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Advanced Nuclear Technologies

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Nuclear power provides a low-cost, greenhouse gas-free electric power source the U.S. and the world needs to combat climate change. But high construction costs, security and safety concerns,1 and difficulty competing in certain markets has threatened the competitiveness of part of our existing fleet.2 Some firms, seeing an opportunity to address these challenges and offer further improvements, are seeking to commercialize the next generation of nuclear technologies. These new reactors are designed to make nuclear power generation safer3 and greatly reduce construction costs.4 In addition, they come in variety of sizes, so the customer can pick the right technology for the right situation.5 Some even offer a solution to nuclear waste storage.6 The technologies include small modular reactors (SMRs) — in some cases scaled down versions of large reactors7 and in others more innovative reactor designs — and even more advanced concepts that use different fuels or cooling systems.8 Although these technologies show enormous potential, they will require years of dedicated federal support — for research, testing, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing — to reach commercialization.


While SMRs are moving towards licensing and demonstrations within the coming decade, more advanced nuclear technologies are further from commercialization. As such, the two categories confront different policy issues.

Small Modular Reactors
SMRs are closer to commercialization, with the first plant likely to come online in the 2020s.9 Each produces less than a third the electricity of a conventional light water reactor plant and can be combined in modular fashion to match the needs of the customers they serve. One individual SMR could power 42,000 to 125,000 homes.10

The precise costs of operating the first SMRs depend partially on decisions the NRC has yet to make. The current regulatory system sets fixed financial obligations — annual fees for the NRC,11 insurance premium payments,12 and decommissioning funds13 — with a one-size-fits-all approach geared toward today’s large reactors. Because SMRs challenge the assumption that a nuclear fleet is only composed of large-scale reactors, the NRC must decide whether they warrant changes in obligations. In addition, SMR manufacturers explain that underground siting enhances safety and security.14 This may justify reduced personnel requirements and siting on smaller plots of land — old coal plants that cover half the size of the National Mall, not the eight National Malls required for a large nuclear plant.15

The cost competitiveness of SMRs also depends on construction and financing costs. While the first SMR plant of its kind will be more expensive than subsequent units, estimates put the cost of multi-module SMR plants between $2 and $3 billion dollars.16 This is far less than the $7 billion for a full-scale reactor,17 which is about twice the size of an SMR. Manufacturing components off-site and shipping these to location via rail, truck, or barge should streamline the construction process, preventing cost overruns.18 Moreover, efficiencies of scale make it cheaper to add additional units to a site after the first unit is built.

Advanced Nuclear Technologies
More advanced reactors address the safety, cost effectiveness, and environmental sustainability concerns of nuclear energy. Today’s reactors use water as a coolant and fresh uranium as fuel. New designs use a variety of coolants and fuels. The coolants include high temperature gas, molten salt, lead, and sodium. For fuel, many new technologies are able to reuse spent nuclear fuel currently stored as waste, thereby helping to solve two problems at once.19 The U.S. does not currently reprocess and reuse fuel,20 but the practice is common in France, Japan and elsewhere.21

Although more advanced nuclear technologies are highly varied, several companies plan to lower construction costs by manufacturing components off-site and shipping to location (as with SMRs). They too will be highly affected by NRC decisions whether or not to shift to a technology independent regulatory regime.


Congress, DOE and the NRC must work together to ensure the great potential for advanced nuclear comes to fruition.

Set Technology Appropriate Licensing Requirements

The NRC should adjust licensing requirements to accommodate a wider range of reactors, with different sizes and features. While the Commission has been investigating how SMR technology may change regulatory regimes,22 it has yet to change any regulations. Currently, all nuclear power plants pay the NRC $4.7 million annually regardless of size to support the Commission’s annual operating budget.23 The NRC should consider revising this fee structure to accommodate a wider range of reactor sizes. The NRC should also consider exempting SMRs from the current minimum decommissioning funding levels required for reactors and instead set one built off the economics of small reactors. Finally, the NRC should reevaluate the staffing levels required on site in light of new security and safety features,24 as well as more effective, new control room designs.25 If reduced staffing can maintain the same safeguards for public safety as larger staffing at large reactors, the NRC is justified in adopting lower staff requirements for SMRs.

Partner with the Private Sector to Research Advanced Nuclear

Congress should increase funding for DOE’s Advanced Reactor Concepts program by $500 million spread over the next five years, and DOE should establish public-private partnerships with promising new startups to further new nuclear technologies. The Advanced Reactor Concepts program, a subprogram of DOE’s Reactor Concepts program, researches nuclear reactors cooled by salts, liquid metals, or gas.26 This program has received only $20 to $30 million per year to date.27 Meanwhile, DOE has already identified priority technologies for R&D,28 but bringing these technologies to market requires long-term sustained support starting today. This support should include building test beds at DOE’s national laboratories.

License New Technologies Stepwise

In a stepwise licensing process, a company submits their application in several stages, waiting to submit a subsequent stage until after the regulator has cleared a prior stage. Currently, nuclear is not regulated in a stepwise fashion. Even though an applicant can submit a design certification separately before a construction license, the entire design certification must be submitted at once. The NRC should offer innovative nuclear technologies a stepwise licensing process. If necessary, Congress should fund the NRC to do so. A stepwise process will spread out the financial burden that nuclear startups face to test and license their technologies across multiple individual stages. Licensing an SMR is a billion dollar endeavor;30 more advanced reactor concepts are even more expensive. Proactively designing a flexible system that can handle new technologies will lessen the licensing process burden.

Include Advanced Nuclear Power in the Quadrennial Energy Review

The next Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) should include a roadmap for developing advanced nuclear technologies in the U.S. Advanced nuclear needs a long term vision to progress, and the long term energy plan the QER will advance is an appropriate place to affirm such a commitment.

  1. For security concerns, in response to 9/11, the NRC issued a series of regulations aimed at increasing plant security. These increased minimum security personnel; addressed aircraft, waterborne, or cybersecurity attacks; increase training requirements; and require additional safeguards against theft. See United States, Congress, Congressional Research Service, Mark Holt and Anthony Andrews, “Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerabilities,” Bloomberg Government, August 20, 2012, pp. 4, 11-12, Print. Accessed October 20, 2013; For safety concerns, see United States, Congress, Congressional Research Service, Mark Holt, “Nuclear Energy Policy,” Bloomberg Government, June 20, 2012, pp. 9-11, Print. Accessed October 10, 2013.
  2. Four nuclear power plants have recently shut down or announced plans to shut down, including San Onofre in California, Crystal River in Florida, Vermont Yankee in Vermont, and Kewaunee in Wisconsin. While safety concerns and structural damage were responsible in the first and second cases, the latter two proved uncompetitive from an economic standpoint as they were small, old and selling into a deregulated, merchant market. See Ed Crooks, “Uneconomic US nuclear plants at risk of being shut down,” Financial Times, February 19, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. Available at:
  3. For a cross-technological discussion of how advanced reactors improve safety, see Ted Nordhaus, Jessica Lovering, and Michael Shellenberger, “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” The Breakthrough Institute, pp. 9, 19-20. Accessed December 26, 2013. Available at:
  4. New reactor technologies expect to achieve cost savings through streamlined construction, more efficient energy generation, or simpler designs with more passive and fewer active safety systems.
  5. Not only do individual small modular reactor units vary in power, but depending on the number built at one site, the total amount of power an SMR site produces can vary greatly.
  6. Advanced nuclear reactor designs could use spent nuclear fuel discarded from large nuclear power plant reactors as fuel. See “Products,” Transatomic Power. Accessed April 7, 2014. Available at:; See also “Environmentally Sound Solution to the Energy Crisis,” Terrapower. Accessed April 7, 2014. Available at:
  7. Three U.S. SMR manufacturers include Babcock & Wilcox, Nuscale and Holtec. See “Small Modular Reactors,” Babcock & Wilcox. Accessed April 3, 2014. Available at:; See also “NuScale Power,” NuScale. Accessed April 3, 2014. Available at:; See also “SMR 160,” Holtec International. Accessed April 3, 2014. Available at:
  8. These include Gen4 Energy, TransAtomic Power and Terrapower. See Gen4Energy, Accessed April 1, 2014. Available at:; See also Terrapower. Accessed April 1, 2014. Available at:; See also Transatomic Power, Accessed April 1, 2014. Available at:
  9. United States, Department of Energy, “Small Modular Reactors.” Accessed April 1, 2014. Available at:
  10. The average American home consumed about 11,300 kWh electricity in 2009. Assuming a 45 MW Nuscale reactor or 180 MW mPower reactor is used 90, this will power about 42,000 to 125,000. Electricity consumption data from United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS),” 2009, Table 2.1. Accessed March 25, 2014. Available at:
  11. Nuclear Energy Institute, “NRC Annual Fee Assessment for Small Reactors,” October 2010, p. 1. Accessed November 20, 2013. Available at:
  12. Nuclear Energy Institute, “NRC Insurance and Liability Requirements for Small Reactors,” October 2010, p. 1. Accessed November 20, 2013. Available at:
  13. Nuclear Energy Institute, “Decommissioning Funding for Small Reactors,” October 2010, p. 1. Accessed November 20, 2013. Available at:
  14. SMR designs feature underground siting and passive cooling without the need for human intervention or backup diesel power as key security features. See Theodore Marston, “Status of Small Modular Light Water Reactors in the US,” The Nuclear Decarbonization Option: Profiles of Selected Advanced Reactor Technologies, Clean Air Task Force, March 2012, p. 4. Accessed January 17, 2014. Available at:
  15. A big nuclear reactor site might cover 1000 acres. SMR vendors expect a small modular reactor could be built on an old coal plant site, which can be 65 acres. The National Mall is 146 acres. See Entergy, “A Comparison: Land Use by Energy Source - Nuclear, Wind and Solar.” Accessed June 5, 2014. Available at:; See also Will Ferguson, “First ‘Small Modular’ Nuclear Reactors Planned for Tennessee,” National Geographic, June 5, 2013. Accessed June 5, 2014. Available at:; See also Jennifer Weeks, “Visualizing life after coal in Salem, Mass.,” May 28, 2014. Accessed June 5, 2014. Available at:
  16. A detailed analysis found that constructing six 100 MW units would cost $3 billion. Average annual investor-owned nuclear utility revenue is $13 billion, while a twin-unit GW scale investment is $11.7 billion. A more recent company analysis estimates a 540 MW reactor could be built for $2 billion. See Robert Rosner and Stephen Goldberg, University of Chicago, “Small Modular Reactors – Key to Future Nuclear Power Generation,” Technical Report, November 2011, p. 19. Accessed April 3, 2014. Available at:; See also Ted Sickinger, “Feds award NuScale Power up to $226 million to develop modular nuclear reactor,” Oregonian, December 12, 2013. Accessed June 5, 2014. Available at:
  17. Southern Company, “Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4.” Accessed January 17, 2014. Available at:
  18. James Hylko, “Small Is the New Big: The B&W Small Modular Reactor,” PowerMag, August 1, 2012, p.1. Accessed April 7, 2014. Available at:
  19. Transatomic Power, Terrapower.
  20. United States, Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, Louise Lerner, “Nuclear Fuel Recycling Could Offer Plentiful Energy,” June 22, 2012. Accessed April 7, 2014. Available at:
  21. Ken Silverstein, “Where On Earth Do We Put Spent Nuclear Fuel?,” Forbes, August 29, 2013. Accessed April 7, 2014. Available at:
  22. United States, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “SECY 10-0034: Potential Policy, Licensing, and Key Technical Issues for Small Modular Nuclear Reactor Designs,” Policy Issue Information, March 28, 2010, pp. 1-5. Accessed October 25, 2013. Available at:
  23. Marston, p.8.
  24. Marston, pp. 4, 9.
  25. “Virtual Control Room Helps Nuclear Operators, Industry,” R&D Magazine, August 8, 2013. Accessed December 29, 2013. Available at:
  26. United States, Department of Energy, “Advanced Reactor Technologies.” Accessed April 4, 2014. Available at:
  27. See DOE outlays for the Gen IV RD&D or Advanced Reactor Concepts program from 2010 to 2013 included in the 2012 – 2015 DOE budget justifications. United States, Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Justification,” Vol. 7, February 1, 2011, p. 43; United States, Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Justification,” Vol. 3, January 20, 2012, p. 305; United States, Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Justification,” Vol. 3, April 11, 2013, p. NE-21; United States, Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Justification,” Vol. 3, April 4, 2014, p. 426; All Accessed April 7, 2014. Available at:
  28. United States, Department of Energy, “Advanced Reactor Concepts Technical Review Panel Report,” December 2012, pp. 15-16. Accessed April 4, 2014. Available at:
  29. Conway Irwin, “Small Modular Reactors are Angling to Fill a Nuclear Niche,” Breaking Energy, September 10, 2013. Accessed October 25, 2013. Available at: