Congress Tries Again on Advanced Nuclear Energy
The ADVANCE Act could mark a major step forward in the deployment of a new generation of advanced reactors
The newly-introduced ADVANCE Act (“Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy”) builds on recent bipartisan efforts to ensure the new and continued use of nuclear energy. It was introduced on Monday April 3rd by five Republican and five Democrat senators.
The bill, if signed into law, would mark a step forward in laying the groundwork for the fast deployment of a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors—reactors the world urgently needs if it is to meet its climate goals while ensuring sufficient, reliable energy for all.
That deployment won’t happen at the pace needed without several other key steps, especially a more efficient, reasonable regulatory system for licensing these reactors. And this legislation is an opportunity for Congress to reiterate, in clearer language, the need for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to urgently create that system.
The Breakthrough Institute collaborated with the ADVANCE Act’s authors during the drafting process, and it is pleased to see that the introduced bill reflects several beneficial provisions for advancing nuclear energy based on our feedback. However, there is still more that can be done.
What’s in the ADVANCE Act?
Licensing fee reform
Companies that want to develop and sell new reactors bear most of the cost of developing reactor designs, which makes sense, but they must also pay the government’s cost to analyze the license applications for those reactors. And those reviews, conducted by the NRC, are slow, tedious, and overly detailed. They’re also expensive, and poised to get even more so; the NRC has proposed raising its billing rate to $300 per hour, $10 up from the previous rate.
With reviews taking upwards of 18,000 hours even for small test reactors, the NRC’s rate is a heavy burden. And although nuclear reactors used to be built by established conglomerates that could afford those costs, many of today’s developers of advanced reactors are start-ups that are less able to bear the extra expenses.
The ADVANCE Act takes a pass at reforming the NRC’s problematic fee structure. With some amendments, the ADVANCE Act could solve much of the problem. We recommend deferring the fees until after the applicant has a license, and thus has the ability to generate revenue from sales. In the meantime, the NRC could recover its real-time costs via a small rolling fund initially seeded by the government. Without a program in place, only large corporations or utilities will have the resources to pursue a license at multiple sites concurrently, creating a barrier to rapid deployment.
We also recommend that the ADVANCE Act adds a cap on the time for the review of an accepted application in line with recent NRC review schedules; costs above that would be paid by Congressional appropriations. The NRC should set up its review schedule and work plan to hold expenses down to that level.
The ADVANCE Act grants a 20-year extension to the provisions of the Price-Anderson Act, a law that pertains to civilian power plants that would otherwise expire in 2025. Price-Anderson requires industry to maintain substantial insurance to cover the costs of an accident with offsite consequences, and provides a backstop where the government would provide coverage in excess of the insurance. The extension of the Price-Anderson Act provides assurance to potential investors and developers that reauthorization will not be a future barrier to starting a new project. Although the Price-Anderson Act could use some adjustments, it is prudent to extend it in its current form to allow more time to properly amend it.
Clarifying regulation of fusion
The ADVANCE Act also recognizes that the NRC’s efforts to develop a regulatory system for fusion reactors can’t sensibly be concluded by the 2027 deadline that Congress previously set in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), and that the date should be delayed so that it does not adversely affect other rulemaking efforts at the commission. This bill would thus keep the 2027 deadline in place for the framework for fission reactors, while excluding fusion.
While Breakthrough has recommended extending the 2027 deadline for developing a framework for fusion, the ADVANCE Act completely removes the requirement that the NRC develop a technology-inclusive framework for fusion technologies. We think that developing such a framework is still an important endeavor to avoid the limitations fission regulation has experienced, the NRC just needs more time to accomplish it. Fusion technologies are on the horizon, and they will need guidelines in order to reach their full potential. As such, we suggest the provision be re-written to extend the deadline for the fusion framework to the end of 2035 without removing the requirement of a technology-inclusive fusion framework.
For more information about fusion regulation, see our recently released whitepaper.
Expediting the coal-to-nuclear transition
The ADVANCE Act recognizes the immense potential in using old coal plant sites for new nuclear facilities. It requires the NRC to “develop and implement strategies to enable timely licensing reviews for, and to support the oversight of, production facilities or utilization facilities at brownfield sites, including retired fossil fuel sites” within two years of enactment.
We appreciate that the definition of “retired fossil fuel site” includes both retired and retiring coal plants, not just already retired facilities. Our research has shown that without early planning and sensible policy there will be a significant gap between fossil-fuel generation plants retiring and potentially being re-powered with an alternative energy source. A significant gap of employment and tax base would not be viable for the surrounding community.
Further, to increase the efficiency of using brownfield sites, there are other provisions a new law could sensibly include. One is to get the Department of Energy more deeply involved in preparing old coal plant sites for new small modular reactors.
The DOE could, for example, apply to the NRC for Early Site Permits. These are permits that can be “banked” for years, and can be granted to give the holder approval for using the site for a future nuclear reactor, without the applicant having to choose precisely which kind of reactor will be built. Obtaining an Early Site Permit would make a site nearly “shovel-ready” and reduce the lag between choosing a place to build and actually getting a reactor into service. Shortening that timeline would make it easier to retain the workers from the coal plant and train them for new jobs at the new nuclear power plant.
Preparing the nuclear workforce
The ADVANCE Act’s authors were correct to address the need to expand the nuclear energy workforce to match the rapid scale-up in deployment. Congress should consider, however, whether the task of setting up “traineeships” would be best managed by the NRC, or perhaps by some other agency. To address the staffing challenges faced by the NRC itself, the ADVANCE Act provides hiring incentives for specific positions that are necessary to evaluate the increasingly large number of applications expected in the next few years, but are difficult to fill.
Managing spent reactor fuel
Another outstanding problem is spent fuel, now stored at the reactor sites. The Department of Energy had pushed the utilities into contracts that required reactor owners to pay a fee to the government—one tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour—in exchange for the government taking the fuel for disposal. Although that requirement went into effect in January 1998, the government failed to ever open a repository, leaving reactor owners both having to store the fuel themselves and pay the government fee.
The courts have ruled that utilities are entitled to collect damage from the government, equal to their extra expenses for storing the fuel on site. And the new ADVANCE Act would require the Secretary of Energy to report on the cumulative amount of those payments (which come to about $700 million a year), anticipated costs through 2050, and methods for improving cost accounting. At a time when the government is tallying up the costs of the current approach, it would be sensible to compare those costs to the cost of reprocessing or permanent storage.
Prizes for nuclear first movers
The ADVANCE Act also authorizes five prizes based on certain licensing activities. For example, prizes are available to: the first reactor that operates flexibly to generate electricity or high temperature process heat for nonelectric applications; the first reactor that uses for fuel isotopes derived from spent nuclear fuel; and the first reactor for which the Commission grants approval to load nuclear fuel pursuant to the technology-inclusive regulatory framework that the NRC was mandated to create by NEIMA (e.g., Part 53). These categories show that Congress is fully aware of the potential of advanced nuclear to solve many problems. Not only can it help decarbonize industrial processes, it can also reduce the amount of spent nuclear fuel that needs to be stored and can operate flexibly to follow varying electricity demand.
Requests reports on key topics
The ADVANCE Act requests a number of reports from federal agencies on various topics.
Information on unique licensing issues or requirements related to non-electric applications of advanced reactors. These uses will be crucial to deep decarbonization.
A report on the “readiness and capacity” of the NRC to license additional fuel conversion and enrichment facilities to reduce reliance on Russian fuel. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made clear the dangers of relying on Russian fuels.
An analysis of the necessary modifications to regulations, guidance, or policy required to enable efficient licensing for facilities at brownfield sites.
A report on advanced methods of manufacturing and construction. Based on Breakthrough’s feedback, the ADVANCE Act now specifically requests information on rapid improvement or iterative innovation processes, in addition to the initial focus on standardization. The ability to rapidly innovate is a concept that we believe will be crucial to the success of advanced reactors. Additionally, manufacturing is an interesting topic, because the NRC staff removed provisions to define manufacturing licenses from the draft Part 53 licensing framework for new reactors, stating they are unsure of how to best make manufacturing licenses flexible for new designs.
Additional provisions that would strengthen the ADVANCE Act
While this bill takes a number of great steps in the right direction, there are several things that could be included that would make it stronger.
Re-emphasize the NRC’s full mission
The NRC’s mandate, to provide “reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and to promote the common defense and security and to protect the environment,” was self-determined. What Congress actually set as the commission’s legal mandate was considerably stronger: to enable “the maximum contribution to the general welfare” and common defense “require effective action to develop, and increase the efficiency and reliability of use of, all energy sources, to meet the needs of present and future generations, to increase the productivity of the national economy and strengthen its position in regard to international trade, to make the Nation self-sufficient in energy, to advance the goals of restoring, protecting, and enhancing environmental quality, and to assure public health and safety.” This legislation is an opportunity to put the NRC on the track that Congress intended.
Set an appropriate risk threshold
The commission has focused on lowering the risk from using nuclear energy, but largely in a vacuum. The appropriate comparisons it should make are to the risks of alternative forms of energy generation, including fossil fuels, which have done vast damage to health and the environment. And the agency should consider its regulatory activities in the context of the impacts to society and the economic effects. Specifically, Congress should tell the NRC to adopt the same standard as used in the Clean Air Act, “ample margin of safety.”
Clarifications to NEIMA
To help reinforce the intent of the new framework for advanced reactors mandated by NEIMA, Congress could make a few amendments to that legislation. For example, where NEIMA tells the NRC to employ risk-informed and performance-based techniques “where appropriate,” NEIMA should instead direct the NRC to use these methods “to the maximum extent possible.” This would remind the NRC that this new framework is intended to be different from the prescriptive frameworks they currently use for light water reactors. The wide variety of new technologies needs a flexible framework that focuses on the actual performance of the reactors and properly considers risks.
Reform the hearing process for contested environmental issues
The commission’s procedures for processing licenses could also stand some improvement. For example, it holds lengthy court-like hearings on contested issues in license applications, which is not consistent with the way other federal agencies do business. A comment-based approach would bring the NRC in-line with other agencies, meet all requirements for public input, while providing much easier and more equitable access for the general public. At minimum, the hearing procedure should be tightened up, in schedule and who should participate.
Reform the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards
One of the bottlenecks in new reactor licensing is the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, which has trouble keeping up, even with the small number of applications now in process. Congress should direct the NRC to evaluate the committee’s ability to process applications, and how it could be improved. NRC should also reexamine the committee’s statutory mandate so that the body does not have to review all applications; it could concentrate instead on novel or safety-significant issues.
The ADVANCE Act takes positive steps towards enabling the safe use of versatile, clean, reliable nuclear energy. However, there are several important provisions that are not in the bill that would further strengthen it and better pave the way for advanced nuclear to contribute significantly to the general welfare of the public.
The original version of this piece misstated how, under the ADVANCE Act, overhead costs would be applied and neglected the hiring incentives the act proposes. The piece has been updated to correct the errors.