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around the world), pebble bed reactors and high temperature reactors tried to get licenses and then applications get withdrawn after a decade or so.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.

38 thoughts on “Nuclear Regulatory Commission Has Nearly Frozen Nuclear Designs for 48 Years”

  1. Doesn’t matter much. If Quaise succeeds, as it is believed will happen, nuclear power is over and done terrestrially. Everywhere but space and military applications.

  2. Jaczko has NOT been at the NRC for over 10 years and has NO control over the NRC. In order to get approval, you must submit the design to the NRC to review. The NuScale reactor design was approved in less than 2 years not the 7 years stated in the article. All of the NRC approved reactor designs occurred under the Obama and Biden administration. There were no NRC approvals under the Trump administration. Facts are facts

    • Older ones like abwr and ap1000 under bush. NuScale was submitted Dec 31, 2016… September 2020 NRC issued Standard Design Approval with some open items that had nothing to do with the Trump being in office. You are writing falsehoods.

      • Dr. Gregory Jaczko was an antinuclear campaigner while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, what a joke to see him later obtain his career appointment as the US NRC Chairman.

        Senator Harry Reid played an important role in President Obama’s early decision to run for office. He pushed a lot of support to Obama from his position as Senate majority leader. After he became president, Obama made a payment on his political debt by firing Dale Klein as the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and promoted Dr. Jaczko 2009 into the position.

        Dr. Jaczko from there on was the driving force behind the aircraft impact rule for the new AP1000 reactors; he pushed as hard as he could to add more requirements for design changes as a way to significantly delay the the four new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors under construction. Every delay at the NRC in producing the final COLA approvals for Vogtle and VC Summer after the staff had already completed its review added at least a million dollars per day to the cost of each unit that had already received it’s design approval years before.

        Dr. Greg Jaczko spent at least a decade misusing his impressive brain power in destructive ways by focusing it on halting the beneficial use of nuclear energy. This included Dr. Jaczko, withholding information from his colleagues in an effort to keep plans for the the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository from advancing. At a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee hearing on December 14, 2011, NRC Commissioner William Magwood, testified about what he called Jaczko’s abusive behaviour towards employees, especially female subordinates. In October 2011, all four NRC commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, sent a letter to the White House expressing “grave concern” about Dr. Jaczko’s actions at the NRC. This resulted in his resignation as chairman after months of conflict with his colleagues on the NRC commission.

        I am surprised that he never got prosecuted for industrial grand scale sabotage.

  3. Argue all you like, the truth is seen by everyone talking here. Yes new tech and useful old tech are held back. Money in cost to try, And money lost by those selling present tech (coal, Gas, oil) Safety is very important but using it as a way to decide truly requires looking at the big picture. After 100 years of testing oil, coal and gas we know it affects the whole world and we are already heading towards the end of the whole world with this tech, anyone know how many billion people that is

  4. NRC and Greenpeace are the main culprits in global warming, 9/11, war in Ukraine, terrorism.

    Easy money from selling fossil fuels is what keeps these regimes aloft financing terrorism and wars.

    The US should have been in the forefront developing clean alternatives to fossil fuels.

    • Ever been to a tropical beach near coral reefs? It’s easy to cut your feet on the reefs 6-12 feet above the high tide mark… I often wonder how old they are….. 10k, 100k, 1000k years old? Limestone erodes quite quickly, and since I’ve seen it all over the world from Mexico to the Philippines it’s unlikely that it was all elevated by seismic activity. Beach houses on barrier islands and the like might disagree, but it seems, at least historically, that the sea level and coastlines are fluid over timescales that far exceed the human lifetime. Then again, I handed in my master of science earned 2004, to become a denier of science circa 2020. I’m not particularly worried about sea level rise. I’d actually like to see it, because 100 year old photographs don’t show it.

    • they are no clean alternatives … they are all dirty … nuclear being the least dirty … and for transportation, there is no alternative for 90% of vehicles other than ICE …

  5. The NRC is too bureaucratically twisted to give a fair shake to any reactor design that strays too far from traditional PWR or BWR technologies. They are good at regulating the operation of those traditional designs, but lack the expertise and open mindedness to fairly evaluate molten salt, pebble bed or other reactors. The US government should farm this out to a government/industry group that is not dominated by the NRC.

  6. The NRC is too bureaucratically twisted to give a fair shake to any reactor design that strays too far from traditional PWR or BWR technologies. They are good at regulating the operation of those traditional designs, but lack the expertise and open mindedness to fairly evaluate molten salt, pebble bed or other reactors. The US government should farm this out to a government/industry group that is not dominated by the NRC.

  7. Concerning THTR: The problem with the dust release on May 4th, 1986 was not so much the amount of activity, but the fact, that the THTR company denied any release. Until end of May, when Pa233 was detected, which can stem only from Thorium reactors. So it resulted in a major loss of credibility.

  8. Like a lot of engineered products (cars, planes) the main improvements of the last 20 years have been instrumentation upgrades (electronics); we don’t, for instance, forge vessels better today because of CAD or wireless coms or the internet. So, by 1980, after a 30 million man years were spent, we were left with a small handful of designs that were as reliable and as economical to operate as possible: the H/LWRs. All the other stuff was tried and was problematic. This only appears to be “designs frozen by the NRC” to conspiracy theorists.

    • “All the other stuff was tried and was problematic.”

      On the contrary, without the approvals, it couldn’t be tried. We’re left with a handful of designs because nobody gets approval to test anything else. Heck, we barely even allow the proven designs to be built! How many new nuclear plants have been built in the US in the last 30 years? THREE.

      You can’t even get regulatory permission to build a CANDU plant in the US, and that’s also a proven reactor design. But the NRC won’t license them.

      That’s a large part of why they’ve gotten so expensive: Every plant is a first time learning experience now, despite being established designs, they might as well all be prototypes in terms of the experience of the people building them, so productivity in building them has actually been declining with time, not increasing.

      You actually think we found the best possible design for a nuclear reactor within a few years of building the first one? Seriously?

      • My replies rarely stick…

        AREVA withdrew the EPR from the design certification in 2015 because it didn’t have a customer (PPL withdrew the Bell Bend COLA). The CANDU is not licensed in USA for similar reasons: name a company or site that wants one. Without a special interest to lobbying to build, what would be the incentive for a supplier to license their product?

        Name a reactor type mentioned anywhere that wasn’t prototyped prior to 1980. I can think of only flavors that haven’t been built already (e.g. molten chloride).

        Yes, I do believe that the greatest generation was tasked with investigating the various designs within the since unchanged limits of material science and struck a best compromise with the H/LWRs.

        • You think it’s a point on your side, not mine, that all the reactor concepts that have actually been prototyped got prototyped over 40 years ago?

          I think that’s because they won’t LET people prototype new (fission) reactor designs anymore, all the new reactor designs since then have been stuck at the paper reactor stage for lack of governmental permission to do anything more.

          I think that’s why so much energy gets devoted to fusion reactors: They may be less practical for fundamental physics reasons, but the government will actually let you build prototypes.

          Oh, and challenge accepted: Dusty plasma fission fragment reactors.

          • “…they won’t LET people prototype new (fission) reactor designs anymore,”

            This is the biggest problem with new designs. There are no places where anyone can test new designs, except for some military reactors, which are only slightly different from ones that have been operating for a very long time.

            There are no more examination facilities for new nuclear fuel designs (I think there may be a push to re-establish them), the people who used to do this work are very hard to find. It is very expensive and difficult to transport spent fuel from a reactor to an examination facility.

            I could go on and on. The infrastructure that was created in the 40s, 50s, and 60s to support new designs has been mostly dismantled and the expertise (in the USA) has been lost.

            Where do you propose to locate a prototype reactor design? Bill Gates thinks he can locate one in Wyoming, but I can guarantee you that there will be howls from all those nice people who live next door in Colorado, and they will get their government to step in and object. As will all the nice people who love the critters and vegetation in Wyoming, especially if it is anywhere in a National Park that is ever downwind of the facility.

          • Meanwhile – our currently approved designs were all created simultaneously with rotary dial phones.

        • Cars have been, until VERY recently, using the basic piston engine, spark or compression ignition, engine designs from before WW1.
          You could get a Wright flyer bicycle, from the 1890s, and ride it around without too many people noticing it wasn’t a normal bike.
          If you strip down high end clothes and shoes from at least the 1940s you’ll find they are basically identical to high end equivalents from today, with minor differences in some materials (not always improvements).
          There are a whole lot of technological areas where the designs were worked out thoroughly and then any future tech improvements is just adding electronics and maybe some better materials on top of the fundamental ancient blueprint.
          As with the car example, sometimes this does get overthrown, but only when we rethink the entire thing from scratch.

          • We could sketch half a dozen untried (but not new) concepts on paper, some are outside the limits of the materials known to bathing apes (plasma), others don’t improve the fundamental parameters of reliability, cost, safety, etc. It’s amusing when [name] lowers the standards with regards to current tech to propose alternative that doesn’t improve on the fundamental parameters. The appeal to novelty fallacy makes babies with the fallacy of incomplete evidence; sometimes the children become doctrine, politics and even conspiracy.

          • I think cars are actually a bad example here.

            First of all, though it’s not obvious to look at the outside of them, there has been an enormous amount of internal evolution in automobiles, which is why the life of a properly maintained ICE car has gone from maybe 100K miles to more like a million miles, at the same time that power to weight ratios have drastically increased, and mileage has improved.

            But more, it’s a bad example because there were no regulatory obstacles to building electric cars, or cars that run off boiling LN2, or flywheels. All of those have been tried, and were easy to try because no regulator was requiring you to pay a $100M and wait a decade before building your prototype.

      • Brett I agree with you here; also , appointing someone to a regulatory board and then their being open about being completely against the technology after serving on the board shows that it was being run by ” gree” energy pollyannas and oil and gas.

    • The NRC has refused to endorse the CANDU design because the right palms haven’t been greased, besides, the US designs are so much safer (ask the operators of the Fukishima plant). If they really cared about protecting us from nuclear accidents, we’d get most of our energy today from Thorium reactors.

      • No, the NRC never reviewed the CANDU design. There were a lot of discussions, but the safety philosophy for the CANDUs is very different from the safety philosophy in the USA. It would have been very difficult, time consuming, and expensive to resolve these design differences in the US legal system, so they decided to withdraw the preliminary application. I was one of the people at the NRC who was involved in these discussions.

        Most of the comments here are from people who don’t seem to have ever been involved in actually building and licensing a nuclear reactor in the US. Maybe some of them were Navy operators (I was one of those, too), but the legal framework in the USA is intended to safeguard the health and safety of the public. This also means that we don’t do a lot of the experimental work that the AEC was encouraged to do in the 40s and 50s and even the 60s. Too many of those experimental efforts left behind radioactive sites that cost too much to decommission to allow novices to experiment. The people and the politicians are not willing to pay for these experiments any more, and the opposition is very well entrenched and skillful, with lots of lawyers and money. So the NRC staff tries to make sure that new designs are well thought out. There are no more “godforsaken wastelands” where we can blow stuff up any more. They have all transitioned to “fragile ecosystems”.

    • NRC process costs about $100 million per decade (not including the cost of the actual construction and development of the reactor, just the application and regulation compliance process). Application are charged $250+ per hour of work by staff in the commission. The applicants had customers but even utilities cannot wait 20+ years.

      • NRC costs $100M/decade? Perhaps for contracted labor in document review, but I think NuScale spent (including grants) ~$1B prior to submitting the first draft of the design certification documents on 12/31/2016. This was a sheer act of will. The shaky UAMPS coalition may very well build a single station (with poor economics).

        The sheer act of will is licensing a design without waiting customers, not weathering due scrutiny by the regulator.

        GE has licensed two designs with 3rd to come, without waiting customers.

        NRC issued AP1000 Safety Evaluation 09/2004; Vogtle begins construction in 2013; under development since the ‘90s.

        We recently saw the NRC drop the Oklo/Aurora ‘application’ for lack of detail. Why should the NRC, by charter a goal keeper (not cheerleader), be rushed to approve an incomplete rehash of the EBR or MSRE? All these designs, from Kairos to TerraPower are supported with government grants – your government IS supporting advanced nuclear concepts – they are just not amounting to much improvement.

        Blaming the NRC is like blaming the cops.

    • You’re treating those wanting to allow alternative designs as employing an “appeal to novelty fallacy”, but not only is that not true, you yourself are instead employing a “lack of evidence fallacy”.

      The argument in support of alternatives like Molten Salt Reactors or others is not that they are *necessarily* better than Pressurized Water Reactors. While many believe they are, perhaps they are not. But the argument is more that they need to be allowed to be built either way. They aren’t inherently UNsafe, so restricting them because “they don’t really improve over PWRs” is nonsense. Plus, citing that we haven’t had any and claiming that’s evidence for why we shouldn’t even ALLOW any more is even more invalid.

      Surely you see the nonsense in saying “The Molten Salt Reactor experiment took place in the 1970s and sure it worked, but they noted corrosion problems. Therefore, we shouldn’t even allow such designs.”

      Imagine someone in 2000 wanting to build an electric vehicle and the NHTSA rejects the proposal by saying “Battery-driven electric vehicles were already tried early in the 20th century and abandoned in favor of ICE because of costs, durability, reliability, and safety.” And when the designer replies, “Yes, but there’s been lots of research and advances in battery technology since then and I think we can make a design that works comparably to an ICE car.” the NHTSA says, “Yeah, but after 30 million man years were spent, we’ve clearly settled on a handful of ICE designs as the most reliable and cost effective. Everything else was tried and found to be problematic. So no.”

      Maybe you’re right and they won’t garner any significant advantage over PWRs. But people have been pursuing researching and implementing these alternative designs and they are hitting the NRC brick wall. That’s a problem. And dismissing them because ‘nothing is new under the sun’ thinking, is not only the height of arrogance, but actually runs counter to science.

      • If you don’t understand the difference between trying new electric car designs and trying out new reactor designs, I cannot reason with you. Testing new reactor designs includes the risk that there will be a release of radioactive material out into the environment, and after Chernobyl and Fukishima, the people in this country are not willing to allow those sorts of experiments to happen without very serious safeguards. You can blow up a Tesla in a field, and no one will insist that you clean up all the lithium that is deposited, so that an inspection will not be able to detect it in the soil. That is the standard for a nuclear release. If you don’t like this standard, then you should start to educate the public about “acceptable levels of radioactivity”. Have fun.

        • You realize that Chernobyl was an unsafe design by design and had little containment, not to mention lousy emergency response while the Fukushima Daiichi accident was poor management combined with an unprecedented natural disaster and didn’t kill anyone, right? If you don’t understand the difference between a bureaucratic dinosaur that won’t permit technological improvements to be developed and actual required regulation, then I can’t reason with you. If we haven’t even tried molten chloride salt fast reactors because of this nonsense that makes it nearly impossible then we are not protecting the public in fact, only in Malthusian imaginations.

  9. Jaczko is just now anti-nuclear?!? He was probably a member of the “renewables only” cult since day one and joined the NRC just to sabotage the nuclear industry. Government regulatory agencies should be required to screen out people who are ideologically opposed to the very thing they are regulating and inspecting. For example, no vegan, especially a member of PeTA, should be allowed a position in the FDA especially if it involves livestock.

    • You’re right, the odds are this guy was anti-nuke from day one. He can just be open about it now that he’s not tasked with covertly suppressing the industry.

  10. Gregory Jaczko seems to have suffered myopia working at NRC, never mentioning the coal pollution.

  11. The NRC is an anti-nuclear organization since 1974 that created global warming by stopping the US from getting 90% of our electricity from nuclear power by 1990.

    • No they are not! They do the due diligence and have very good advisory structures for guidance. In addition the national laboratories provide added excellence. Based on 30+ years or working with NRC (since late seventies) representing a public utility and manufacturer.

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