US fusion firms to be leniently regulated by nuclear watchdog

The US has announced that it will apply regulations used for particle accelerators when overseeing future commercial fusion technology – rather than implement the stricter regime currently used for nuclear fission plants. The decision was made via an unanimous vote by the five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in late April. It mirrors one that the UK made last year regarding its nascent fusion industry.

The private fusion industry is booming, with 20 start-up fusion firms having been recently founded in the US alone. Given this development and the radiological issues of fusion systems, the bipartisan scientific caucuses in Congress called for the industry to be appropriately regulated by the NRC.

Some of the concerns around fusion include the significant amounts of tritium that must be carefully stored and could potentially seep into structural materials. Fusion vessels must also be shielded, owing to the radiation that the process creates.

There is also the possible health hazards from neutron bombardment and what the NRC calls “energetic plasma-surface interactions” that could generate dust containing tritium. However, fusion does not involve the heavy radioactive materials associated with commercial fission processes such as uranium, plutonium, and their by-products.

A preliminary NRC white paper in January gave three options for future fusion licensing. One would take the approach currently applied to commercial fission plants, known as part 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations. A second would use the process applied for particle accelerators, known as part 30 of the code, while a third option would have been a mix of the two codes.

The white paper recommended the hybrid approach. However, the commissioners voted unanimously in April for the second, least intrusive option.

“Dozens of companies are developing pilot-scale commercial fusion designs, and while the technology’s precise future in the US is uncertain, the agency should provide as much regulatory certainty as possible given what we know today,” says NRC chairman Christopher Hanson. “Licensing near-term fusion energy systems under a by-product material framework will protect public health and safety with a technology-neutral, scalable regulatory approach.”

Industry response

The US Fusion Industry Association welcomed the move, adding the commissioners “deserve commendation” for the decision. “Fusion energy is not nuclear fission, and therefore should not be regulated as such,” the association notes in a statement. “[The decision] affirms that principle”.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018, says the ruling will enable the US to be a global leader in commercial fusion energy. “This regulatory framework protects workers and the public while also allowing the fusion energy industry to emerge and flourish in a comprehensive, risk-informed, flexible regulatory environment,” a spokesperson for the firm told Physics World.

To put the new regulatory framework into action, NRC staff will now start a “limited revision” to licensing regulations for materials, which will include consideration of whether the revision should create a new rule category specifically applied to fusion energy systems. Commissioners have also directed the organization’s staff to take actions such as expanding guidance for materials licences to cover fusion systems nationwide.

Meanwhile, a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says that new and advanced types of nuclear fission reactors could play an important role to help the US meet its long-term climate goals. Making that possible, however, will require overcoming a range of technical, regulatory, economic, and social challenges while deployment of the reactors could take several decades.

It calls on the US Department of Energy, the NRC, other government organizations and private industry to “lay the groundwork required for advanced reactors to become a viable part of the US energy system”.

The post US fusion firms to be leniently regulated by nuclear watchdog appeared first on Physics World.

Source link

Share with your friends!

Products You May Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get All Science News
Straight to your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.

x Logo: Shield Security
This Site Is Protected By
Shield Security