The Future of Nuclear Energy


On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, the Energy Innovation Project and the Center for the National Interest hosted the first in a series of events to discuss the future of nuclear power and policies that could pave the way for the development and demonstration of innovative nuclear reactors.

The event began with a discussion of innovative nuclear technologies led by Dr. Jacob DeWitte, Founder and CEO of UPower Technologies, and Dr. Ashley Finan, Project Director for Advanced Energy Systems, Clean Air Task Force. A second panel featured Mr. John Kotek, U.S. Department of Energy Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, who discussed the administration’s positon on nuclear energy and actions the administration is taking to support the development of innovative nuclear technologies. David Garman, former Under Secretary at the Department of Energy, outlined the key challenges the U.S. nuclear industry faces and offered insights into how best to respond to them, as well as potential regulatory reforms to enable innovation.

Dr. DeWitte began the first panel with a presentation on UPower’s innovative design, which is an unusually small reactor—comparable in scale to a diesel generator—that is “passively” safe, meaning it needs no intervention from operators to prevent potential reactor meltdowns; the reactor’s fundamental design is resistant to such scenarios. DeWitt noted that UPower is pursuing what he termed the “Tesla” approach to market entry, focusing on a design that they believe can be built in the near future, at a scale that matches the demands and abilities of domestic markets today by providing scalable power in 1-megawatt increments. Dr. DeWitte believes this approach will allow them to enter markets quickly and acquire the experience and resources needed to develop larger and more ambitious designs.

Dr. Finan’s remarks addressed the broader suite of innovations in nuclear power today, noting that in many other fields, from cars to computers, technological developments have transformed traditional products but nuclear power remains largely rooted in 1960s-era technologies.

Dr. Finan reviewed the status of advanced reactor development today and the variety of designs that take advantage of passive safety features, reduce complexity, use fuel more efficiently, and reduce waste. At the same time, while emphasizing the promise of these designs, Dr. Finan also highlighted the enormous challenges that nuclear innovators face in commercializing nuclear energy technologies.

In particular, Dr. Finan focused on two critical issues: In order to bring these technologies to market, companies need to demonstrate them and license them, but no private company has ever demonstrated or licensed an advanced reactor with the NRC, and the regulatory pathways for doing either of those things are not entirely clear. Companies such as UPower hope to demonstrate that innovative advanced reactors can be built under the existing licensing system while at the same time, organizations such as the Energy Innovation Reform Project and the Nuclear Innovation Alliance have called for reforms that would facilitate timely reviews of such license applications.

Mr. Kotek started the second panel by discussing the administration’s support for nuclear power as a source of zero-carbon power and a key element of the federal government’s climate strategy. Mr. Kotek emphasized Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz’s support for nuclear power, citing the administration’s statements at the Paris Climate conference as an example of this focus.

The administration is looking at nuclear development in three time frames: the 99 plants that are operating today; additional reactors using current technologies that might be built in the near term; and advanced reactors that are predominantly a decade or more away from entering the market. The Department of Energy (DOE) has supported the currently operating fleet with a light-water reactor sustainability program, support for license extensions, and the development of accident-tolerant fuels for the existing fleet.

Looking at near-term developments, the four AP1000 reactors currently being built in the southeast were developed and certified through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by a cooperative effort between the Department of Energy and industry. DOE is also very interested in small modular reactors and has been instrumental in supporting the development of NuScale technology in Oregon.

While sustaining today’s reactor fleet and building so-called Generation III+ reactors such as the AP1000 is important to the viability of the American nuclear industry today, many observers are most excited about the potential of advanced, non-light water reactor designs that may be built in the next decade or two and beyond.

In the past, new reactor designs were explored by the Department of Energy; today, we have a rich field of innovative companies by venture capital working to bring advanced reactor designs to the marketplace. Rather than driving the technical selection process as it has in the past, Mr. Kotek emphasized that the Department of Energy today is focused on ways in which it can help these entrepreneurial companies reduce “their regulatory, financial, and technical risk.”

Providing better access to the unique research facilities at the DOE and the National Labs is another way the department can help America’s nuclear entrepreneurs. DOE has unique research assets and extensive operational and technical knowledge that can support the development of advanced designs. Providing better access to these facilities for research and materials testing could facilitate the more rapid development of these designs.

Mr. Garman focused first on the challenges we face in nuclear power, noting that our current nuclear fleet is in decline; five operating reactors have recently shut down and others are likely to follow; this has negative implications for the future of America’s nuclear industry, our role in the international nonproliferation regime, and the affordability and reliability of electric power generation. Global markets for new reactors are typically drawn to either the best or the cheapest designs on the market; America’s nuclear industry is not well-positioned to serve either segment of the market.

Mr. Garman spoke more optimistically about the opportunities in this field and specific areas where federal policy support could be constructive. His remarks highlighted the potential of the new companies in the field seeking to bring advanced designs to market, and emphasized that the model for demonstration and commercialization of these designs must be fundamentally different from the 1950s-era mindset of government-led efforts. Today, policymakers must focus on empowering entrepreneurs and facilitating their ability to successfully navigate the regulatory process.

Mr. Garman also applauded the administration’s efforts to support nuclear power and called for further measures, including:

  • Easier, quicker access for entrepreneurs to irradiation services and testing, as well as modelling and simulation activities;
  • Making government facilities, labs and personnel available to assist innovators on a timely basis and at reasonable cost; and
  • Consideration of how we might utilize federal facilities for component testing, pre-commercial demonstration, or other testbed activities.