US fusion regulation will separate it from nuclear fission

US fusion regulation will separate it from nuclear fission

Apr 21, 2023

By Leigh Ann Kesler

On 13th April 2023 the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted unanimously for the development of a fusion regulatory framework based on existing regulation of by-product material facilities (e.g., particle accelerators), under 10 C.F.R. Part 30, “Rules of General Applicability to Domestic Licensing of Byproduct Material”.

So, what have they done and how significant is it?

© Ana Kova / U.S. Fusion Outreach

What have they done?

In January, the NRC released a preliminary white paper on the regulation of fusion energy devices (SECY-23-0001: Options for Licensing and Regulating Fusion Energy Systems). The paper presented the three options for regulating fusion power: under the utilization facility approach (e.g., commercial fission power plants); under the byproduct material approach (e.g., particle accelerators); or under a hybrid approach.

That report recommended the hybrid approach as being most applicable to fusion technology, but this week NRC commissioners opted for the byproduct material framework in the interest of regulatory certainty (ML23103A449). This decision still allows the NRC to revisit their stance if future designs present different risks than currently proposed devices but acknowledges that current designs have risks more similar to particle accelerators than fission plants.

According to NRC Chair Christopher T. Hanson, “Dozens of companies are developing pilot-scale commercial fusion designs, and while the technology’s precise future in the United States is uncertain, the agency should provide as much regulatory certainty as possible given what we know today. Licensing near-term fusion energy systems under a byproduct material framework will protect public health and safety with a technology-neutral, scalable regulatory approach.”

Why is this result impressive?

Until very recently, it has been unclear if fusion power plants would be regulated under the same framework as fission power plants or under their own system. Last year, the UK determined their government would regulate fusion power separately from fission. Now the US has followed suit.

The similar decisions by two governments, both with active private fusion industries, pave the way for future fusion development in a consistent regulatory environment that matches the risk profile of fusion technology. While fusion devices can contain limited radiological hazards, including tritium storage, operational radiation, and low-level waste, these decisions reflect the low risk to the public and the environment, in addition to the successful management of these risks in experimental fusion devices and other similar technologies.

Why is it important?

A major driver for the NRC choosing an established framework rather than choosing the more flexible hybrid model was offering regulatory certainty to an already vibrant domestic fusion industry, with over 20 fusion companies operating in the US. The directive also calls for staff to consider existing fusion systems and designs while developing guidelines for regulation, giving the nascent US fusion industry the ability to move forward without undue risk of regulatory red tape.

Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, said in a post: “This is an important decision that will give fusion developers the regulatory certainty they need to innovate while they grow fusion energy into a viable new energy source, while also most effectively protecting the safety, security, and health of the public.”

Regulatory certainty is also important for investors and other stakeholders in the deployment of fusion technology.

What’s next?

The NRC memo directs staff to develop a new fusion systems volume of NUREG-1556, “Consolidated Guidance About Materials Licenses,” the guiding document for the regulation of byproduct material facilities. NRC staff will also continue to monitor fusion designs to anticipate future hazards that may need to be considered.

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