Advanced Nuclear is Ready to Go - If Regulators only Adapt

The Advanced Nuclear Summit, organised by Third Way and Department of Energy, brought together policymakers, innovators, venture capitalists and other investors who are developing advanced nuclear technology to discuss how the private sector is financing new plants, and what the federal government could do help jump-start a new nuclear era. What the event demonstrates is that there is a robust advanced nuclear sector being developed by private companies and research institutions. What is missing is modern regulation for these new technologies.

The Summit was divided into three discussions:

Panel 1: Let’s Get Real: When can we expect commercial advanced reactors?
Panel 2: Check, Please: Are private investors prepared to pick up the nuclear innovation tab?
Panel 3: Putting Uncle Sam to Work: What is the government’s role in advanced nuclear development?

The panel brought together significant names in US nuclear industry as well as technology developers and investors. Amongst the panelist were representatives from Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), Southern Nuclear Operating Company, Department of Energy (DOE), Idaho National Laboratory, Nuclear Innovation Alliance, Terrestrial Energy, Advanced Reactor Concepts, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), NuScale, Transatomic, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), UPower, Breakthrough Institute, Venrock, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and TerraPower.

The summit was a follow up on recent advancements in the US in support of advanced nuclear technology development. The Obama administration and Congress have clearly showed that advanced nuclear is a key part of the climate solution and future energy supply by granting a series of government funding and support. In November 2015, DOE extended its existing $12.5 billion loan guarantee program for innovative nuclear energy projects to include small reactors, advanced reactors, upgrades and power uprates of existing power plants. In January, DOE announced a cost-share support of up to $80 million to help two reactor technology developers, X-energy and Southern Company , in partnership with national laboratories, universities and other companies, to further develop their advanced reactor designs.

Licensing hurdle

Government funding is one step in the right direction, but another key hurdle to advanced nuclear development needs to be tackled. The discussion concluded that much of the advanced nuclear energy is ‘ready to go’ provided that the right regulatory environment can be established. Under the current licensing framework, developed in 1981, the agency is only able to consider approving a new power plant when its application is complete. Filing a complete application requires doing all of the engineering and legal work in advance - an investment of money and time the advanced reactor startups don’t have. Ray Rothrock, partner emeritus of the venture fund Venrock, said the number one issue holding back investment in advanced nuclear projects is financial risk. He added that in the nuclear energy field, financial risk is "just a reflection of regulatory risk." Mr. Rothrock called for a risk-based review process where the NRC can give companies step-by-step approval. If the regulatory process were more certain, entrepreneurs could point to their successful approval milestones when soliciting additional funding from investors.

Joseph Lassiter of Harvard Business School noted that due to sluggish U.S. regulatory oversight, several innovative American nuclear companies are looking abroad to build their first reactor. Terrapower is working with Chinese partners, Terrestrial Energy will build in Canada and ThorCon Power has signed a memorandum of understanding with state-owned Indonesian energy companies to develop thorium molten salt reactors.

It is clearly time for the NRC regulatory framework to be modernized - while keeping its mission of securing adequate protection of public public health and safety and to protect the environment.

The NRC is headed by five Commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. It is thus up to the President of the United States to initiate change in nuclear regulation.

Based on the latest actions, it looks like the process has finally been started. If yet a small, the removal of the licensing resistance would release a wave of new nuclear in the US that has been held back thus far.

The Advanced Nuclear Summit was held on January 27, 2016 and organised by Third Way and the Idaho National Laboratory together with Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Last updated 9 February, 2016