President Trump’s signing of legislation earlier this fall to authorize more ambitious licensing practices by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could not come at a better time for an industry trying to become a safer, cheaper, more profitable version of itself in the 21st century.
In layman’s terms, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) will potentially speed up development of advanced reactors that are superior in operation, safety and cost compared to the current fleet of 99 operating plants, most of which were built more than 40 years ago.
The law’s passage happened none too soon, as the U.S. nuclear industry has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. Nearly all new-build plans using existing light-water reactor technology over the past decade have been abandoned due to their lack of competitiveness with natural gas. Meanwhile, state-sponsored companies in Russia and China are offering new nuclear technology in many countries at cut-rate prices; a move that threatens to push U.S. efforts against nonproliferation to the sidelines.
The NRC had a rough early 2010s for a federal regulator, with its normally apolitical technocratic stances on nuclear power undermined by a political knife fight with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over the Yucca Mountain storage facility and personnel issues. Reid was an implacable foe of nuclear power and blocked commission appointments for years. The battles ended up forcing out Chairman Greg Jaczko, a Reid protégé, in 2012 and helped distract the commission from major industry changes. Reid’s damage to the industry was extensive and should not be forgotten.
As the NRC was distracted, a new generation of nuclear scientists were dusting-off old reactor designs that, when used in the modern context, could become dramatically cheaper and smaller to build and maintain. Many of the new designs use coolants that cannot evaporate, like molten-salt and liquid metal, giving them a much safer baseline than that of current light-water reactors. They are also smaller, but still able to supply electricity to up to 2,000 homes.
By the end of the Obama administration, the commission had gained a reputation among the new generation of nuclear inventors as intransigent and risk-averse to any new technology that had not already been established, creating a major regulatory hurdle to the industry that was desperately in need of innovation.
But the commission’s character has changed markedly in the past two years, with its chairwoman, Kristine Svinicki, saying in a speech in March that “unless there are some kind of experimentations and pilots modeling new paradigms, I’m not sure that the old models will carry us through.”
Svinicki, who has been on the commission since 2008, now has a full component of five commissioners for the first time in years with the addition of Commissioners Annie Caputo and David Wright in May 2018.
Bipartisan pressure from Congress and unambiguous support from the White House certainly helps, but observers say there is now a new sense of urgency and excitement in the halls of the NRC. Svinicki herself believes the success or failure of the U.S. nuclear industry will be determined in the next four to seven years.
The agency is now working to create a first-of-its-kind type of license that allows the first several micro-reactors to go through a faster, less expensive application process. If the commission is able to develop a more technology-neutral, “risk informed” process, the NRC could dramatically lower the regulatory risk for small nuclear firms with breakthrough ideas. Language in the NEICA also calls for the creation a National Reactor Innovation Center that can hopefully leverage the technical expertise of the U.S. national lab system to help construct experimental reactors.
However, more needs to be done to save the industry. If Svinicki’s forecast is correct, there must be breakthrough technology for nuclear reactors in place by 2025 or the U.S. industry will simply die, leaving contaminated relics of a hundred reactor plants and associated nuclear waste the only remnants of once vibrant industry.