Stephen Burns, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently sat down with The Energy Times for a broad discussion about nuclear power in America. This is the last of a two-part series.
ENERGY TIMES: For existing nuclear plants, will there be universal attempts to extend license goings for another 20 years, up to a total of 60 years or more?
BURNS: For 60 years - certainly yes. About 80 percent of the existing fleet has received initial license renewal for 40 to 60 years. For a plant that came online in the mid-1980’s, 0 years gets you to 2025 and another 20 gets you potentially 2045. The industry is looking at the possibility of moving from 60 to 80 years.
ENERGY TIMES: To get from 60 to 80 years - will it require massive capital investment?
BURNS: I don’t probably have any particulars on the investment. There’s going to be some costs with that.
ENERGY TIMES: Given the low price of natural gas and the high cost of large nuclear units, some believe small modular nuclear plants will become more appealing. What does your agency need to do to prepare for that?
BURNS: When I talk about small modular reactors, what we’re going to see in the near-term is variations on light water reactor designs. We expect at the end of this year that NuScale in Oregon will file an application for design certification. The agency staff has been in dialogue with them for a couple years so that we understand what they’re coming in with and they understand some of our expectations. There are a couple other vendors out there that have designs. Some of them are working more slowly or more rapidly than others.
ENERGY TIMES: Building a 60 to 300 megawatt plant - will it have to go through the same hurdles as a large nuclear unit like Vogtle or Summer?
BURNS: Well, it’s the same process in the sense that NuScale is asking for design certification. There has been discussion with them over the last couple years about their technology and its differences. We’re still looking at what I would call a standard timeframe for the review, which is about three years. And all other things being equal, I would expect we’d be able to make that.
ENERGY TIMES: So what about newer technology like TerraPower, which is looking for technology to take nuclear waste and extract more energy from it?
BURNS: That is certainly a longer flight path than NuScale. We’ve had some war shops with the Department of Energy to listen to folks. There was an issue raised at the White House summit on nuclear energy on how can those who are interested in these technologies interact with the NRC and at the same time keep their potential investors happy and not concerned that they basically are going on a path that leads to nowhere. So there’s been a lot of discussion recently about whether we can look at some of this technology on a topical basis. In other words, when they reach a certain maturity with what they would expect to put in their design, we at least would give at least an indication or some sort of an approval. That’s what I’m hearing that people on the outside are looking at.
ENERGY TIMES: Is the federal government any closer to coming up with permanent storage for commercial nuclear waste?
BURNS: Well NRC’s role is primarily the regulatory role, the licensing authority over what a repository would be. Two companies, waste control specialists, recently filed an application for a consolidated storage site in western Texas. There’s another site in eastern New Mexico.
ENERGY TIMES: So do you think we’re any closer to having a repository identified and up and running? Or is that primarily just a political question and not a technological one?
BURNS: We had a court order a couple years ago to spend the money we had allocated for the Yucca Mountain storage site and we’re pretty much out of that. There hasn’t been any further appropriation. We’ll do what we’re expected to do, but the policy issue, the political issue is outside our camp.