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Updated regulations critical to making the nuclear industry safer, better

Updated regulations critical to making the nuclear industry safer, better
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At a time when federal budgets are tight and new investments in energy infrastructure take a decade or more to approve, we should take every opportunity to lower artificial barriers to investment caused by poorly-directed federal regulation. This proposition is true for nearly any industry, but especially so for nuclear power, which has been suffering two decades of increasingly inflexible regulation that threatens to undermine the industry just as a new generation of safer reactor technology arrives.

Nuclear power has been part of the U.S. electrical grid for seven decades and has routinely produced about 20 percent of the country’s total electricity. But current regulation concerning the nuclear power industry is misdirected, which threatens not only industry jobs, but also America’s role in countering nuclear weapons-proliferation.

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The main regulatory agency — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — is giving too much attention to the current operating fleet at the expense of advancing new generations of reactor technology. As for the main government export-authority — the Department of Energy (DOE) — certain export-control regulations have become unnecessarily cumbersome, creating competitive disadvantages with major nuclear technology exporters like South Korea, Russia and France.

 

A study I published this month through the R Street Institute found several legislative remedies that Congress could use to clear away some of the regulatory blockages impacting the industry. These ideas include creating a new regulatory structure for future reactors, new funding for the research and deployment of safer nuclear fuels, more leeway for federal agencies to contract long-term purchase-power agreements, and more-relaxed export control regulations.

The chief complaint from the industry is the slow process of regulation from the NRC regarding new reactor technologies. Almost all of the United States’ nuclear-generating capacity comes from reactors built between 1967 and 1990. In the past 10 years, nearly 50 nuclear startups across North America have proposed new technologies that could dramatically improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear power operations.

Unfortunately, slow-walking and an overly risk-averse regulatory architecture has ensured that startups with breakthrough nuclear engineering are slow to get to market, or do not reach the market at all. In fact, the closest any current advanced reactor is to commercial deployments is the mid-2020s, nearly a decade away, according to the NRC.

As an example of the problem, executives and engineers with one nuclear startup held over 250 meetings with the NRC between 2010 and 2017 before submitting the company’s application for a new reactor design that is theoretically impervious to meltdown. While such due diligence is in many ways admirable, the nuclear industry, unlike nearly all others, must pay its regulators for each hour worked on a company’s plans, creating a major disincentive for startups.

There are signs that the NRC is starting to direct more attention and resources at new reactor developments, but time is of the essence. This is because nuclear energy and geopolitics are inextricably linked. Russia’s state nuclear power company has agreements to build nuclear plants in Bangladesh, Argentina, Congo and Mongolia. China is constructing reactors in Britain and Pakistan. France, South Korea and Japan all have aggressive plans to promote their nuclear reactor product-lines, often with low-interest loans and other economic inducements as part of the package.

The proposed improvements would not just help the nuclear industry’s financial health, but would add to the successes of U.S. nonproliferation policies. American nuclear exports have been tied to the country’s nonproliferation policies for decades, but regulatory constraints on innovation are now putting at risk decades-old relationships with foreign governments.

Congress and the Trump administration must prioritize the reduction of uncertainties and delays regarding nuclear energy regulation. If the proper changes in policy are made, the benefits of non-carbon electricity, decades-long guaranteed baseload power and decreasing safety risks of emerging technologies will all point toward a new chapter in nuclear power.

William Murray is federal energy policy manager for the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting limited government.