NRC Considers Regulatory Approaches for Fusion Energy

Updated: Nov 22

In a meeting at the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions (NRC) on Tuesday, November 8, the Department of Energy, representatives of Agreement States, and private industry agreed that the regulation of fusion energy should be separated from the regulation of nuclear fission. Members of the FIA and the NRC staff discussed how an approach to fusion energy regulation similar to how accelerators are regulated would ensure public health and safety while also encouraging innovation and deployment of fusion energy technology.


Such an approach, listed in the United States under the byproduct materials regulatory regime of 10 CFR Part 30, would separate the regulatory oversight of fusion from the regime, under 10 CFR Parts 50 & 52 that regulate nuclear fission energy.


For over two years, the FIA and its member companies have engaged in a series of public meetings hosted by the NRC in an open and transparent process that has helped to develop a literate understanding of the technical issues and hazards presented by fusion. The full record of these meetings is available online on the NRC's website. Throughout this process, the FIA has maintained that the technical safety case is clear: fusion is not like fission, and therefor should not be regulated as such. Part 30 is the most technically appropriate fit for fusion devices. While commercial fusion energy production will be a new technology, fusion research devices are already regulated today under Part 30. The radiological hazards presented by fusion devices—tritium management, radiation produced during operations, and low-level waste—are well understood and have been regulated under Part 30 in relation to other technologies for decades. Embedded below is a letter the FIA sent to the NRC in August outlining the full discussion of fusion safety and regulatory issues.


Briefing

On November 8, the bipartisan group of five Commissioners of the NRC gathered to hear testimony from an outside panel of fusion energy experts. Attending the November 8 briefing are listed below, with their slide presentations linked:

  • Dr. Kathryn McCarthy, Associate Laboratory Director for Fusion and Fission Energy and Science, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

  • Dr. Richard Hawryluk, Senior Technical Advisor, Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy

  • Edward Lewis-Smith, Head of Domestic Fusion Policy and Programmes, UK Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

  • Megan Shober, Nuclear Safety Specialist, Wisconsin Division of Public Health

  • Sachin Desai, General Counsel, Helion Energy

  • Dr. Bob Mumgaard, Chief Executive Officer, Commonwealth Fusion Systems

  • Dr. Seth Hoedl, President, Post Road Foundation

Dr. Mumgaard and Mr. Desai were representing member companies of the Fusion Industry Association, and described how the different safety profile for fusion energy necessitates a different regulatory regime than fusion. Dr. Hawryluk, a longtime fusion scientist now serving in DOE discussed the finding - also stated in the National Academies study on fusion pilot plants - that Part 50 (for fission) is not an appropriate regulatory regime for fusion energy, and that regulation is important to support the "Bold Decadal Vision" for commercial fusion energy. Dr. McCarthy, the leader of the US contribution to the ITER program, discussed the long engagement of the DOE and scientific programs with fusion safety issues, explaining how choices in fusion plant design can make it more safe. Mr. Lewis-Smith from the UK government outlined how the British government is moving forward with their plan for regulating fusion by their Health & Safety Executive, not the Office of Nuclear Regulation - a similar approach to the US part 30 approach. Ms. Shober from the Government of Wisconsin outlined how fusion devices are already regulated in Wisconsin under Part 30, and how the regulatory regime can grow as the industry grows.


The Commissioners' questions to the panel ranged across the span of topics, from risk analysis to how materials can impact fusion safety. Overall, there seemed to be agreement that fusion deserves a "Nimble, adaptive framework that prioritizes safety" as Commissioner Crowell said. Under questioning, the private company representatives discussed the importance of building regulatory certainty for fusion - investors and developers cannot jump from regulatory regime to another: instead fusion developers need to make decisions about power plant designs in the next 18 months, so a decision by the NRC is critical.


Next Steps - Staff Briefing

The next step in this process for determining the appropriate regulatory regime for fusion is that the NRC staff will submit a SECY paper to the Commission outlining the options for fusion regulations, and giving a recommendation to the Commissioners for how to move forward. At the meeting, they discussed the options put out in their September White Paper - whether to regulate fusion under Part 50 as a "Utilization Facility", under the Part 30 Byproduct Materials Approach, or under a hybrid approach of the two. They announced that the anticipate releasing this paper before the end of the year.

Once that paper is sent to the Commissioners, then they will convene to vote on how to regulate fusion, and send that decision back to the staff in order to implement it.


FIA Position on Regulation

Since its inception, the FIA has strongly supported regulation under the Commission’s existing Part 30 specific licensing regulations. The Part 30 approach would best match fusion to similar technologies regulated by the Commission, including particle accelerators, industrial radiography devices, or irradiators. The NRC’s experience safely regulating these technologies and their related hazards shows that Part 30 is fully capable of ensuring adequate protection of public health and safety.


Part 30 is also the best approach to support the emerging U.S. fusion industry. Part 30’s specific licensing process is well understood and would thus provide near-term regulatory certainty needed by developers and investors. Fusion developers plan to begin the detailed designing of first commercial plants within the next 12-18 month, and Part 30 regulation will allow companies to design these plants to an established regulatory framework, avoiding unnecessary delays created by new rulemaking. The two letters below outline the FIA stance on fusion regulation.



FIA August 2022 Letter to NRC Summarizing Industry Position on Fusion Regulations



FIA November 2022 Letter to NRC Responding to Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards Letter on Fusion Regulations