In just the past decade, nuclear physicists and entrepreneurs have developed innovate commercial reactor designs that are smaller, cheaper and safer than current technology.
Unfortunately, a combination of slow electricity growth, poor political support and competition from natural gas and renewables has dimmed the future prospects for these large, light-water nuclear reactors. Moreover, a roughly three-decade-long hiatus in the domestic construction of nuclear reactors generally has caused the skilled labor and supply changes needed for their construction to atrophy. These problems can be seen most acutely with the addition of new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, which is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
Recent calls for renewed investment in commercial nuclear power have focused on large-scale technocratic programs. Unfortunately, these programs are neither politically feasible nor effective for generating commercial innovation. Novel nuclear designs require a similarly novel approach to federal support of the innovation system. If lawmakers can tear down the regulatory barriers built up over the last 40 years, they will allow a new generation of reactors to disrupt the clean energy market.
One of the most promising of these new designs is the microreactor, which is typically smaller than 10 megawatts thermal (MWth). This is roughly 100 times smaller than the more common light-water reactors that currently make up the industry (for comparison’s sake, Vogtle’s two new reactor units will each surpass 1,000 MWth when completed.)
Rather than using water, these new designs can use molten salt, lead or carbon dioxide, among other media, as the reactor coolant. They also include many passive safety features, meaning no risk of a meltdown. Thanks to a range of niche markets available, including off-grid and industrial use, microreactors have the greatest chance of succeeding in the current marketplace.
Given these remarkable innovations, lawmakers have a critical opportunity to build a nuclear industry that is both responsive to economic realities and takes advantage of America’s unrivaled system of innovation and entrepreneurialism. A white paper published this week by the Breakthrough Institute, the R Street Institute and the ClearPath Foundation argues that modernizing the nuclear innovations system must start with reforms to the regulatory structure of the industry, which will in turn push forward other reforms.
The authors offer several recommendations for reform. One involves setting up an alternative licensing pathway within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for microreactors. Taking this step would allow microreactor developers to take advantage of standards suitable for test- and research-reactors.
They also recommend that the Department of Energy commission a fast test reactor for use by advanced reactor developers, researchers, universities and the government. Additionally, development of U.S. infrastructure to make high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel for advanced reactors is mandatory to end civilian dependence on foreign energy sources, such as Russia and China. Put together, these proposals could dramatically change the nuclear industry business model in the United States for the better.
America’s innovative spirit still animates nuclear science. Thankfully, nuclear power is one of the few bipartisan issues for Congress. Lawmakers have already put forth several pieces of legislation to advance nuclear innovation. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act was introduced in the Senate, and the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act has already passed both houses of Congress.
These bills are exciting, but we’ll need to keep this momentum going to build an innovative nuclear industry that can compete both in U.S. energy markets and abroad.
Jessica Lovering is energy director at the Breakthrough Institute, and William Murray is federal energy policy manager at the R Street Institute.
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