By Ted Nordhaus
Imagine the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration insisting that its duty is to keep people off the roads unless the risks of driving can be reduced to zero. Or the Food and Drug Administration refusing to approve new drugs and vaccines unless pharmaceutical companies can prove they had no side effects. Both agencies are supposed to balance public safety with the social benefits of what they regulate.
That’s what Congress had in mind when it created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 recognized the need to develop nuclear power to meet national priorities including the “needs of present and future generations,” the “productivity of the national economy” and “public health and safety.” But for years the commission has myopically focused on the final prong of that mandate. The NRC has ignored the benefits of nuclear power and approved projects only if the risk of radiation exposure is infinitesimally small. The predictable result: As other advanced technologies became safer and cheaper, nuclear energy got more expensive.
That puts the Biden administration in a bind. The White House recently made clear that it can’t reach its climate goals without commercializing a new generation of nuclear reactors. Yet thanks to years of the NRC slow-rolling nuclear development, the industry isn’t ready. Consider
NuScale Power Corp., whose small modular reactor officially received the first design certification from the NRC in January 2023, nearly five years after the commission took up its application. Ten months later the company canceled its flagship project in Idaho, in part because of rising costs.
The administration hasn’t helped with some of its personnel choices. Last year Mr. Biden nominated Jeff Baran to another five-year term as an NRC commissioner despite his history of obstructing nuclear licensing and his insistence that the NRC focus exclusively on radiological health risk. “It is my job to focus on nuclear safety and security,” Mr. Baran told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at his 2017 renomination hearing. “It is not my job to weigh in on the pros and cons of the merits of nuclear power.”
Bipartisan opposition prevented the Senate from taking up a floor vote. Last month news broke that Mr. Biden was pulling his nomination. That reflects a welcome change of heart among many Democrats toward nuclear energy. Significant majorities of congressional Democrats in recent years have voted to develop a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors and to modernize the NRC’s licensing process. The Inflation Reduction Act includes programs that could benefit nuclear energy, such as tax credits that flow to nuclear plants that generate zero-carbon electricity. Mr. Biden’s former climate envoy, John Kerry, brokered a pledge among 22 countries to triple global nuclear-energy capacity by 2050.
Yet none of these developments will suffice without real leadership at the NRC. To turn those promises into reality, the commission will need Democratic officials who take the benefits of nuclear energy seriously.
That starts by understanding that overregulation isn’t a virtue. NRC rules have substantially increased the cost of developing, building and operating nuclear reactors without bringing much in the way of additional public-health or safety benefits. Even worse, the continual tightening of nuclear regulations has almost certainly worsened public health nationwide. When red tape hamstrings the construction of new plants, the nation’s electricity system has to keep relying on polluting fossil-fuel facilities.
A new generation of safe and advanced reactors is ready to be commercialized. Private investment is waiting on the sidelines to bring nuclear-energy technologies to market. Significant majorities of Americans support nuclear energy. And the White House’s climate ambitions depend on developing an innovative and globally competitive nuclear industry in the U.S. If Mr. Biden nominates a champion to the NRC who understands the importance of that mission, it will be an important step on the road to that future.
Ted Nordhaus is founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. An American author, he has co-edited and written a number of books, including Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and An Ecomodernist Manifesto with collaborator Michael Shellenberger. EnergiesNet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), on February 11, 2024 . All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.
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EnergiesNet.com 02 11 2024