The conditions that could make advanced nuclear energy a success could be shown as a Venn diagram, a graph that describes a complex idea as the intersection of three overlapping circles. One circle is the need of the public for abundant, clean, and cheap energy; one is the need of the private sector, which will provide the energy, for a business environment offering reasonable rules and a reasonable opportunity for profit; and the last circle is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose goal seems to be flying beneath the radar and keeping itself out of trouble.
And for that reason, it’s not clear that the NRC’s circle actually intersects with the other two.
What is the NRC’s goal? In theory, it’s fulfilling its mission “to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment.”
But there is a second goal, one that gets in the way: Institutional self-preservation.
This is a problem common to many government bureaucracies and particularly those that regulate safety, where bad outcomes can mean injury or death. The first imperative isn’t to let the public enjoy the benefits of the regulated activity (in this case, clean, copious electricity) but rather to preserve the agency. And the main sign of success is not screwing up. Chasing that goal, the agency can sometimes try to preserve itself through safety estimates that are downright fanciful. Screw-ups, in the form of industrial accidents of any size, are more likely with new machines, especially new kinds of machines. Somebody spills something, a valve gets stuck, a pipe gets blocked, or the lubricating oil in a pump motor catches fire. Since nuclear news is already a kind of Rorschach test, the significance of any of these glitches—whether it represents a minor glitch or a narrowly-averted catastrophe—will depend on the viewpoint of the observer.
As with a plane crash, or a generic flaw in the stability of a model of SUV, or the side effects of a new drug, the pattern is the same. A private company will take some heat but the government agency that signed off on it may take a lot more. In turn, it is best to avoid all risk, even trivial risk, and stifle innovation. After all, the agency will never be called before a congressional committee to talk about an unusual event at a plant that didn’t get built. It will never have to answer questions like “what-were-you-thinking” about new machines it did not authorize.
But the perversion of this logic is clear. If nothing new can be built, the agency need not incur risk to its own reputation. However, such self-serving objectives deprive us of the enormous potential benefits of technological advances. People can’t learn from what they choose not to endeavor, and they can’t make new machines that are better and safer than what already exists.
And to be sure, there is plenty of demand for just that type of machine when it comes to nuclear. Congress has promised billions of dollars for advanced nuclear reactors, and it has ordered the NRC to come up with a modern, streamlined regulatory structure for approving them (although the agency is finding this very difficult).
There is certainly a public need; 60 percent of the current energy system runs on fossil fuels. It is dirty and prone to financial and physical upsets. Some of the potential replacements are intermittent and hard for the system to absorb in large quantities. Advanced nuclear energy is a route to climate stability and American prosperity.
There is a corporate need, too, because the utilities that deliver electric energy to most of the United States have promised to reduce their emissions to zero by mid-century, but they don’t yet have plans for how to do so. They are waiting for new, non-emitting technology to be approved by the NRC.
And what is the NRC’s incentive to make this all work?
That is less clear. In one sense, the industry’s health is the agency’s bread and butter. Ninety percent of its budget comes from fees it collects from the entities it regulates. The biggest source is annual license fees from power reactors and fees charged for other regulatory services. But even the cost for the NRC staff to review license applications is paid by the applicant. In that sense, the more complicated the licensing process, the better for the NRC. More complicated reviews = longer review schedules = more money = bigger bureaucracy.
But in a broader sense, the interests of the public and of the agency that represents the public, the NRC, just don’t align. A reactor need not be perfect to be a major benefit to the public. When it displaces a fossil fuel plant, it will help save the climate and eliminate emissions of pollutants that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, including coal miners. As decades of reactor operation have shown, nuclear power is highly, highly unlikely to cause public harm. But the NRC can’t stomach the off chance that a valve gets stuck, the news has a field day, and Congress comes calling.
To some extent, other Federal agencies that are similarly situated have cracked this nut. Late in the last century, some officials at the Federal Aviation Administration were slow to accept the transition of aircraft manufacturers from aluminum to composite materials because the regulator was so well versed in aluminum. But they eventually recognized the benefit of this new technology and allowed the new materials into the aviation system. And the Food and Drug Administration is notoriously wary of new drugs and vaccines, balancing the benefits against the side effects. But it responded to the pandemic with an appropriate sense of urgency. Its provisional authorization of Covid vaccines was an uncharacteristically prompt move that probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
In both cases, critics on the fringe claimed that the agencies had acted recklessly and endangered public safety. But those agencies exhibited the courage to act in the public’s best interest and fulfilled their obligations to the American people. Who benefitted from their public service ethic? The public, far more than the agencies.
But the NRC does not yet seem to have grasped that the world faces an urgent problem that nuclear energy is required to solve, and that paving the way for advanced nuclear technologies can’t reasonably be required to impose zero risk for either the industry or the agency itself. In that sense, self-preservation is accomplished! But the NRC’s circle is detached from the rest of the Venn diagram, and there is no magic intersection where everybody wins.