Financial and regulatory barriers to USA's new nuclear technologies

15 December 2014

Developing new nuclear technologies requires overcoming considerable financial and regulatory hurdles, as the promise of clean, efficient electricity remains essential to US energy policy, the Nuclear Energy Institute said, following a meeting on 11 December of a House Science Committee.

Department of Energy assistant secretary for nuclear energy Pete Lyons reiterated President Barack Obama administration's policy that nuclear energy must be a part of any energy plan whose goals include lower carbon dioxide emissions, NEI said. Nuclear power plants already supply more than 60% of the USA's zero-carbon electricity, and closing them would result in a "significant loss of low-carbon energy," Lyons said, according to the Washington-based industry body.

He also called for government cost-sharing programs to support the development of small and advanced reactors. He pointed to the Nuclear Power 2010 program, which brought next-generation reactors like the Westinghouse AP1000 to the construction phase, and the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Licensing Technical Support Program that has partnered the federal government with Babcock & Wilcox and NuScale Power to accelerate the licensing of small reactor technologies.

Daniel Lipman, NEI's executive director for policy development and supplier programs, said, "Companies like Babcock & Wilcox, NuScale and others are prepared to absorb a significant share of the technology design and development costs, but the federal government must also play a significant role - particularly given the enormous promise of SMR technology."

Lipman noted that B&W has invested about $400 million in developing mPower and NuScale about $260 million in its eponymous reactor design - "significant sums of money that will not generate any return for their creators for at least a decade," NEI said.

NuScale is involved in negotiations for an initial project in Idaho, according to Mike McGough, NuScale's chief commercial officer. He echoed Lipman's sentiment that the partnership among the small reactor developers and the federal government, in which the companies are investing, is crucial to a successful deployment of the technology. "Successful completion of the SMR cost-share program depends on sustained Congressional support through continued appropriations," McGough said.

Lipman also addressed ways to improve prospects for funding nuclear energy projects. NEI has recommended that the government consider innovative approaches to close the funding gap, such as the Title XVII loan guarantee program. For example, Lipman said, design, engineering and licensing costs could be folded into the cost of a project and financed through the loan guarantee program. Doing this would permit a project developer to fund more of these costs through debt financing and repay it over a longer period of time.

Another issue hindering small and advanced reactor technology is regulatory uncertainty, NEI said.

Lipman said the problem is a lack of an NRC-approved regulatory roadmap for new reactors, complicated by the commission's hesitation to create regulation in the absence of a submitted design.

Leslie Dewan, chief executive officer of Transatomic Power, expanded on this issue as it applies to advanced reactor designs.

"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 US can start taking advantage of the benefits of these new designs," Dewan said. She proposed that the USA develops a national test bed facility to build demonstration-scale advanced reactors, an idea echoed by Ashley Finan, senior project manager of the Clean Air Task Force.

If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) participated in the advanced reactor test bed projects, Dewan said, "NRC staffers would be building up the necessary expertise to license commercial-scale plants in the future." This head start on licensing could reduce the cost and timeline of licensing an advanced reactor and increase operational certainty, allowing for a better likelihood that private capital can be raised to fund them, NEI said.

Lyons also addressed regulatory issues. He said the NRC's 10 CFR Part 52 combined construction and licensing procedure "allows the end product to be a design that does not have to redo safety tests each time" it is deployed.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News