Thursday, December 11, 2014

What Do Amazon's Drones and Advanced Nuclear Reactors Have in Common?

Dr. Leslie Dewan
Later this morning, the House Science Committee will hold a hearing on the "Future of Nuclear Energy". Click here to watch the hearing live on UStream at 10:00 a.m.

Featured on the witness list is a name that our readers will be familiar with - Dr .Leslie Dewan of Transatomic Power. She was kind enough to pass along a copy of her testimony so we could preview it for you right now.

We've gotten to know Dr. Dewan very well over the past year thanks to her role in NEI's Future of Energy campaign. Transatomic is developing a new reactor that's designed to burn used nuclear fuel. It's an incredibly promising new technology, but one that Dr. Dewan is concerned won't come to market first in the U.S. because of regulatory hurdles. It was just those sort of challenges that led the Bill Gates nuclear startup Terrapower to decide to build their first prototype in China:
The commercial nuclear regulatory structure in the United States is currently set up only for light water reactors, 100 of which are operating in this country. The regulatory system works well for light water reactors, but it needs to be broadened to successfully encompass advanced reactors as well, so that the U.S. can start taking advantage of the benefits of these new designs. Right now, there is no viable pathway for bringing advanced nuclear reactor designs beyond laboratory-scale development.

Informal estimates discussed at a recent advanced reactor meeting in Washington, D.C. suggest that it would take approximately 20 years – at a minimum – before such a regulatory pathway would be available in the United States. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of uncertainty in how much regulatory approval will cost the company commercializing the design. Estimates for licensing just a prototype facility through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission range from $200 million to $500 million. A commercial license would cost significantly more, and there are no good estimates for what the commercial licensing cost would be for an advanced reactor.

This high cost and long timeline – and furthermore, the uncertainty in the estimates of cost and timeline – effectively blocks large-scale private investment in new nuclear reactor designs. Investors of course won’t put their money into a project without good numbers for how long it will take and how much it will cost.


Developing a better regulatory pathway for advanced nuclear reactor is vital for this country. The United States currently has the best nuclear technology in the world, but I worry that will not always be the case, especially if the most advanced reactor technology is forced to go overseas to be prototyped, licensed, and commercialized. A regulatory pathway for advanced reactors, coupled with the ability to more readily demonstrate reactor prototypes at national laboratories, will enable greater private investment in the suite of new nuclear reactor design currently being developed in this country, and allow the US to retain the extraordinary benefits of this new nuclear technology.
These are not uncommon regulatory challenges. Earlier this month, Amazon sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration concerning its development of drone technology. While Amazon wants to begin testing a drone delivery service, but FAA regulations currently ban it. If that testing ban remains in place, Amazon has said that it will move its research and development efforts overseas.

While we have nothing against Amazon's potential drone delivery service, failure to address regulatory uncertainty around advanced reactors today could have real world consequences for the nation's electric grid tomorrow. We know that concerns another member of the today's panel, Michael McGough of NuScale Power. That company, winner of the second round of the Department of Energy's Small Modular Reactor Program, is trying to commercialize a 50MWe design in the face of customer skepticism that NRC can complete the licensing review process on time.

Dan Lipman, NEI's Executive Director of Policy Development, another member of the panel, will put it this way:
For decades, nuclear and coal-based technologies have been the bedrock of the U.S. electric supply system. The coal-based options are narrowing, which creates a compelling need to ensure that the nation has available a robust, diverse suite of nuclear technologies. Failure to do so would condemn the nation to large and larger dependence on one fuel – natural gas – for electricity production.

As America’s existing generating capacity, including some portion of its nuclear generating capacity, approaches the end of its useful life, the nation must take steps to establish the portfolio of technologies necessary to produce clean, reliable baseload electricity for the 2030s and beyond. To be operational in the 2030s, this generating capacity must be under construction in the 2020s. To be under construction in the 2020s, federal and state governments and industry must address – in the balance of this decade – the financing and regulatory challenges facing these advanced nuclear generating technologies, both SMRs and Gen IV reactors.

Tackling these challenges successfully will require innovative, creative approaches to ensure availability of capital and the regulatory certainty and closure required. Business as usual will not get the job done.
Don't forget to click here to watch at 10:00 a.m.

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