Climate & Energy Blog

Firm plans to pursue experimental nuclear reactors without required licenses

Posted Jan. 19, 2011 / Posted by: Nick Berning

For Immediate Release

Documents reveal reactors could be fueled by radioactive fuel from Savannah River Site, leading to more importation of dangerous radioactive waste into South Carolina

Columbia, SC -- Documents obtained by Friends of the Earth under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a private contractor plans to pursue experimental nuclear reactors without licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, even though such licensing is required by law.

The revelation that two prototype “small modular reactors” are being pursued by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the private contractor that manages the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina, “in advance of any design certification and licensing by the NRC” has drawn the charge from Friends of the Earth that such a move does not comply with pertinent U.S. regulations and must be dropped.

“We call on Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and the Department of Energy to immediately affirm that no experimental nuclear reactors will be pursued in South Carolina without the required license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth. “Construction of ‘small modular reactors’ that are not licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would violate U.S. law as well as endanger the public and we will strongly oppose any attempt to avoid required licensing of such reactors.”

Small modular reactors are being pursued by various companies but at present only exist as concepts. Although such reactors would be smaller than those currently operating, modular reactors would still produce nuclear waste and pose the same safety and proliferation problems of larger reactors. Licensing discussions between at least one firm and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have begun.

On January 7 Friends of the Earth obtained two memoranda of understanding related to two different small modular reactors. The memoranda were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request to the Savannah River Site. The memoranda, related to the “Hyperion SMR” (signed August 2010) and the “GE-Hitachi PRISM SMR” (signed September 2010) designs, both state that “[the U.S. Department of Energy] would assume responsibility for regulating the design, construction, and operation of a PRISM prototype under DOE's existing authority as codified in l0 CFR 830, in advance of any design certification and licensing by the NRC.” 

The federal Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Administration (now DOE), requires NRC licensing of a nuclear reactor “when operated in any other manner for the purpose of demonstrating the suitability for commercial application of such a reactor.” Thus, unless the projects are pursued exclusively by the Department of Energy with no private involvement, Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing is mandated.

“In order to avoid required regulation, it appears that the Savannah River Site is trying to manipulate things so that requirements of the Energy Reorganization Act are avoided, but that will be impossible to do,” said Clements. “In addition, the private firm that intends to construct these experimental reactors appears poised to try to force taxpayers to pick up the cost. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions must pay for its own activities. Friends of the Earth calls on DOE and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and its partners to demonstrate that 100 percent of the funding for any experimental reactors will come from private sources and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will play the role required by law.”

Friends of the Earth believes that the private companies developing the experimental reactors, which are only concepts at this point, must provide 100 percent of the financing, but even partial private financing or involvement would still trigger the requirement that licensing be carried out by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Hyperion memorandum, signed for the Savannah River National Laboratory by Garry Flowers, President and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, also states that the fuel for the Hyperion reactor could come from commercial reprocessing in the H-Canyon reprocessing plant, an idea that is already stirring controversy and which may be impossible to pursue as the H-Canyon may be placed on stand-by due to budget constraints. Clements of Friends of the Earth and many members of the public spoke out against use of the H-Canyon facility for commercial reprocessing R&D before a January 7 meeting in Augusta, Georgia of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Likewise, the PRISM memorandum states that the Savannah River Site plutonium fuel (MOX) facility, now under construction, could be used to fabricate the first fuel for the reactor, which is in direct contradiction to pledges by the Energy Department that the facility would not be used for missions beyond fabricating surplus weapons plutonium into MOX fuel for existing light-water reactors.  That program is in trouble as the Energy Department has failed to identify reactors to use the MOX fuel and the facility could end up could end up sitting idle. A multi-year MOX testing program will be required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission even if reactors are identified, and the Energy Department was unable to outline the details of such a testing program during a public tour of the Savannah River Site on January 6, 2011, in parallel with a tour by the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Contrary to the approach presented by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions in the two memoranda, the Tennessee Valley Authority is pursuing an mPower “small modular reactor” and has recently revealed that it plans to seek a construction license fr om the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But like other small modular reactors, the mPower reactor is but a concept this point and faces a host of technical and licensing hurdles.

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Notes:

1.   The two five-page memoranda are available at http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/93/d7/3/1288/MOU_GE-Hitachi_PRISM_9.2010.pdf and http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/93/cb/c/1289/MOU_Hyperion_SMR_8.2010.pdf.

2.   See text of Energy Reorganization Act on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website at: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/governing-laws.html

SeeSec. 202. Licensing and Related Regulatory Functions Respecting Selected Administration Facilities - “Notwithstanding the exclusions provided for in section 110 a. or any other provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended (42 USC 2140(a)), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shall, except as otherwise specifically provided by section 110 b. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended (42 USC 2140(b)), or other law, have licensing and related regulatory authority pursuant to chapters 6, 7, 8, and 10 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, as to the following facilities of the Administration: … (2)Other demonstration nuclear reactors–except those in existence on the effective date of this Act–when operated as part of the power generation facilities of an electric utility system, or when operated in any other manner for the purpose of demonstrating the suitability for commercial application of such a reactor.”

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Contact:Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator, Friends of the Earth, 1112 Florence Street, Columbia, SC 29201, tel. 803-834-3084, cell 803-240-7268

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