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The Challenges of Expanding Deployment of Nuclear Energy

By Jon-Michael Murray

Key takeaways

  • Regulatory Hurdles: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is a major obstacle to nuclear energy expansion in the U.S., with excessive and prescriptive regulations stifling innovation and increasing costs. Efforts are underway to modernize the regulatory framework, particularly for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), but significant challenges remain.

  • High Costs and Delays: The recent completion of Plant Vogtle Unit 4 illustrates the financial and scheduling difficulties facing new nuclear projects, attributed to issues such as incomplete designs and poor project management. These factors highlight the inherent risks and complexities of nuclear energy deployment.

  • Permitting Challenges: Environmental permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) poses significant barriers, often leading to costly and lengthy reviews. While reforms are being pursued to streamline the process, the threat of litigation remains a persistent challenge, particularly for smaller reactor designs.

  • Additional Barriers and Reforms: Beyond NRC and NEPA issues, nuclear energy faces state-level restrictions, export controls, and fuel supply challenges. Addressing these requires structural reforms to regulatory processes, reducing the NRC's scope, and minimizing legal obstacles, which are politically challenging but necessary for significant nuclear energy expansion.

The path to significantly expanding nuclear energy in the United States is neither clear nor easy. Plant Vogtle Unit 4 in Georgia entered commercial operation at the end of April 2024, capping the end of the first two new nuclear power deployments in the U.S. in decades. It came in at a total cost of over $31 billion and was many years past schedule.

Analyses have pointed to various factors as the drivers of such overruns, such as inherent difficulties with first-of-a-kind projects, starting construction with incomplete designs, and poor project management practices. All these are valid, but they are only proximate causes.

To overcome investment risk and make it possible to deploy and rapidly build out nuclear energy in the U.S., the policy and regulatory issues underlying most of the nuclear industry’s dysfunction must also be examined. The first step should be to examine licensing and oversight at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Licensing and Oversight

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is by far the greatest barrier to nuclear energy deployment in the U.S. today. The first decade or so of nuclear deployments saw rapid cost declines, about 23% for every doubling of capacity [1]. But that trend reversed abruptly, and costs began shooting upwards when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and then the NRC (formed from the AEC in 1974) started progressively and excessively increasing regulations.

Over fifty years later, the result is a regulatory system with poorly balanced incentives, characterized by a maze of prescriptive requirements and bureaucratic processes. The combined effect is to reduce competition and stifle innovation. Things like mandatory quality assurance requirements require components that are not necessarily different in quality from off-the-shelf industrial-grade ones but cost dramatically more. 

Over the past several years, a range of reactor technologies have come to the fore, promising to alleviate many of the cost and delivery challenges of large light water reactors (LWRs), the technology around which the current regulatory regime has ossified.

Most of these 80+ newer designs are Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which are not only smaller than traditional LWRs but also use different fuels and coolants and operate at different pressures and temperatures. The commercial novelty of these new reactors means they face even more regulatory uncertainty than traditional nuclear plants [2].

Recognizing the need to modernize the nuclear regulatory process to accommodate the slate of new SMR designs, Congress passed a 2019 law requiring the NRC to develop a less prescriptive regulatory framework more conducive to non-LWR technologies [3]. Drafting the licensing rule (10 CFR Part 53) has been fraught with challenges.

After a much-maligned draft of the rule was delivered to the Commission, and following pushback from pro-nuclear groups and even a letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators [4], the Commission voted to remand the rule back to the staff for revisions. Fortunately, the revisions required within the commissioner’s votes were largely aligned with what many reform advocates had been calling for.

The final rule with the Commission’s required changes is expected to be complete in September 2024. Following this, provided the Commission’s concerns have been addressed, the rule will move forward to the mandatory public comment period.

An optimistic scenario might see the rule become effective by January 2025. At such time, the non-LWR community will hopefully have a workable rule with which to begin licensing its technologies [5]. The ability of the NRC to move forward under the rule is and will still be highly uncertain. None of the underlying issues or incentives will have changed.

Manufactured reactors, including microreactors, face additional licensing difficulties. Their delivery model—distinguished by full or partial manufacturing in factory settings, transport to a site, and operation with relatively minimal on-site construction—and the new applications it makes possible- raises additional regulatory questions. If such reactors are loaded with fuel prior to transportation, a raft of additional licenses may be required (e.g., 10 CFR Part 30,40,70,71), as well as permits from other agencies such as the Department of Transportation [6].

One pathway to streamline licensing for such concepts is to introduce manufacturing licenses, in which standardized designs would be licensed at the factory; this could reduce the scope of NRC review for deployment site licensing. But such licensing could again create a novel regulatory situation. 

The NRC is currently considering these matters, as evidenced by two recent NRC staff issue papers [7]. However, any revisions the staff makes will happen through its typically bureaucratic process and will have to compete with other demands on its time. This is especially relevant in a period when at least a dozen new reactor applications are expected to be submitted before the end of the decade. Further, to the extent that new regulatory frameworks are deemed necessary to accommodate these new reactor concepts, additional rulemaking processes will need to be followed.

Permitting

 The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has evolved significantly since it was enacted in the 1970s, quickly morphing from an innocuous procedural statute into one of the primary vehicles for delaying or shutting down infrastructure projects, including nuclear power plant projects. Litigation or simply the threat of it has led the agency’s required environmental reviews to balloon in size and cost.

The two most recent Administrations have taken steps to reduce the negative impact of excessive NEPA reviews, and the NRC is currently finalizing a General Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for advanced reactors. Despite this, little has been done to reduce the potential for spurious litigation of projects, so it remains to be seen how impactful reforms will be.

 Environmental permitting should theoretically be simpler for smaller reactors with reduced footprints, drastically reduced cooling needs, and lower volumes of radioactive material. And some may indeed be subject to lower levels of environmental review. However, SMRs may also bring new challenges. For example, since one of the requirements for a nuclear environmental review is to assess alternative sites, and SMRs are theoretically eligible for a greater range of sites, this requirement may not be practical. Innovations like the GEIS should help with such challenges, but the threat of litigation remains.

Other Barriers

Nuclear power is subject to various layers of regulation across the supply chain, and hence, several barriers exist outside the obvious areas of licensing, oversight, and permitting. These barriers include state-level restrictions, export controls, and fuel and waste policies. While states have disadvantaged nuclear in various ways, such as with renewables subsidies, the primary and direct barriers at the state level are nuclear construction moratoria. They still exist in some form in twelve states, though a few have changed course in recent years. On the other hand, export controls are not direct barriers to US nuclear deployment, but they do inhibit the function of the overall market and thus increase the costs of deploying domestically.

Compared to other nuclear supplier countries, the U.S. nuclear export control regime is more complex and less efficient, impeding the ability of US companies to engage in nuclear trade with willing partners [8]. Further restricting nuclear trade, on May 14th, 2024, President Biden signed a bill banning Russian uranium imports.

While this action may have been justified, it will have downstream effects on the cost and availability of nuclear fuel, particularly for some SMR designs that use more highly enriched fuel, for which Russia currently dominates the market. Finally, it must be noted that the deadlock on siting a US nuclear waste repository continues but poses little issue for near-term nuclear deployments. It is, however, a long-term necessity that Congress will have to address if and when nuclear deployments significantly ramp up.

Conclusion 

The regulatory and policy barriers discussed in this piece suggest a challenging road ahead for nuclear energy deployments. Many policy and advocacy organizations are working on them, but most only tinker at the margins, primarily asking for more funding or additional government authorities rather than addressing root causes with fundamental reforms.

What is more likely to produce results are structural changes that alter the incentive structures in positive ways. Examples include significantly reducing the NRC’s purview or drastically changing the way it regulates, along with substantially reforming NEPA to minimize the possibility of spurious legal challenges. These changes are far more politically challenging, but reformers should be ready if and when the Overton Window shifts.

Longer-term prospects for nuclear power—given its unique energy density and potential for supporting clean electrification of global power networks—are still strong. However, absent the reforms described above, near-term deployments will likely be modest, though that is far from guaranteed. Private sector actors who find ways to bypass existing regulatory barriers or develop innovative solutions that work despite them may yet prove rapid nuclear power expansion possible within the current system. 

Jon-Michael Murray leads Murray Energy Consulting LLC and is the REPOWER Program at clean energy non-profit Terra Praxis, where he is responsible for driving forward the strategic vision and implementation of key REPOWER projects. Jon-Michael joined Terra Praxis from the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), where, as the Nuclear Policy Manager, he developed and advocated for policies to promote the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies in the United States and globally.

Prior to his time at CATF, Jon-Michael served as a Policy Fellow in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office (DOE) of International Affairs, working on international climate and clean energy engagement, including in such fora as the Clean Energy Ministerial and UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties. Jon-Michael also worked to promote U.S. trade and export competitiveness at the International Trade Administration (ITA), primarily working on ITA’s civil nuclear energy portfolio.  

Formerly, Jon-Michael served as a nuclear operator in the U.S. Navy, stationed on an aircraft carrier out of Japan, after which he explored entrepreneurship and worked in the private sector in Thailand.

He received a master’s in International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University, a master’s in Environmental Management from Yale University, and a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology from Thomas Edison State University.


[2] I emphasize “commercial” here since most of these reactors are based on prototypes that were built and operated around the world in the early days of nuclear power.

[3] This type of framework has been referred to as technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and performance-based.

[5] Note that a handful of technologies have already begun licensing under existing rules.

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