The nuclear energy community was abuzz with news of a nuclear fusion breakthrough at the end of last year. Yet, while fusion innovation offers the promise of a bright future, there’s a more pertinent issue facing the industry today: an antiquated regulatory environment that’s stifling clean nuclear energy development.
The Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia made headlines when its new Unit 3 began loading fuel in October of last year, but after a minor setback during pre-operational testing, Georgia Power was left with no choice but to file a license amendment for the plant through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). A seemingly small problem – vibrations that require a pipe brace – is set to cost the company one million dollars per day, and it’s estimated that relicensing will take at least a month.
Needless to say, there’s absolutely no reason that adding a pipe brace should cost Georgia Power more than 30 million dollars. Often, nuclear energy is criticized for being too expensive or, more specifically, having sky-high upfront costs, but so many of these costs – like what Georgia Power is facing – are completely unnecessary.
Plant Vogtle’s Units 3 and 4 are the first nuclear reactors to be constructed in the United States in more than three decades, and it’s no wonder. Overregulation and the absurd cost – both time-wise and financially – of the NRC permitting process are stopping clean, safe nuclear energy in its tracks. We’re allowing outdated fears and bureaucratic inertia dictate our energy future, while our energy security and climate goals suffer.
Unfortunately, the agency fell prey to the anti-nuclear sentiment that swept the world in the 70s. The once-vibrant nuclear industry of the United States was subjected to a wave of fear-driven overregulation, turning nuclear energy from a very safe to a very, very safe source of energy, in the words of British scientist Matt Ridley.
According to a University of Pittsburgh study at the time, “the time from ground-breaking to operation testing was increased from 42 months in 1967, to 54 months in 1972, to 70 months in 1980,” quadrupling total construction costs. Similarly, regulatory requirements inflated the quantity of concrete required by 27%, the length of electrical cable by 36%, the amount of steel by 41%, and the volume of piping 50%.
Costs and regulatory liabilities have only continued to escalate. Nowadays, it takes 6.7 years on average just for the NRC to just approve a reactor license, and a further 9 years to construct a plant. According to a recent Energy Policy study, the U.S. is unique in its rapid cost escalation, while the paper concludes that “there is no inherent cost escalation trend associated with nuclear technology.”
But the price tag doesn’t stop there. While upfront costs for a nuclear plant are often prohibitive, active nuclear plants also pay an average of $60 million a year in regulatory liabilities. No wonder that nuclear plants like Palisades in Michigan or Indian Point in New York have shuttered their doors prematurely. The NRC isn’t just blocking the construction of new plants, but it’s making life harder for existing plants too.
If we want to save the nuclear industry in the U.S., things need to change. The reality is that, without significant expansion of nuclear energy, meeting the twin goals of energy security and emissions reductions will be impossible. It’s time for Congress to act on nuclear energy, and this starts with reforming the NRC.
We need to expedite timelines for approvals, reform the regulatory and safety requirements for new plants, and reconsider the current fee structure that’s strangling American companies. Moreover, the NRC isn’t keeping up with the times. The agency was originally designed to license large, traditional light-water reactors; the nuclear plants of our grandparents’ era. Given recent breakthroughs in innovation, it must also create a new, simplified regulatory track for the next generation of nuclear plants – so-called small modular reactors – as well as the entirely separate technology of nuclear fusion.
These reforms are long overdue, and if we had prioritized nuclear energy development before an international energy crisis, we would likely be in a better position. Deployment of more nuclear energy is both a national security and a climate issue, and we can’t afford to have a government agency stuck in the 1970s needlessly standing in the way.
Christopher Barnard is the vice president of external affairs at the American Conservation Coalition Action (ACC Action). Read the organization’s policy agenda here.