Tech Insights

Advanced Reactor Roadmap Details Nuclear’s North American Path 

June 06, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

How advanced nuclear reactors can gain commercial traction to meet electricity demands and emissions-reduction targets in North America’s energy market. 

Two industry trade groups, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), recently launched an “Advanced Reactor Roadmap” detailing their recommendation for deploying advanced nuclear reactors in North America’s clean energy transition.


Nuclear power plant

Nuclear power plant. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


Advanced nuclear reactors provide emissions-free electricity at a smaller scale than existing nuclear power plants. The roadmap notes that they can be tapped to supply 60 to 400 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity by 2050. Companies and research organizations have developed several designs worldwide, but few advanced reactors have achieved commercial traction—partly due to lack of regulatory oversight, as many government agencies do not accommodate emerging technologies like small modular reactors (SMRs) in their existing frameworks for industry-standard light-water reactors in the United States and heavy-water reactors in Canada. 

NEI and EPRI’s report provides recommendations for a more timely and efficient review and approval process by regulators in the U.S. and Canada. It also outlines actions governments and companies can take to establish a stable supply of enriched fuel, alongside potential improvements regarding licensing, fuel cycles, supply chains, construction, operation, and workforce development. 

The roadmap contains 46 actions divided into 13 strategic groups covering regulatory efficiency, technology readiness, and project execution. 


GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300, a 300-MW water-cooled small modular reactor

A rendering of GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300, a 300-MW water-cooled small modular reactor. Image used courtesy of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy


Nuclear Power in the US and Canada

First, the report advises the industry to continue operating existing reactors for at least 80 years and commercialize new advanced reactors. With the demand for electricity already high due to increasing industrialization and the ongoing transition to renewables, new reactors can be leveraged to serve a range of applications, including generation, industrial heat, hydrogen production, and steam. 

Nuclear power claims a 20% share of electricity in the U.S. and 15% in Canada. The former’s nuclear capacity peaked in 2012 at 102.3 GW from 104 reactors. Today, that number stands at 95.8 GW across 92 reactors operating at 54 plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Several power plants have shut down over the last decade due to diminishing profitability over cheap natural gas, and around 21 reactors are currently in the decommissioning process.

Traditional nuclear reactors aside, more modern advanced reactors are beginning to move from development to the early commercialization stages. Earlier this year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the first commercial SMR design of its kind from Oregon-based NuScale, and it’s currently reviewing two additional applications


Projected electricity generation through 2050

Projected electricity generation through 2050 (from page 9). Image used courtesy of NEI and EPRI


According to the World Nuclear Association, Canada gets about 15% of its electricity from 19 reactors totaling about 13.6 GW of capacity. The country’s operating nuclear power peaked in the 1990s at 15.8 GW, but since then, it has decommissioned six reactors totaling 2.1 GW. However, it’s looking to revamp its nuclear landscape with several advanced reactor designs currently being reviewed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The agency has approved some pre-licensing vendor designs, including GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300, the first grid-scale SMR in North America, offering 300 megawatts (MW) of capacity. The project is slated to complete construction in 2028. 

SMRs, which offer 50 to 300 MW of capacity, are gaining interest in the global market, but there are several other types of advanced reactors as well: Micro-reactors provide under 50 MW of capacity, medium-scale reactors provide 300-600 MW, and large-scale reactors top 600 MW. They can be fixed or mobile, always on or intermittent, depending on load demand, and they can produce steam, heat, hydrogen, and electricity. 

With that, let’s unpack some of the key recommendations in the roadmap from NEI and EPRI: 


Streamlining Licensing and Updating Regulations

The Advanced Nuclear Roadmap report says the U.S.’s goal should be to license advanced reactors that have previously been approved in under 12 months of submission, including both safety and environmental reviews. This would speed up the wait time for projects receiving generous subsidies and loan guarantees for advanced reactor development through last year’s Inflation Reduction Act

At the same time, Canada is also working on streamlining its regulatory processes. And its federal budget recently added new tax incentives for advanced reactor development. 

The report also mentions that mass adoption will naturally increase once a few early adopters pave the way. Those “followers” will likely come after the market sees lower risks across design, licensing, procurement, and construction. High regulatory costs are part of that risk, as evidenced in traditional nuclear power plants.

Separate research from the American Action Forum shows that the average nuclear power plant is on the hook for at least $8.6 million in ongoing regulatory costs and over $20 million in fees to the NRC. Furthermore, a deeper analysis of public financial filings shows they’re subjected to regulatory liabilities amounting to $60 million annually per facility. The NRC charges applicants and licensees $290 per hour for reviews, permits/licenses, renewals, and other required services.

The Advanced Nuclear Roadmap notes that the historical schedule for NRC approvals is four to eight years and comes with review fees of $28-$42 million, which are expected to grow to $70 million. The report estimates that the NRC could have as many as 60 simultaneous applications in the licensing process by 2030. 

Meanwhile, the biggest regulatory barrier in Canada is the federal Impact Assessment Act, which involves extensive timelines and hasn’t been tested with nuclear projects.


EPRI and NEI’s regulatory efficiency recommendations and timeline

An outline of EPRI and NEI’s regulatory efficiency recommendations and timeline (page 62), with orange signifying the first level of priorities and red representing the second priorities. Image used courtesy of EPRI


The report offers a few regulatory reforms: Shortening licensing of advanced reactors to under 12 months, resolving key technical and policy issues (including emergency preparedness and environmental reviews) before application submission to reduce the need for design changes, and updating the regulatory framework with new requirements for advanced reactors. It also advises the NRC and CNSC to work together to avoid duplicate regulatory reviews of designs already on the market in either country. 

Licensing must be expedited and streamlined to deploy a large fleet of advanced reactors in the 2030s. The report advises the NEI and the Canadian Nuclear Association to develop recommendations to improve licensing processes by 2024. Meanwhile, advanced reactor vendors are encouraged to submit emergency planning methodologies (needed as guidance to establish emergency planning zone distance).

For the U.S.-specific recommendations, the report advises the NEI to gather industry feedback on enhancing the NRC’s rulemaking for technology-neutral, performance-based, and risk-informed policies. NEI must also provide industry input into the rulemaking for NRC’s Parts 50 and 52 regulatory procedures, ensuring the changes don’t impose unnecessary risks and delays in licensing and construction. 

The roadmap proposes reforms to the lengthy environmental review and siting status quo previously implemented under the U.S.’s National Environmental Protection Act and Canada’s Impact Assessment Act. NEI and EPRI suggest various exclusions and alternative assessments to support the process without sacrificing critical environmental goals. 


Supply Chain Needs and Technology Readiness

The roadmap states that Canada and the U.S. must shore up their domestic fuel enrichment capacity, historically concentrated in Russia. However, uncertainty around government policies and the timing and scale of demand hamper industry investment. The report advises governments to employ new funding and offtake agreements to make High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) more readily available to advanced reactor developers, kicking off the much-needed industry build-out of HALEU production capacity. 

Both countries also need a sufficient manufacturing base for nuclear-grade components. For example, they could launch domestic or regional nuclear-grade supplier development programs to spur component production among non-nuclear suppliers. They should also boost their capacity for module fabrication and small forging facilities. 

The report also tasks the EPRI and advanced reactor vendors to set qualification conditions and in-pile testing plans for HALEU fuels used in their reactor cores before 2024. Meanwhile, they’ll need to develop a spent fuel handling and storage strategy (currently not well-defined). 

Regarding plant design and systems, structures, and components (SSCs), the report calls on the EPRI to update its materials roadmap to consider vendors’ testing needs for timely qualification. The organization will also survey advanced reactor developers to identify the analytical tools necessary for optimal design. Plus, EPRI will provide new guardrails based on the best practices and experience of legacy advanced reactor demonstrations. 

In the long term, the report outlines various project execution recommendations, such as choosing the right engineering and procurement strategy, enabling new construction technologies and standardization, building on existing construction experience, and sharing expertise. 

These are just some of the takeaways of the 66-page roadmap. Other points regarding workforce development, project management and execution, and public engagement are detailed in the full report