Why certain nuclear power plant licenses are languishing at the NRC

Like it or not, windmills and solar panels won’t be sufficient to power the U.S. economy and Americans’ way of life. Nuclear power will be part of the mix. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found, licensing of advanced reactors, of widely varying sizes, are stuck at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). To find out why, Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke with GAO’s Director of Natural Resources and Environment Issues, Frank Rusco.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And let’s begin with a little bit of a definition here. You were looking at licensing of advanced reactors. I guess there’s a new technology generation of reactors that have been developed. And so what kinds of reactors and licensing were you looking at here?

Frank Rusco Yes, a lot of the new reactor designs, they differ either in size. There are a lot of small reactors. There are a couple other differences. They tend to focus on more passive safety technology so that they’re sort of inherently safer, they won’t meltdown and no matter what kind of scenarios. And then there are also different fuels that can be used and different cooling systems. So they’re just new technologies. But I would say that most of the new designs are going to be smaller than the big, huge reactors we’ve seen in the past.

Tom Temin I mean, that’s not the point of our conversation, but that seems to be one of the big untold stories of advances in this area of technology. It’s not as if people are looking to license another new fleet of Fukushima’s or Three Mile Islands here.

Frank Rusco Yeah, absolutely. Definitely there’s going to be improvements in sort of their inherent safety. And also just the different sizes would enable them to be slotted into the existing electric grid in different ways, and in some cases be more flexible, make the grid more flexible.

Tom Temin Right. Some of these can fit in the space allotted by a trailer behind a truck. For example, they’re that small that could maybe power a town or a small region or something.

Frank Rusco Right. Yeah. There are all those micro reactors like that. And then there are others that are sort of more the size of a large house or something like that. And they, of course, can power larger amounts of area.

Tom Temin All right. And in looking at the NRC then, what is the backlog or what is the caseload that they’re getting now to approve, I guess, its licenses to install and operate these devices?

Frank Rusco Yeah, Well, they already have a handful in process of licensing and have gotten through a couple, one that was denied a license. But they’re expecting a lot more to come. There’s been a huge amount of private sector investment and federal money has gone into this. And so they’re expecting going forward a larger number of these. And one of the biggest problems that NRC has had is keeping staff that have the right skills to evaluate these things on staff at the right place in the right number. So it’s to sort of match the number of applications they have. So that’s the biggest sticking point.

Tom Temin And just before we get to that particular issue, what types of outfits are seeking approval to operate these? Are they utilities that are looking to expand their sources or is it completely new entities in the power generation field?

Frank Rusco It’s mostly the latter. So it’s companies that have staked their claims on these new technologies and they are, in some cases, negotiating deals with utilities. If they can build it, they’ll buy the power, that sort of thing. But there’s a lot of startups in this world.

Tom Temin And so the implication for the NRC is that because they say, use fuels that are not traditional or cooling and safety mechanisms and form factors that just haven’t been seen until this era relative to old nuclear style reactors, That takes a different skill set or different knowledge set to be able to evaluate.

Frank Rusco Yes. So if you have somebody with the background and can understand the science behind these. The biggest problem, I think, is keeping those people in federal employment at a time when the industry is booming and trying to hire folks with those kinds of skills.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Frank Rusco, director of natural resources and environment issues at the Government Accountability Office. In other words, the NRC is competing on the regulatory and licensing side with the industry that’s developing and deploying.

Frank Rusco Absolutely. And that’s not an uncommon thing in government. But there are steps that NRC should be taking to make sure that they can keep the right number of people in the right places.

Tom Temin Yeah. So is the sense of this particular report, which was specifically requested by Congress, as most of them are, that this is a potential hold up for the industry and for the deployment of these devices, or is there a logjam right now?

Frank Rusco I think there’s more that there’s a coming logjam. And NRC has embarked on issuing new rules and guidelines for licensing these advanced reactors, but that’s not going to be done anytime soon. And so currently they’re using the old review process. And so now they have to kind of fit the new technologies into that old process. And NRC has not done the best job in communicating exactly how they want the companies to do that. And that’s another part of the problem.

Tom Temin And does the NRC acknowledge this shortcoming or are these the set of shortcomings?

Frank Rusco They understand that they have human capital challenges for sure. And they essentially agreed with our recommendations that they take some further steps to work on that, and also just communicate a little bit better. So I think they understand it, but they’re trying to adapt in real time as these things come in. And that’s inherently a thorny problem for an agency.

Tom Temin And that’s one of the potential pitfalls for their approval process is the inevitable lawsuits. Imagine telling someone, see that small building over there that’s built at the edge of the farm next to your neighborhood? That’s going to be a nuclear reactor. One can only imagine the array of lawsuits that would line up for a thing like this. So in some ways, their approvals have to be pretty bulletproof.

Frank Rusco Yeah, absolutely. NRC’s approvals tend to be very, very bulletproof. They kind of require a lot of what you might call over engineering to make sure that the safety measures that are in place are actually going to work even in very different circumstances than you might anticipate. So I would say that the review process is very rigorous and the challenge is to make it rigorous so that it can stand up to challenges, but at the same time not make it so onerous that nobody can get through the process.

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