Biden signs a big nuclear bill. Can it remake the industry?

Source: By Zach Bright, E&E News • Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2024

It’s now up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to accelerate the next generation of reactors.

Joe Biden delivers remarks on the 75th anniversary of NATO.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the 75th anniversary of NATO at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington on Tuesday. Evan Vucci/AP

President Joe Biden signed legislation Tuesday that aims to deploy advanced nuclear reactors more quickly, placing wind at the backs of companies feverishly striving to carve out a bigger niche for nuclear technology as a zero-carbon source of electricity.

The ADVANCE Act, aims to further streamline permitting for new reactor designs, give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission more resources, and promote deployment across the globe.

For the NRC, it’s a chance at redemption. The pace of permitting projects is regarded by nuclear advocates as a major impediment to any future nuclear renaissance. The latest injection of support from Congress builds on the agency’s ongoing effort to sift through applications and put easier safety assessments on faster tracks.

The legislation will make a “long-lasting mark on our nation’s clean energy future and help secure our global leadership,” said Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

But other close observers of the industry cautioned that it comes down to implementation. A vacant seat on the five-member NRC means the pace of licensing the next generation of reactors could hinge on who occupies the White House in 2025.

Both Biden and former President Donald Trump — with much of the Republican Party in tow — tout a return to nuclear energy as a potential solution to U.S. energy and climate challenges. Biden’s Department of Energy has helped shore up existing reactors and cast a $1.5 billion lifeline to a shuttered nuclear plant in Michigan that aims to restart in 2025. At the global climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, last December, the United States pledged with more than 20 other countries to triple the world’s nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

The Trump administration also took actions aimed at developing and exporting U.S. nuclear technology.

Yet given the huge financial commitment required to build out the nuclear industry, Trump’s strategy is less clear today. During his previous four years in office, he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office. And through political surrogates such as the Heritage Foundation, Trump’s backers have indicated they’d significantly pare DOE spending on nonfossil energy.

The DOE loan program provided support to the $30 billion Vogtle nuclear expansion in Georgia that slogged its way to completion earlier this year.

Marcus Nichol, NEI’s executive director for new nuclear, said next steps for putting the nuclear law into action is as much about setting NRC priorities at any other factor. “That will very much depend on the complement of the commission,” he said.

“Looking ahead, we’re all focused on the implementation side,” said Erik Cothron, a senior analyst for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

Changing its mission

The ADVANCE Act passed with bipartisan support. But it’s also the first significant nuclear legislation in almost two decades.

Since 2005, the last time Congress put its foot on the scale hoping to spur more nuclear projects, the energy mix has changed significantly. Natural gas is the largest source of electricity. Solar power is dominating new generation. Battery technology and more transmission are enabling remote wind power to travel longer distances. And investment in technology to pull more carbon pollution out of the air is advancing.

Westinghouse is no longer the only company developing nuclear technology at scale. And the leading companies developing smaller-scale nuclear reactors are rooted in Silicon Valley — not Pittsburgh or Houston.

The other tough reality is that building a new nuclear reactor from scratch has proven extremely expensive.

Under the ADVANCE Act, Congress directed the NRC to revise its mission statement to ensure it uses its oversight authority “in a manner that is efficient and does not unnecessarily limit” the use of nuclear energy.

“The mission drives the entire organization,” NEI’s Nichol said of the change, adding it would be “more cross-cutting and institutional than even some of the other changes.”

But the tweak to the commission’s mission statement marks a big change for nuclear scientists and public health advocates who say it makes advancing civilian nuclear energy a top priority of the agency.

“It essentially compromises the independence of the NRC’s regulatory authority by forcing the agency to have to consider the health of the nuclear industry in everything it does,” said Edwin Lyman, nuclear power safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“If this mythology that nuclear power is completely safe — that it doesn’t need to be heavily regulated — takes hold, we could see a whole generation of really dangerous experimental nuclear facilities being licensed and built around the world,” Lyman continued. “And the first time that there’s a catastrophe, it’s going to set back the industry for decades.”

Some changes in the ADVANCE Act would kick in sooner than others, including staffing. Advocates for what’s in the bill say existing advanced reactor demonstration projects could benefit from a well-staffed NRC and lower fees. The act includes enhancements to NRC’s recruitment and retention practices. Licensing and preapplication costs for demonstrations come down significantly.

In the long term, the law tasks the agency with writing rules to make environmental reviews, licensing and oversight go faster and more efficiently. But Cothron of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance noted the law requires a rulemaking to streamline environmental reviews only after NRC submits to Congress a report on the matter. All of that will take years.

The NRC in April already approved a proposed rule designed to quicken the pace of environmental reviews for advanced nuclear reactors. The commission is also working on a proposal known as the Part 53 rule to create a framework for licensing next-generation reactors, designed to either be safer and smaller than existing reactors or use a coolant other than water.

Nuclear in November

Party control on the NRC is split, with two Democrats, two Republicans and one vacant seat. Each member has a five-year term. And the president chooses the chair, who sets the commission’s priorities and agenda.

The fifth slot won’t be filled until next year after voters have the final say in one of the most contentious and bizarre presidential contests in history. The tie-breaking fifth vote at NRC will help move policy into action.

“With the NRC trying to grow, you don’t want to be having fights at the commission level,” said Ryan Norman, senior policy adviser for Third Way’s climate and energy program.

The fifth seat has remained vacant since the White House dropped a bid to renominate former Democratic Commissioner Jeff Baran out of concern that he wouldn’t survive the Senate confirmation process. Often a lone dissenter, Baran argued for stricter environmental and safety policies for old and new nuclear reactors.

“It’s important that the commission begins to move on implementation. They don’t need to wait for a fifth commissioner,” Nichol said.

U.S. nuclear technology exports and innovation also work hand-in-hand with other executive agencies. The nation’s status as a global nuclear energy leader depends on the teams staffing the Department of State and Department of Energy. What happens if Trump’s elected?

“President Trump’s support for nuclear energy and nuclear energy leadership, I thought, was sort of notional,” Norman from Third Way said. “I don’t know that the Trump administration ever really leaned into figuring out what a strategy for U.S. partnership on nuclear energy looks like overseas.”

With Biden, Norman continued, “You’re going to get a more holistic and a much more rational approach and a much more long-term thought approach in terms of who they’re picking.”