On July 31, Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA) introduced the
Streamline America's Future Energy Nuclear Act, which brings a
fresh approach to U.S. nuclear energy policy. Instead of the
well-worn subsidy-first approach that often dominates congressional
attempts to support nuclear energy, Congressman Pitts's bill
focuses on reforming the arduous regulatory and policy environment
so that the nuclear renaissance can flourish.
Puts Nuclear Energy on the Fast
The current permitting process to build new reactors is a
product of a streamlining effort established by the Energy Policy
Act of 1992, but it is still proving to be too slow. The SAFE
Nuclear Act, while not taking resources away from those that choose
to pursue the current four-year permitting schedule, would create a
second permitting track that would allow for a permit to be issued
in approximately two years.
The SAFE Nuclear Act would allow permit applicants that meet
certain conditions to enter into the expedited program. To be
eligible, applicants must:
- Construct a reactor in which the design has already been
certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC);
- Build the new reactor on or adjacent to a site where reactors
- Not be subject to any NRC actions to revoke operating permits;
- Have submitted a completed combined construction and operating
license permit application (COLA) that has been docketed by the
The expedited process would entail the issuance of a draft
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) within 12 months of the
application being docketed and the final EIS within 18 months.
Further, hearings over contested application issues would begin
once the draft EIS is issued rather than after the final EIS. This
would allow the NRC and applicant to resolve contested licensing
issues within 24 months of the application being docketed.
The bill also calls for the Safety Evaluation Report, NRC's
application technical review report, to be completed within 18
months of the application being docketed. While such timeframes
would be tight, with close coordination between the applicant and
the NRC, it should allow for a significantly shortened process.
A Foundation for a True Nuclear
The SAFE Nuclear Act would also lay the groundwork for a true
nuclear renaissance. For the United States to reestablish its
leadership in the commercial nuclear sector, it must begin
researching, developing, and commercializing new nuclear
technologies. The SAFE Nuclear Act would move toward that end in a
number of ways.
It Would Open the Marketplace to New Technologies. First,
the bill begins to break down one of the primary obstacles that new
reactor technologies have in entering the marketplace: a lack of
regulatory support. The current NRC does an outstanding job of
regulating large light-water reactors, 104 of which operate in the
U.S. today, but it performs inadequately in developing regulations
that would allow new technologies into the marketplace.
Without this regulation, new technologies are effectively banned
because customers are hesitant to buy reactors that the NRC will
not regulate, and the NRC does not want to put its resources toward
a reactor technology that has no customers. The result is that new
nuclear technologies are at a severe disadvantage.
To begin changing this, the SAFE Nuclear Act would direct the
NRC to develop a set of guidelines for technology neutral nuclear
plant designs. Instead of mandating that a specific nuclear
technology be wedded to a specific plant design, the new guidelines
would allow for other nuclear reactor technologies to be used in a
nuclear power plant, creating a significant step toward building a
more diverse and competitive nuclear industry.
It Would Develop Human Resources. To better regulate a
growing and diverse nuclear industry, the NRC should develop a new
generation of regulators. It is not enough, however, to simply
pluck technology-specific experts out of industry or academia. Not
only should the NRC have technical experts; these experts should
also be trained as regulators.
To ensure that the NRC has ample human resources to support its
new regulatory direction, the SAFE Nuclear Act would direct the
commission to focus a portion of its educational funding on
developing the regulatory and technical expertise that it will need
for a more diverse future. It also directs the Department of Energy
(DOE) to devote some of its educational funding toward the same
It Would Create a National Nuclear Energy Council. No
comprehensive policy on nuclear energy issues exists at the federal
level. The result is often a confusing application of policy in
real-world situations because multiple government stakeholders,
such as the DOE and the Department of State, often have different
interpretations of different issues. Having an entity to coordinate
the federal government's policy with the needs of the nuclear
industry could prove invaluable.
It will be critical, however, that the council not devolve into
a subsidy development organization. The Energy Policy Act of 2005
has already established substantial subsidies--such as loan
guarantees, production tax credits, and insurance against
government delays--to help mitigate some of the risk of initial
investors. Expanding subsidies would simply lead to government
dependence, higher prices, and less innovation.
It Would Expedite Existing DOE Programs. Nuclear Power
2010 (NP2010) and the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) are the
DOE's top nuclear development and commercialization programs. The
SAFE Nuclear Act would efficiently bring both to fruition.
NP2010 began in 2002 as a public/private partnership to bring an
advanced light-water reactor on line by 2010. This is not close to
happening, but the program has made significant progress toward
addressing the technical and regulatory challenges that faced the
industry at the program's inception. The SAFE Nuclear Act would
fully fund one more year of the program but then brings it to an
end, which would allow the program to meets its goals without
transforming into a corporate handout.
The SAFE Nuclear Act also accelerates NGNP, which is a
public/private cost-sharing technology development program that
focuses on high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology.
Unfortunately, the program relies on a nine-year licensing timeline
that would not allow for a new HTGR reactor to come on line until
2021. The SAFE Nuclear Act calls on program managers to develop a
funding and development schedule that would allow for the program
to conclude as early as 2015.
A New Era of Nuclear Energy
The SAFE Nuclear Act represents a turning point in American
nuclear energy policy. Instead of using subsidies to help make
nuclear energy more competitive, the SAFE Nuclear Act puts forth a
set of economically sound, market-based proposals. While subsidies
might give the United States a handful of rectors, the market-based
policies proposed in the SAFE Nuclear Act would put the U.S.
nuclear renaissance on the fast track.
Spencer is Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy in the Thomas A.
Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage