Rep. Byron Donalds, R, represents Southwest Florida District 19 in the U.S. House of Representatives.
America has the brightest minds, top-notch science, the necessary capital and the inherent willingness to once again be the international leader in nuclear technology. However, a new age is upon us — the age of advanced nuclear deployment.
Advanced nuclear reactors are no longer our grandparents’ nuclear technology, but the American nuclear permitting apparatus hasn’t caught up. Our nation’s permitting rules implicitly assume that it’s okay to take years or decades to successfully license and construct a nuclear reactor. Let me emphasize — exorbitant regulatory costs, outdated licensing processes, and unnecessary red tape will NOT accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors in the United States.
In order to promote America’s energy security, reduce self-imposed regulatory burdens, and spur innovation, the following eight deliberate actions can be taken to enhance the deployment of advanced nuclear technology in the United States.
1. Encourage pre-application NRC engagement
To begin, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should further encourage applicants to voluntarily engage in pre-application NRC interactions. This voluntary mechanism serves as a means to sharpening reactor applications and resolving key technical issues prior to submitting an application — thereby streamlining the licensing process and reducing costs stemming from a decreased amount of back-and-forth with NRC staff. In fact, I introduced H.R. 1007 which includes an incentive for nuclear entities to participate in pre-application activities with the NRC.
2. Maximize NRC’s “risk-informed, performance-based” licensing approach
Next, the NRC should utilize a risk-informed, performance-based approach to the maximum extent practicable. I recently introduced H.R. 4676, which requires the NRC to take such an approach. Risk-informed licensing review focuses on the most important safety risks — compared to a line-by-line application review and being nitpicky about non-safety significant items. Specifically, many advanced nuclear reactors integrate safe components, features and fuels into their designs. Thus, the NRC should minimize emphasis on low-risk, non-safety significant application blunders during licensing review. Additionally, the NRC should utilize a performance based-approach, which allows the licensee to demonstrate regulatory compliance by methods of their choice — thereby modernizing the NRC’s prescriptive and antiquated licensing procedures.
3. Strike mandatory uncontested application hearings
Moreover, the NRC is statutorily required to hold hearings for every nuclear reactor application — even if the application is uncontested. The NRC licensing process presents various public engagement opportunities. However, requiring a hearing for every application may unnecessarily take several months of NRC staff commitment and hundreds of thousands of dollars — just to rubber stamp a single application that has ZERO opposition. While mandatory hearings may have been helpful decades ago, today’s hearings serve little purpose and often don’t change the outcome of the application. H.R. 4676 also includes a provision to strike the mandatory hearing requirement for uncontested applications, thereby streamlining the NRC licensing process and expediting the deployment of advanced nuclear technology.
4. Reform the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards
Additionally, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, or ACRS, must be modernized to accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors. The ACRS was statutorily mandated in 1957 to provide an independent review of every nuclear reactor application — which initially provided significant value as virtually everything nuclear was novel. But today and moving into the future, the ACRS requirement to review every application is unnecessary, duplicative, costly and timely — especially since NRC staff already reviews the application in totality. To match innovation with regulatory modernization, we cannot let the ACRS become a bottleneck in the licensing process. Therefore, I introduced H.R. 4675 which narrows the scope of ACRS review to particularly uncommon applications, eliminates redundant ACRS subcommittees to streamline the independent review process, and removes the ACRS from NRC’s cost-recovery requirement to decrease financial burdens for applicants.
5. Address the cost-prohibitive nature of the advanced nuclear industry
As directed by federal law, the NRC is statutorily required to recover approximately 100% of its annual budget from applicants themselves. The NRC charges applicants $300 per hour for every NRC staffer reviewing the application, plus annual NRC fees. In fact, licensing costs have unnecessarily increased over time — even though the NRC reported a $92 million surplus in FY22. In turn, requiring exorbitant fees for application review has created a natural economic barrier for industry participation. I firmly believe that a free-market approach will drive innovative ideas. But if businesses — especially small businesses — are constrained by the costliness of NRC review, innovation will suffer. In that regard, H.R. 1007 also includes provisions that defer a portion of NRC fees until a later date — thereby incentivizing the NRC to act in an expeditious manner to deploy advanced nuclear reactors.
6. Bolster the NRC workforce
Regulating advanced nuclear technologies requires a highly skilled NRC workforce, and we must ensure that NRC-related workforce shortfalls do not hamper advanced nuclear deployment. It’s worth noting that approximately one-third of the NRC workforce is currently retirement eligible, which may result in knowledge gaps and a subsequent lack of regulatory efficiency. Moving forward, it’s important for the NRC to maintain expertise and ensure adequate staffing for application review, while keeping in mind that the number of future advanced nuclear applications before the NRC is expected to multiply. We must address NRC-related workforce challenges now, before the influx of advanced nuclear applications is here.
7. Initiate proactive interagency collaboration on advanced nuclear
Many of the legislative initiatives in my office have focused on getting the ball rolling on advanced nuclear deployment. I’ve championed an ongoing effort to bring together agencies that rarely speak to one another, thereby furthering interagency collaboration that focuses on easing anticipated future nuclear-related regulatory burdens. For example, H.R. 1009 brings together the Federal Emergency Management Administration, NRC, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Energy, and the National Guard to craft a national strategy to utilize microreactors to respond to the impacts of a natural disaster. I also introduced H.R. 4678, which brings together the Federal Aviation Administration, NRC and DOE to collaborate on deploying microreactors at airports when a natural disaster causes a power outage. Finally, I’ve introduced H.R. 5750, which directs the NRC and DOE to collaborate with the Department of Agriculture to prepare for the potential use of zero-emissions, nuclear-produced hydrogen for ammonia and fertilizer production.
All in all, the federal government should proactively begin discussions surrounding anticipated first-mover opportunities for advanced nuclear reactors — instead of waiting to implement regulatory frameworks when the time comes about.
8. Utilize the Department of Defense’s nuclear certification process
Finally, the Department of Defense has expressed great interest in utilizing advanced nuclear reactors to assist with its domestic and international military operations — thereby presenting another intriguing first-mover opportunity for advanced nuclear technology. However, the DOD’s “certification” process differs from the NRC’s “licensing” process, and this could — and should — be leveraged to maximize the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors. Collaboration among the NRC, DOD, DOE and nuclear stakeholders will result in a “lessons learned” transparent interagency approach to deploying advanced nuclear technology, which will reduce risk and assist with establishing a committed orderbook for advanced nuclear reactors.
Overall, advanced nuclear technology is at the precipice of taking off. However, we must address the “status quo” of timely, expensive and antiquated nuclear-related regulation so that the U.S. advanced nuclear industry can flourish. There is great need for meaningful, tailored and properly modernized nuclear policies, and the enactment and adoption of the eight deliberate actions mentioned above will ultimately accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear technology.