How "New Nuclear" Power Could Save the Planet—If Regulators Would Allow It

The barriers to rapid progress in next-generation nuclear power are certainly not technical and probably not even economic, argues Joseph Lassiter. The greatest barriers today are in outdated nuclear regulations.
by Joseph Lassiter

Leaders from some 150 nations have convened in Paris this week for the COP21 conference with a singular goal: to fight the global threat of climate change. Each of them have brought to Paris their own national plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change while meeting the energy needs that they view as essential to development of their nations and the lives of their citizens.

The aggregate sum of those national plans presents a stark reality to the world’s leaders. The accumulating greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, will increase through the end of century, accelerating the impact of climate change and threatening many on this planet. Our leaders face energy’s Gordian knot. They must find a way to cut it.

"We need to deliver real economic alternatives to coal-fired power to the developing world, particularly Asia"

The reason that CO2 is forecast to keep flooding into the atmosphere is clear. The world’s existing and anticipated alternatives for zero carbon energy—renewables, carbon capture and storage, and the established nuclear technologies—are not good enough to wean the world from coal.

The remedy is equally clear. We need to deliver real economic alternatives to coal-fired power to the developing world, particularly Asia. We need an energy source that is cheaper than and as deployable as coal. That energy source needs to be available and acceptable to the public everywhere in the world very, very soon if we are to break coal’s grip in time to avoid the future that our leaders forecast.

I believe the world has an unanticipated and undervalued energy source that can beat coal and that can be near at hand. That energy source is “new” nuclear power, which the world is overlooking simply because too many people have grown to accept that rapid progress in all forms of nuclear power is impossible. We need to challenge that belief.

The barriers to rapid progress in next-generation nuclear power are certainly not technical and probably not even economic. The greatest barriers today are in outdated nuclear regulations not only in the United States but around the world that hamper rapid iteration and experimentation in the product development process. This, in turn, stifles innovation, scares off private investors and creates an industry-regulatory culture that has grown to accept development timelines measured in decades as the best than can be done.

Fortunately, there are a number of new ventures that promise to thwart the threat of coal with next-generation nuclear power plants in time to save the planet, if only the world will let them:

  • NuScale Power specializes in small modular reactors (SMRs), which are designed to be more scalable and easier to build than traditional reactors. The company, which grew out of research funded by the Department of Energy, has applied for certification in the United States from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • TerraPower has designed a traveling wave reactor, a type of sodium-cooled fast reactor, in the US. Bill Gates is its chairman. Earlier this year, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the China National Nuclear Corporation targeting the first working prototype in China.
  • ThorCon Power has designed a hybrid thorium/uranium molten salt reactor this year in the United States. The company just signed a memorandum of understanding with three Indonesian state-owned enterprises: PT INUKI (nuclear technology), PT PLN (electrical transmission and distribution) and PT Pertamina (oil and gas), all targeting the first working prototype in Indonesia.
  • There are more on-grid entrants such as Terrestrial Energy and Transatomic Power as well as off-grid entrant UPower Technologies in the wings.

As an American citizen, I find it sad when US-based ventures decide to sidestep (or non-US ventures decide not to come to) the United States to develop their products due to what I perceive as failures of national policy and common sense. I hate to see big business opportunities slip through our fingers. However, I believe that these new nuclear ventures should go wherever they need to go to make progress and the world should help them. The world needs better zero carbon options much, much sooner than the current US system permits.

Regarding the slow pace of nuclear development around the world, it is easy to place all the blame on the regulators. That is far too simple. The regulators are doing exactly what political leaders (and the voters) have asked them to do, driven by the fears of the past: ensuring nuclear safety and radiological health and avoiding nuclear proliferation.

However, our actual experience with these issues has been far different than anticipated. Political leaders and voters need to ask regulators to re-engineer their processes to reflect what has been learned. We need to make informed decisions about the true risk when the real reward is an energy source that can provide US-levels of power consumption to every person on the planet for thousands of years.

There is much that can be done. We can establish fast-track advanced reactor test and development facilities in multiple countries. We can re-engineer regulatory processes to radically lower costs and shorten approval times by testing full-scale prototypes before licensing. We can create new public safety regulations based on the world’s actual experience with nuclear accidents and their radiological health impacts. We can develop new tools and techniques for managing and securing radioactive materials as well as slashing storage requirements by burning waste in specialized reactors.

But we’re under a tight deadline, given Paris’s forecasts, if we are to beat coal in time. We need to set targets that beat coal on cost and availability. We need to set a schedule based on nuclear development at its best in the United States, France, and Sweden. It won’t be easy, but it just might be doable.

  1. “New nuclear” power must be ready to go, judged safe by regulators and technology-ready by investors by 2023.
  2. “New nuclear” power must be cheaper than coal for the developing world’s national utilities (less than $0.05 per kilowatt hour) by 2025.
  3. ”New nuclear” must be as deployable at the same rate as coal for the developing world’s policymakers (more than 100 one-gigawatt plants per year) across all major markets by 2030.

All of this will require true innovation in reactor designs, fast-cycle development, physical stress testing, manufacturing/servicing, fuel processing, waste disposal, and even financing. These will require everyone in the nuclear community to join in on the innovation: the entrepreneurs, the investors, the utilities, and, yes, the regulators and political leaders.

In all of the above, we must provide public transparency in order to earn and keep the public trust that will be needed if we are deploy the number of nuclear power plants necessary break coal’s grip today. The world needs options that are bold enough, happen soon enough, and are trusted enough to be the sword that cuts energy’s Gordian knot in time...or why bother at all.

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