Environmental group challenges SRS small reactor plan

An environmental group today challenged the U.S. Energy Department’s plan to oversee the experimental development of small nuclear power reactors at Savannah River Site without federally required licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“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,” said Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth.

In November, New Mexico-based Hyperion Power announced a plan to develop a $150 million hydrogen model to produce synthetic fuels. Shortly afterward, Savannah River National Laboratory announced a similar effort with Wilmington, N.C.-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to create a prototype of GE’s PRISM reactor, which recycles nuclear fuel to generate electricity.

Clements said the memorandum of understanding for the project indicates the Energy Department would “assume responsibility for regulating the design, construction and operation” of such projects “in advance of any design certification and licensing by the NRC.”

However, Clements contends the federal Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department, 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,” he said.

Both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department were contacted today for responses to the allegations, and this story will be updated soon.

The concept of building prototype commercial reactors at the site has been touted as a way to extend the area’s ability to attract and retain jobs. Discussions have included the creation of an “energy park” that could become a headquarters for the manufacture of a new generation of small, portable reactors suitable for commercial use.

In addition to Hyperion and GE Hitachi, two additional firms are in discussions with the SRS contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, for similar projects, according to documents obtained last fall by The Augusta Chronicle.

San Diego-based General Atomics has proposed a 240-megawatt EM2 reactor capable of burning surplus plutonium and highly enriched uranium as startup fuels. The design is portable, factory-built and capable of burning conventional spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

Also talking with Savannah River National Laboratory are officials from TerraPower, a firm financially supported by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. TerraPower’s 300 MW liquid metal cooled “fast reactor” is also capable of burning surplus plutonium and can run on spent commercial nuclear fuel without conventional reprocessing requirements.





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