December 20, 2023

PNNL Supports First-of-a-Kind Environmental Review for an Advanced Reactor

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves Hermes construction permit

Artist's rendering of a big building with a rounded top that will house the Hermes test reactor.

Artist’s rendering  of the Hermes advanced reactor facility, which Kairos Power LLC plans to build in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on the former site of the K-33 gaseous diffusion enrichment plant in the East Tennessee Technology Park.

(Illustration: Kairos Power LLC)

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) supported the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in conducting a first-of-a-kind streamlined environmental review and environmental impact statement for the Generation-IV advanced reactor, part of Kairos Power LLC’s Hermes molten salt test reactor project.

Kairos Power LLC submitted its construction permit application to the NRC in September 2021. On December 14, 2023, the NRC Commission authorized the staff to issue a construction permit to Kairos Power for the company’s proposed Hermes non-power test reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The advanced reactors that Kairos Power and others are designing are intended to provide a supply of carbon-free nuclear energy, contributing to the nation’s electric grid resilience, however, this specific effort is to support a test reactor for demonstration purposes and will not generate power for sale or distribution.

When the NRC receives a construction permit application for a power or test reactor, the agency performs a comprehensive safety review and environmental review, followed by a mandatory public hearing. The applicant still must submit a separate application for an operating license and obtain approval from the NRC before operating the test reactor.

The environmental review of Kairos Power’s Hermes project evaluated potential impacts to a breadth of resources, including air quality and noise, water resources, ecological resources, human health, transportation of radioactive material, historic and cultural resources, socioeconomics and environmental justice. The streamlined review maintained a thorough approach to impact analysis while improving clarity, reducing redundancy, and focusing on the resources where impacts were most notable from construction.

The PNNL staff also supported the NRC in completing the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) Section 106 process, facilitating interaction and technical discussions with the consulting parties, leading to an agreement in principle which includes construction monitoring plans and procedures for inadvertent discoveries of important artifacts on the site. The NHPA Section 106 requires federal agencies to identify and assess the impacts of any undertaking on historic properties as well as to seek resolution with consulting parties.

“Section 106 consultation is a process that can require several meetings with the consulting parties in order to reach an agreement,” said Tamsen Dozier, NRC’s lead environmental project manager on the Hermes project.

An illustration of the environmental factors considered in the NRC environmental review process, including a city, sky, shoreline, groundwater, people and animals.
An illustration of the environmental factors considered in NRC environmental reviews, including that of Kairos Power’s Hermes facility application for construction. (Illustration by Shannon Colson of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, courtesy of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The NRC Commissioners conducted the mandatory hearing on October 19, 2023, where the NRC staff’s  recommendation to issue the construction permit to Kairos Power for the Hermes project was based, in part, on the PNNL staff’s participation in the environmental review and Environmental Impact Statement published in August 2023, as well as the Section 106 consultation.

“The Kairos Hermes environmental review sets the stage for licensing applications that the NRC will have to review for future advanced reactor projects,” said Katie Wagner, PNNL nuclear regulatory subsector manager. “PNNL’s unique capabilities supporting the preparation of a streamlined, well-written, and defensible document is something we take deep pride in, and we look forward to supporting NRC with future reviews.”

Published: December 20, 2023