Key stakeholders will need to work together to create a new paradigm for nuclear innovation success. The goal should be to develop a long-term program to build, test, review for safety, and operate advanced nuclear reactor prototypes for sufficient periods of time to prove their principles to produce a profit.
On November 6th the White House announced a multi-part initiative to promote nuclear energy as a component of the country’s clean energy strategy. While it contains some useful efforts like expanding DOE’s loan guarantee program, and increasing information sharing via the agency’s Idaho lab, it comes up short in addressing two critical areas.
The first is developing the capability of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to address safety issues for advanced nuclear technologies without bankrupting their developers in the process. The second is developing a program to build, test, and operate prototypes for sufficient periods of time to prove their principles to produce a profit.
That said there are a lot of good ideas in the Obama Administration’s plan. They include supplementing the current loan guarantee program and establishing a Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear Energy (GAIN).
This effort, located at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, ID, actually contains at its heart a very good idea, which is to provide a one-stop shop for nuclear energy R&D and the development of advanced nuclear technology as well as improvements in conventional light water technology.
What’s missing is the next step and that is to undertake measures to bring investors to the table by addressing several critical issues.
- Changing the pay to play regulatory environment where a developer must reimburse the government for a safety design review and a combined construction and operating license.
- If the Obama administration is really serious about carving out a role for nuclear energy in its Clean Energy Strategy, it needs to work with Congress to change the law.
- The most significant change would be to have the Department of Energy and the NRC pay for and collaborate to create a conveyor belt of development “bets” with multiple reactor technologies starting the safety review simultaneously with the design process.
- The way it would work is that developers would respond to opportunity announcements for R&D, design, development, and, most importantly, money for construction and operation of prototypes to prove their designs ideas. The Idaho lab built 55 reactors over several decades in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
- It provided a secure site with excellent facilities and workforce. It help potential customers of these technologies “kick the tires” as they were being operated, and, utilities got a chance to figure out costs and other factors that would reduce the risks of being customers of the vendors developing these technologies. This is a repeatable model not only at Idaho, but for all of DOE’s labs.
This isn’t the first nuclear summit. In December 2010, a similar, but less high profile meeting was held in Washington, DC, chaired by then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. At that meeting then Idaho lab Director John Grossenbacher made an important statement about timelines for developing new nuclear technologies. He said that a government commitment to nuclear energy is a “100 year” proposition, and he’s right.
Consider the work being done for Bill Gate’s innovative TerraPower reactor. The first TWR, a 600 MW prototype, is expected to demonstrate key plant equipment, qualify the fuel and materials for longer term use, and provide the technical, licensing and economic basis for commercial TWRs.
This prototype is expected to be constructed in China between 2018 and 2023. After testing and optimization, 1150 MW commercial plants are expected to be licensed with start up in the late 2020s or early 2030s. Since it is now 2015, we’re talking about at least a decade or longer to get to a commercial scale first-of-a-kind unit.
According to the Third Way Think tank, there are over three dozen advanced nuclear technology efforts underway in the US. A directory of them is available on this blog. A fair number of them are entrepreneurial start-ups and most of the developers, if they plan to pursue commercialization, will have to go overseas to do so.
If the US wants to regain its role as a technology leader, it must take the nest steps to find homes for these projects with sites, secure operating environments, money for development, testing, and operation of prototypes, and a revised method of paying for regulatory review costs.
The future roles of the NRC and DOE
The NRC is well aware of the gaps in its capabilities to review license applications for advanced nuclear reactor technologies. NRC Chairman Stephen G. Barnes talked candidly about them as part of the nuclear summit. His remarks are undoubtedly informed by the fact that earlier this year the NRC held its first conference on advanced nuclear reactors. A web page with the agenda and presentations is online. The agency also posted a summary if you want an overview of what participants talked about at the meeting.
According to the summary, Chairman Burns stated that even though the current regulatory processes are LWR based, the NRC has the flexibility and experience to license new technologies under the current framework. Burns stressed the necessity of building upon past advanced reactor regulatory experience and maintaining active and open communications among DOE, NRC, industrial stakeholders, and professional societies to address non-LWR licensing challenges. Most importantly, Burns stated that NRC is ready and willing to work with DOE and industry to license innovative new reactors.
What is needed to move the NRC and DOE ahead is a high level policy effort, located in the White House, to assemble recommendations from the NRC and DOE to support a legislative initiative to fund a prototype build and test program without the burden of reimbursement of regulatory costs for safety design review and licensing.
Future forums for dialog
Both the Third Way and the NRC are sponsoring conferences in 2016 to address the issues of developing advanced reactors. Maybe some of the ideas needed to develop this approach could come from these meetings? A good place to start to get some conversations going is to access the resources on the Third Way’s “nuclear resurgence” web site. Also, the recently launch Nuclear Innovation Alliance could become an important forum for developing practical ideas.
In the closing days of the Obama Administration, with a recalcitrant Congress that barely meets its minimal obligations for governance, it may be too much to ask, as a realist view, for this kind of program. However, a start could be made if all of the stakeholders can get together to create a consensus to create a new paradigm for nuclear energy innovation.
# # #