Small modular reactors (SMRs) power many of today’s nuclear enthusiasts’ clean-energy dreams. SMRs promise to be cheaper and nimbler than their far larger counterparts within today’s nuclear power plants. Countries including Britain, France, Ghana, and Indonesia have shown interest in linking SMRs to the grid for the 2030s and beyond.
In the United States, SMR designers, operators, and fuel suppliers must all pass the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the U.S. government’s nuclear arbiter. Unfortunately, SMRs don’t fit neatly into the NRC’s aged regulatory scheme, one built for old and established large reactors. That’s at least part of the reason why, on 3 April, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators unveiled the ADVANCE Act, a bill containing a package of nuclear reforms.
Anyone hoping for total renovation of the NRC will be disappointed; the act retains the philosophy that NRC approval is necessary. But the act would order a platter of small, subtle changes to the NRC’s innards. At least some SMR proponents are optimistic that—if the act passes—those changes could smooth the way for a growing number of SMR developers.
“What the ADVANCE Act is saying is: ‘Okay, we’ve got an industry that’s really interested. We’ve got a lot of companies that are in progress. What are the things that we can do to even further accelerate that?’” says Patrick White, an analyst at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA), a nuclear-power think tank.
For one, applicants today must pay around US $300 for each hour of the NRC’s time. When a single review can take tens of thousands of hours, these fees pile up. Larger firms like Rolls-Royce might be able to afford them, but smaller SMR developers—more than a few of them nascent startups—may struggle. The act would offset some of those costs—around half, according to an NIA estimate.
The act would also establish prizes. “Those prizes involve the first [developers] going through the different regulatory frameworks that the NRC has,” says Erik Cothron, an analyst at the NIA. For instance, the bill would reward the first reactor designer to receive the stamp of Part 53, a new SMR-specific licensing process that Congress ordered the NRC to create in 2018.
Nuclear-themed prizes may make for a fun day at the fair, but their dividends are more than short-term. The prizes, the NIA analysts say, would also pay back developers who might have to bear with a sluggish NRC whose regulators are themselves still learning how to navigate new regulatory routes.
Additionally, the act would require reports on several NRC-related topics, such as how to license nuclear reactors for applications beyond electricity (such as heating); how to speed up approvals for reactors at previously developed “brownfield” sites (such as depreciated fossil-fuel power plants); and how effectively the NRC might license alternative sources of nuclear fuel.
Reports like these might seem like busywork for bureaucrats, but analysts say they serve an important risk-reducing role, giving SMR developers (and investors) a clearer picture of and more confidence in the path ahead.
NRC reporting on alternative sources of nuclear fuel, in particular, would be especially noteworthy for SMR developers. Fueling most SMR designs is so-called high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which has a higher uranium-235 content than larger reactors’ fuel. Currently, the world’s only commercial HALEU provider is Tenex, a Russian state-owned company, a source that has become particularly problematic in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Licensing a more geopolitically tenable HALEU supply chain, then, is a priority for any U.S.-based SMR project.
Of course, all speculation is moot unless the ADVANCE Act clears Congress.
The Act isn’t Congress’s first recent attempt at nuclear reforms. The ADVANCE Act shares multiple provisions and supporters with an earlier bill called the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (ANIA), first introduced in 2020. However, ANIA never saw the light of legislative day.
If the ADVANCE Act followed ANIA’s fate, it wouldn’t deal a mortal wound to SMR developers. But one of the ADVANCE Act’s other provisions is crucial to U.S. nuclear energy as a whole: It would renew the Price-Anderson Act, which mandates civilian nuclear plants carry insurance that would compensate members of the public for severe accidents.
The Price-Anderson Act’s present iteration expires in 2025, and time is ticking. Lawmakers can certainly renew it elsewhere. But a failure to renew it would throw the entire nuclear industry into uncertainty—SMRs included—potentially delaying deployment, according to Adam Stein, an analyst at the Breakthrough Institute think tank, which helped give input on earlier drafts of the bill’s text.
That uncertainty notwithstanding, Stein sees reasons to be optimistic in the success of ANIA’s successor: The ADVANCE Act has multiple supporters from both members of major U.S. parties, including lawmakers on the congressional committee responsible for nuclear energy.
“It has a lot of the support, from the start, that a bill would be expected to get, to pass,” Stein says.