The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is about to do something it hasn’t done in years: certify the design for a brand new reactor.
The agency has directed staff to sign off on NuScale's small modular reactor design, saying it "meets the agency’s applicable safety requirements." The reactor could be the first of a coming wave of advanced reactors angling for the regulatory green light.
The smallness and the modularity of NuScale’s design make it an entirely different animal from the massive, site-specific nuclear plants that utilities have relied upon for decades to generate electricity. NuScale's light water reactor modules stand roughly 65 feet tall, and the company plans to make them in a factory for distribution around the world. The NRC design approval — which NuScale has been waiting for since 2016 — is a major step in turning that vision into reality.
“This is going to be a signal to potential investors,” Ryan Norman, a climate policy adviser at the think tank Third Way, told Protocol. “It shows that there's a pathway to success for SMRs and advanced reactors. That’s something that’s really important … for getting money for new projects and ultimately being able to deploy more reactors, which is crucial for a lot of our other goals, climate chiefly among them.”
The fact that the NRC has never approved an advanced reactor design until now has left a new generation of nuclear companies mired in uncertainty. Norman said the NuScale approval likely assuages some of those companies' fears — and it could be a harbinger of things to come. Other companies that have SMR designs underway in the U.S. include Holtec and GE Hitachi, though none have yet submitted a design to the NRC.
“This sends a powerful signal to domestic and international markets that new reactor designs are coming, and that they're as safe or even safer than existing reactors,” said Norman.
NuScale plans to have its first SMR up and running by 2029 at Idaho National Laboratory. By 2030, it expects to have a full power plant made up of multiple reactors on-site that can generate 462 megawatts of electricity. A significant chunk of that power has already been contracted out to distribution companies.
That 462 megawatts of generation capacity is far below what Plant Vogtle, the only traditional nuclear reactor under construction in the U.S., will generate once completed. But that project has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, reflecting the challenges of building traditional plants in the U.S. If NuScale can get its plant up and running in a timely manner and without added costs, it could offer a new pathway forward for carbon-free nuclear power in the U.S.
Judi Greenwald, the executive director of Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a group in favor of advanced nuclear reactors, told Protocol that the NIA is “pleased” by the news and that NuScale’s success could inform the successes of future developers as well.
“Lessons learned during the NuScale SMR approval process will help both utilities looking to operate a future NuScale SMR under Combined Operating License Application as well as other advanced reactor developers that will pursue regulatory approval for their designs," she said.