Lost in the hubbub over climate lawsuits and unrest is how investments in emissions-reduction technology made over the past decade are starting to improve the clean energy marketplace.

Of particular note is the development of small, cheaper, safer nuclear reactors that, once operational, could greatly expand the capacity of the U.S. electricity grid. These include molten-salt and graphite-moderated reactors, both of which use non-water coolants that can’t evaporate and therefore make for much safer technology.

For decades, the nuclear power industry has remained frozen in amber as regulatory authorities worked to improve safety and security after the 9/11 attacks and the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan. Only in the last year or so has the main U.S. nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, really started to consider alternative pathways for licensing these advanced reactor designs.

As the nuclear industry starts to move through this transformation from older light-water reactors to smaller, safer reactors in the 2020s, officials need to pay more attention to the regulatory rubric under which nuclear power operates. And to truly make a new licensing pathway effective and useful, both Congress and the NRC will have to consider two serious, overdue changes.

The first change would be to reopen an investigation on the scientific justification for the use of the “linear no-threshold” model, a scientific standard holding that any level of radiation greater than zero is a risk to health.

Although scientific consensus holds that intermediate- and high-dose radiation is very dangerous to human health and should be avoided at all costs, an increasingly large volume of research in the past decade has undermined the consensus on low-dose radiation. Even the NRC qualifies its adherence to the “no-threshold” model by noting that “public health data do not absolutely establish the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses.”

For instance, human exposure to radiation via medical procedures and long-distance commercial flight is surpassing the doses of radiation given off normally by nature, becoming the biggest source of ionized radiation to humans. Yet scientists have found no discernible health effects to those people with higher-than-normal exposure to radiation, such as flight attendants, medical technicians, or patients of nuclear medicine.

These facts call into question whether the linear no-threshold model is actually scientifically sound.

In the regulatory context, these findings suggest that strict regulations based on the linear no-threshold model are putting unnecessary financial and emergency-planning costs on the nuclear industry. Such costs are not only a waste of resources, but also discouraging the use of nuclear power as an energy source.

Second, the NRC ought to initiate a rule-making process that looks to create a separate insurance pool for new reactor types with outputs of fewer than 50 megawatts. Currently, every reactor operator is given roughly $13 billion in liability coverage via the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnification Act to compensate the public if a nuclear accident occurs. In return for the coverage, operators must agree to participate in several insurance pools that involve both liability and property damage coverage.

Yet makers of new reactors argue that placing their reactors in an insurance pool with larger, older reactors will be a disincentive to potential investors who see the safety benefits of smaller, safer reactors and want to be associated with lower risk. Design features developed for the new reactor types can’t be used on the existing fleet, allowing insurance underwriters to re-price nuclear reactor risk to much lower premium levels if a separate pool were introduced.

Some critics argue that spending time on these matters is futile because, by the time new reactors based on emerging nuclear technology are completed, it will be too late to combat climate change. But this belief is a classic example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Combating climate change is a battle to be waged over the next generation or longer. Arguing that new nuclear reactors won’t be developed soon enough is like saying World War II wasn’t worth fighting because technologies that were integral to the Allies’ war effort — such as the proximity fuse, the Higgins boat, or the long-range bomber — weren’t fully developed at the war’s beginning.

Ultimately, to make significant progress with regulation, changes to the Price-Anderson Act — which is due for renewal in 2025 — will have to be made. Although 2025 seems far away, it’ll be here before we know it.

Now is the time to start thinking about legislative changes to nuclear rules so that a new generation of technology can bloom in time to meet the problems of a carbon-constrained world.

Image credit: TTstudio

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