Nuclear Regulatory Commission Has Nearly Frozen Nuclear Designs for 48 Years

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will certify NuScale’s small modular nuclear reactor design for use in the United States. The NuScale is a smaller version of the approved pressure water reactor design
which is the primary NRC design that has gotten new design variation approval over the 48-year existence of the NRC.

The NRC (from 1974-2022) has certified six other designs: the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, System 80+, AP600, AP1000, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor and the APR1400. Designs for original pressure water reactors and the boiler water reactors were all approved under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which ran from 1946 to 1974. After the AEC was replaced by the NRC, the approval of new nuclear reactor designs ground to a near halt.

It takes 7-20 years for an NRC approval and the odds of successfully getting through certification are about 20% or less. The odds seem even worse if your reactor is not submitted by Westinghouse or something Westinghouse-related. CANDU heavy water reactors (which have had versions built around the world), pebble bed reactors and high temperature reactors tried to get licenses and then applications get withdrawn after a decade or so.

Gregory Jaczko served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005 to 2009, and as its chairman from 2009 to 2012. He was appointed by President Obama. Jaczko is now openly vehemently anti-nuclear energy.

Jaczko rails about the dangers of nuclear energy despite the evidence that nuclear is the safest energy source. Nuclear energy displaced 20% of the overall electricity used by coal in the US by the 1970s. This saved millions of lives from air pollution deaths. France built nuclear energy in the 1980s for three times less than Germany spent for the past two decades on wind and solar. France reached 80% clean energy from nuclear while Germany is stuck at about 30-40% energy from solar and wind. France did it in about a decade while Germany will take at least four to five times longer and eventually spend ten times the money.

The Jaczko revelation seems to suggest that previously the fossil fuel lobby and now the climate and renewable lobby hijacked the nuclear regulatory process.

CANDU heavy water nuclear reactors were first developed in the late 1950s and 1960s by a partnership between Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, Canadian General Electric, and other companies. They have operated safely for many decades but no CANDU design was ever certified by the NRC. A nuclear design that has clearly proven to have decades of safe operation could not and has not gotten license design approval from the NRC.

Two Pebble bed reactors were built and operated in Germany for a few decades. On 4 May 1986, only a few days Chernobyl, the THTR-300 had a stuck pebble and they had a radiation release event. The THTR was overly complex and got shutdown. The pebble bed technology was transferred from Germany to South Africa and then China. China has now built and is commercially operating a 210 MWe reactor. China previously built a smaller test pebble bed reactor.

The THTR had a fuel pebble lodged in a fuel feed pipe to the reactor core. Some radioactive dust was released to the environment. The detection of this very small emission of helium (and dust?) would have not occurred, were it not for environmental groups closely monitoring radiation events in the neighbourhood because it was couple of days after the Chernobyl disaster. There was a zero tolerance feeling for nuclear incidents, no matter the scale. NOTE: consider the scale of events in energy, every day about thirty million tons of CO2 are emitted from coal and gas plants. There is also millions of tons of cancer, lung and heart disease causing particulates released from coal and gas plants. There is tens of tons of Uranium and Thorium emitted from coal plants. How, is Uranium and thorium released from a coal plant you might ask. A gigawatt coal plants get train loads of 10,000 tons of coal every day. In total about 8 billion tons of coal is burnt every year from a thousand or more coal plants. Coal being burnable dirt has about 3 parts per million of Uranium and Thorium. This means about 24,000 tons of Uranium and Thorium goes up into the air as the coal is burned. This also means a few thousand tons of Mercury goes up into the air. The Mercury going into the air, rivers and oceans is why we are telling pregnant women to avoid eating tuna for the Mercury. What is in relative low concentrations becomes a significant amount when you burn 8 billion tons per year.

How about solar? Isn’t solar perfectly safe? It is sunshine turned into energy right? Roofing is the fifth most dangerous profession. The roofers on millions of roofs can fall off. The leads to hundreds of deaths per year and many more injuries around the world.

Solar and wind power use ten times the steel and cement to generate the same amount of electricity. Cement and steel production generate a lot of CO2 and air pollution. Cement and steel production are very energy intensive.

When you are generating world-scale levels of energy, things that seem small become big.

Four of the six NRC reactor approvals are based off the System 80 pressure water reactor. System 80+, AP600, AP1000 and the APR1400.

Two are boiler water reactor designs.

NuScale submitted an application to the NRC on Dec. 31, 2016, to certify the company’s small modular reactor design for use in the United States. The NRC staff met its schedule goals for completing its technical review. The design uses natural, “passive” processes such as convection and gravity in its operating systems and safety features while producing up to approximately 600 megawatts of electricity. The SMR’s 12 modules, each producing 50 megawatts, are all submerged in a safety-related pool built below ground level.

Nextbigfuture has an eleven-year-old article that had some of the history of nuclear reactor design applications that were submitted and languished in pre-application or application. The NRC pages that used to list historical design applications have been removed from the internet.

System 80 is a pressurized water reactor design by Combustion Engineering (which was subsequently bought by Asea Brown Boveri and eventually merged into the Westinghouse Electric Company). Three System 80 reactors were built at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

The System 80+ was developed into the Korean OPR-1000 and later APR-1400 and contributed design features to the AP1000.

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