 authorized the Department to establish and carry out a program to support the availability of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use. The question remains of timing. The Department poses this question in its RFI as the last of its twenty-one questions:
(21) Are there additional considerations or recommendations, including the timing of various actions, that should be considered with respect to key challenges to HALEU availability for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use in the United States?
I regard this as the most important issue and will restrict my comments to it. Question 21 asks about the timing of the various actions involved in making HALEU available. There is, however, a more important preliminary question: Does it make sense at all, at this point, to launch a major program to produce HALEU?
The major customers for HALEU would be owners and operators of commercial reactors that rely on this type of fuel. At this point there is research and development activity on a number of reactor designs that might employ HALEU, and even two designs planned for construction of modest demonstration projects. It is, however, unclear whether any of these projects will be able to compete successfully in America’s electrical power markets. In short, we are nowhere near commercial nuclear activity requiring amounts of HALEU beyond what is available today. Before launching a major HALEU program, we should wait at least until the commercial prospects of HALEU-using reactors are promising in America’s electrical power markets. The enthusiastic predictions of designers and government funders are not a substitute.
The argument for launching into HALEU production assumes the technical and economic success of the designs in the DOE pipeline and wanting to have the fuel ready to encourage an early commercial take-off. But that assumes a great deal. We don’t even know yet whether the currently supported advanced nuclear projects will even be completed. Will it be possible to control costs? Will industry continue to contribute its share of funding?
The Department is making the same mistake it and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), made from the beginning of the nuclear age concerning “advanced reactors”: trying to accelerate progress by trying to do in parallel what needs to be done in sequence. It can work when both paths are well established, but it is risky when dealing with first-of-a-kind technology.
The DOE and AEC nuclear record in trying to speed up commercial acceptance of advanced technology is littered with failures. Consider the AEC’s fast breeder program, once the largest energy project in the country. The AEC attempted to develop a fast reactor demonstration plant, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, the material technology, and the fuel reprocessing technology in parallel and the whole edifice tumbled to the ground. Here is what Glenn Seaborg, the AEC chairman during this time, had to say in a 1993 book:
“It might have been possible to overcome the difficulties over a period of time in a more moderately paced, smaller scale program. . . But the LMFBR program’s sponsors, including me, had persuaded themselves and eventually persuaded others, including the president, that there was an economic urgency to proceeding rapidly with an all-out effort . . .”
DOE tried to promote advanced (fast) reactors again during the George W. Bush administration with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Again, the idea was to accelerate progress to commercial application by doing everything in parallel before the necessary technology was proven. This was taken so far as to plan construction of some large fuel facilities while the national laboratories were developing the technology, on the model of the World War II Manhattan project. The DOE’s GNEP plan was reviewed in 2008 by a committee of the National Academies in the course of a review of DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Here is what the Committee had to say in its Findings and Recommendations:
“The committee concludes that the rationale for the GNEP program, as expressed through the stated goals, objectives, and criteria, has been unpersuasive. The program is premised on an accelerated deployment strategy that will create significant technical and financial risks by prematurely narrowing the technical options. Moreover, there has been insufficient external input, including independent, thorough peer review of GNEP.”
The program was stillborn. There are many parallels here with the current DOE advanced reactor program. The notion of an independent peer review remains a good idea. The current request for information is a step in the right direction but does not substitute for an independent expert peer review.
There are other examples, including the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain and the MOX (mixed oxide) plant in Georgia. In fact, no major DOE/AEC nuclear project intended for commercial has been remotely successful since the commercialization a half-century ago of the light water reactor, and even that was a mixed success. The AEC urged utilities to leap ahead to larger size light water plants before the supporting technology was ready with the result that a great deal of “backfitting” was needed. Costs shot up and the landscape was littered with as many abandoned projects as went into operation. No operating US nuclear power plant was ordered after 1973, and the only two that remain (the Westinghouse Vogtle reactors) of the “Nuclear Renaissance” are wildly over budget and years late.
My recommendation for the HALEU program is that DOE heed the advice of Glenn Seaborg for patience “a more moderately paced, smaller scale program” that awaits a reliable signal that there will in fact be a market for it. That time has not yet arrived. In the meanwhile, DOE should create an independent, balanced, expert peer review group that includes knowledgeable experts that are not yet on record promoting the program to examine its merits and timing.
The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center