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Advanced Nuclear Industry to Regulators: Give Us a Chance

Entrepreneurs argue that reactor technology innovation is limited by regulatory barriers.
October 13, 2015

Under the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one new nuclear plant has been approved and launched in the last 35 years. Yet there are now nearly 50 companies in the U.S. and Canada researching and developing advanced nuclear power technologies, according to Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization focused on energy, climate change, and national security. These companies are backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital from individual investors like Bill Gates and from major venture capital funds (see “Experiments Start on a Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactor” and “Advanced Reactor Gets Closer to Reality”).

Former NRC chairman Allison Macfarlane: Nuclear power is “a different beast.”

Several of those companies were on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week for the Solve conference, participating in a workshop called “Building a Scalable, Safe New Nuclear Reactor Design.” Among the companies represented were Transatomic Power, TerraPower, Moltex Energy, Tri-Alpha Energy, and Terrestrial Energy.

Many of these new entrants view the NRC’s prolonged and expensive licensing process as a barrier to innovation. It can take a decade or more, and hundreds of millions of dollars, just to get a license for a prototype reactor from the NRC.

This, says Allison Macfarlane, who was NRC chairman from 2012 to 2015 and is now the director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University, is the way it should be. The long time lines, safety concerns, and high capital cost of building nuclear plants all require a regulatory process that is robust and thorough. “Nuclear is a different beast,” Macfarlane said at Solve.

That doesn’t sit well with new nuclear entrepreneurs, many of whom have already spent millions of investors’ dollars to design and develop machines they believe could transform the energy sector—if they can ever get them licensed and tested.

“What we need is an alternative to the current licensing regime,” says Andrew Kadak, a research scientist in the nuclear science and engineering department at MIT and the former president of the American Nuclear Society.

Proponents of advanced nuclear reactors agree on the broad outlines of what’s needed to advance the technology in the U.S.: a streamlining of the NRC’s licensing process; a “test-then-license” approach, akin to the approval process for new drugs from the FDA; more active involvement of the U.S. Department of Energy in accelerating research and development on these technologies; and the establishment of a national testbed facility where advanced reactor prototypes could be built and assessed.

The undermanned NRC has indeed embarked on a reform program, but unfortunately it’s not the sort of reform the advanced reactor community is seeking. Rather than enhancing the agency’s capabilities to assess new designs and help accelerate innovation, current plans—backed by James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who chairs the committee that oversees the commission and has repeatedly dismissed global climate change as a hoax—call for the NRC to be “right-sized,” i.e., downsized. Despite the broad and well-funded efforts in the U.S. to bring advanced reactors to market, a February NRC presentation on Project Aim 2020, the agency’s internal strategic plan, foresees that the number of new reactors seeking licenses will be “down significantly” by 2020.

The net effect of the regulatory sclerosis in the U.S. is to force companies offshore. TerraPower, the startup funded in part by Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates that is focused on a novel machine known as a traveling wave reactor, signed an agreement in September with the China National Nuclear Corp. to build a prototype unit in China. Other U.S.-based startups have indicated their intention to find more nuclear-friendly countries in which to prove their technology. Even the DOE, via Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is collaborating with a Chinese partner: Oak Ridge is working with the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics to build a prototype molten salt reactor.

“Our preferred option is to deploy this technology in time to make a difference to climate change,” says TerraPower’s chief financial officer, Marcia Burkey. “China is a market for us because it’s a very active market for nuclear power at this time.”

Macfarlane is unmoved. “The problem is not the NRC,” she said at the conference. “It’s the economics” of nuclear power.

She has a point. As long as the price of power from natural gas plants hovers at all-time lows, it will be hard for any form of new nuclear reactors to be built. Still, the message from the scientists, executives, and investors behind new nuclear R&D is clear: at least give us a chance.

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