Recent Advances in Nuclear Energy

Recent Advances in Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy has been discreetly powering America with clean, carbon-free electricity for the last 60 years. There are ninety-two commercial reactors across over half the states in the US today. Last year, nuclear energy provided 47% of America’s carbon-free electricity, making it the largest domestic source of clean energy. Nuclear energy can be a controversial topic as it relates to environmental safety, waste disposal, and ecological impact. Despite these concerns, recent U.S. nuclear energy advances demonstrate a willingness to discover the potential of nuclear energy and how to reap its benefits. This blog post delves into nuclear energy’s recent developments – particularly the construction and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors – and considers the regulatory process to license said advanced nuclear reactors. 

Advanced Nuclear Reactors: SMRs 

Compared to conventional nuclear power reactors, advanced nuclear reactors offer a safer, cheaper, and more efficient source of emissions-free electricity. They also provide versatile benefits such as water desalination, remote access, immediate post-disaster supply, and alternative fuel generation. 

The small modular reactor (“SMR”) is a prominent type of advanced nuclear reactor and just a fraction of a traditional reactor’s size. Designed for factory production and ease of transport, SMRs can be used in more diverse landscapes: isolated areas, smaller grids and electrical markets, and sites with limited water and acreage. In March of this year, nuclear reactor developer X-energy partnered with chemical giant Dow to place an SMR constructed by X-energy at Dow’s UCC Seadrift Operations manufacturing site in Texas. Dow’s 4,700-acre Seadrift site manufactures materials for various industries, and X-energy’s SMR – the Xe-100 reactor – will provide the site’s power, aiming for zero carbon emissions. This collaboration showcases advanced nuclear technology’s ability to reduce industrial carbon emissions while still meeting power demands. 

The most groundbreaking advantage of SMRs is their modularity, i.e., the ability to mass-construct the reactors and their components in a controlled environment, only to subsequently assemble them module by module onsite. Their compact size allows for truck and railroad transportation, leading to a notable enhancement in production efficiency. Factory production and modularization of nuclear reactors have the potential to generate considerable economic advantages for producers, yield critical learning benefits for the industry, and contribute to standardization efforts in nuclear design. Additionally, compared to traditional nuclear facilities, the lower risk perception of SMRs could lead to significantly reduced insurance costs. These qualities suggest that SMRs could overcome the financing barriers traditionally faced by conventional reactors. 

SMRs offer numerous practical advantages including modular design features, reduced construction timelines, and smaller size & transportability. The investment appeal of SMRs primarily stems from their modular deployment approach, and while SMRs may encounter unique challenges, there are exciting financial opportunities for investors compared to large reactors. Many benefits associated with SMR deployment directly address the shortcomings of large conventional reactors; more likely than not, SMRs will face a lower financial risk than large reactors.  

SMRs and the NRC Licensing Regime: 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”) predominantly regulates the nuclear industry, with the Department of Energy playing a minor role in research and development. Through two current licensing pathways (Part 50 and 52), the NRC certifies and approves reactor designs. Industry members heavily critiqued the regulatory framework under Part 50 for requiring double regulation and for being too slow, bureaucratic, and complicated.  

In response to these criticisms, the NRC created Part 52 to standardize and streamline the Part 50 licensing regime, under which the NRC has licensed all current reactors. Part 52 introduced the Combined License (“COL”) to address double regulation. Under Part 52, licensees can voluntarily apply for a Design Certification. If approved, the NRC will issue a standard Design Certification as a rule added to Part 52, valid for fifteen years. Part 52 allows companies seeking a COL to resolve design issues early or avoid them altogether, further alleviating widespread problems in the Part 50 licensing regime. Other COL applicants can also use pre-approved and certified nuclear power plant designs. The licensing process also introduces Inspections, Tests, Analyses, and Acceptance Criteria, which ensures the NRC can address siting objections upfront. 

To fully utilize advanced nuclear power reactors, industry actors must grasp both existing licensing and regulation regimes and maintain an awareness of those on the horizon. While nuclear power is not a new concept, advanced nuclear reactors can present distinct issues and unprecedented challenges.  Those interested in entering the nuclear industry must carefully evaluate said regulations in order to move forward with design, investment, or construction.  


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