From a multilateral agreement to triple global nuclear energy production at COP28 to the powering on of dormant reactors worldwide, 2023 was undoubtedly the year of nuclear power. However, without meaningful regulatory reforms, the year’s success could be an anomaly rather than the norm going forward.
The embrace of nuclear energy was seen internationally and in the United States, where regulators approved the nation’s first advanced reactor design, and a newly built reactor came online for the first time in over thirty years. Despite nuclear power’s progress, the industry still faces stringent and outdated regulations that threaten momentum for the energy source in 2024. Lawmakers must address these impediments and reduce barriers to allow nuclear power to thrive in the new year.
In addition to impressive breakthroughs from the private sector, Congress has also shown its support for nuclear power, culminating with the passage of the ADVANCE Act. Sponsored by Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the ADVANCE Act takes several steps to bolster American nuclear energy generation by capping licensing fees for developers, streamlining permits for coal to nuclear projects, and expanding the nuclear workforce.
Despite the positive steps this bill and others like it take to ease burdens for nuclear power, the industry still faces a stringent regulatory system that slows innovation and increases project costs.
One of the most prominent examples is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reactor licensing process. Under the current NRC structure, advanced reactor developers must adhere to regulations based on the technology of large light water reactors. This is problematic for several reasons. Advanced reactors differ from their larger counterparts; they are smaller, employ different passive safety features, and sometimes run on spent fuel. Still, the commission applies the same broken and inefficient licensing process, often at the expense of innovation and progress.
This inflexible licensing pathway is one of the reasons for the cost increases that forced NuScale to cancel its novel advanced reactor pilot project in Utah.
After receiving design certification for its fifty-megawatt reactor, NuScale was forced to adhere to the pressure vessel and containment system standards based on requirements for reactors twenty times larger than its own. Typically, the most expensive part of reactors is due to the high amounts of steel and cement they require, meaning that fulfilling the NRC’s requirements took away the economic advantage that a smaller reactor was supposed to offer. NuScale also faced higher project costs due to inflation, constrained supply chains, and a lack of domestic fuel production, all of which are challenges the nuclear industry must face.
Congress has ordered the NRC to develop a modernized, technology-neutral licensing pathway for advanced reactors, and the NRC staff has released a draft named Part 53. Unfortunately, the Part 53 draft released in 2022 doubled down on the onerous licensing requirements already in place, which will undoubtedly slow down innovation even further if the rulemaking is not fixed.
Yet another obstacle the industry faces is quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) requirements, which require developers to purchase nuclear-grade materials like steel and cement. In some cases, these materials are more than fifty times more expensive than their industrial counterparts due to increased paperwork and bureaucracy, not higher levels of safety.
While the ADVANCE Act takes action to modernize QA and QC standards, these requirements indicate the risk-averse regulatory culture of the nuclear industry. Rather than making it easier for innovators to innovate or new projects to come online, federal regulators have adopted an approach that considers any risk too high—a challenge unique to nuclear power. Not only does it drive up costs, but it also relays to the public that the energy source is dangerous, which is antithetical to the data.
Suppose the United States wants to make good on its commitment to expand nuclear power globally. In that case, it must start within its borders and introduce a regulatory system that rewards innovation and allows new projects to come online. This begins by modernizing licensing requirements, streamlining permitting, and putting material requirements on the same playing field as other energy sources.
From significant international commitments to increased bipartisan support in Congress, the future of American nuclear energy looks bright as we head into 2024. However, this momentum could be stalled without modernizing regulations and creating more efficient pathways to bring innovative technologies online. Nuclear energy is clean, safe, and reliable. It’s time for the regulatory system to reflect that.
Jeff Luse is a Policy Analyst at Generation Atomic. Jeff’s writing on energy issues has appeared in national publications such as The Hill and National Review.