The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week approved a design application for the first domestic small commercial nuclear reactor. These types of reactors are smaller, simpler, cheaper, and feature more advanced safety systems than traditional reactor designs. It has the potential to generate enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes.
The reactor design was submitted by NuScale Power, an Oregon company that plans to build at least a dozen small reactors by 2030 at a site in eastern Idaho. NuScale has received $288 million from the Department of Energy for the development of modular nuclear reactors, but a complex regulatory system for nuclear power means there's a long way to go before construction can begin.
Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems—a consortium of 46 public utilities in six western states that plans to work with NuScale on the small reactor project— is now required to submit a combined construction and operating license application, and must complete an environmental analysis in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. Utah Associated spokesman LaVarr Webb told the Associated Press that he estimates these applications will likely take two years to prepare.
Still, this is an important step forward. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's approval means that they believe the reactor will work safely and as intended.
NuScale submitted its 12,000-page application to the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2017 and has responded to more than 1,500 formal requests from the commission for more information. There's a reason that NuScale's design is the first that the NRC has approved since 2014.
While NuScale is moving forward, NRC regulations seem to be discouraging innovation. Carrie Fosaaen, a licensing specialist at NuScale, told Science Magazine that the NRC regulations, strictly interpreted, would push NuScale towards just building a miniature version of a conventional reactor—rather than being able to incorporate the design improvements that make NuScale's design safer than conventional reactors.
As more states shift away from generating electricity from fossil fuels, nuclear power should be part of the mix. California's rolling blackouts show how an increased focus on renewable energy comes with a problematic lack of durability for the power grid. The sun and wind do not care about the demand for electricity. Sometimes the sun doesn't shine, or there is no wind. Nuclear power, however, produces a consistent amount of electricity that can be dialed up or down to meet demand.
NuScale Power's design approval is an important first step towards a durable, renewable power grid, but the complex regulatory apparatus is a critical obstacle standing in its way. Future advances in nuclear reactor design are going to have to come hand in hand with the further deregulation of the nuclear sector.