Tom Blees

Tom Blees is the author of Prescription for the Planet - The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Tom is also the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives. Many of the goals of SCGI, and the methods to achieve them, are elucidated in the pages of Blees's book. He is a member of the selection committee for the Global Energy Prize, considered Russia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize for energy research. His work has generated considerable interest among scientists and political figures around the world. Tom has been a consultant and advisor on energy technologies on the local, state, national, and international levels.

by Tom Blees

The United States is indisputably a world leader in many technologies. Yet the country’s leadership role in nuclear power has been in steady decline for many years. Spurred on by the specter of climate change and the insatiable and rapidly growing demand for energy in developing countries, a variety of advanced nuclear power concepts are being developed around the world, nowhere more so than in the USA. Yet transforming those exciting ideas into actual deployable products is a nearly impossible challenge here.

The consequences of losing a global leadership role in the nuclear power arena implies a lot more than a loss of prestige. Nuclear technology is spreading to many countries that are not members of the “nuclear club” of nations with nuclear weapons technology, so the international oversight of nuclear materials has never been more important. By abandoning our leadership in nuclear power technology, America is losing its influence in forging non-proliferation policies at the international level that should be allowing the spread of nuclear power to be accomplished safely.

The reasons for the discouraging deterioration of our leadership in advanced nuclear power involve a number of factors, but the most critical is the complete reversal of how our government policies steer innovation in the nuclear power sector. Recognizing that reversal and blazing a path nearer to the methods that gave birth to the nuclear power era can turn things around in short order.

After World War II, the United States rapidly saw the potential for peaceful use of the tamed atom. Admiral Hyman Rickover was given free rein to develop nuclear-powered submarines, and starting from near zero in terms of nuclear power technology he was able to put a nuclear sub to sea in just five years. Further research and design work, primarily at Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, explored various nascent nuclear technologies, including fast breeder reactors and molten salt reactors, in addition to developments in the light-water reactors that were beginning to power navy ships.

The process of development, whatever the type of reactor technology, had a common method. The work was done at national laboratories by nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers, chemists, materials scientists and others who would put their heads together and come up with ideas for nuclear reactor designs. These teams of talented people would then design a prototype and build it, learning and modifying it as the construction progressed. When it was ready to be fueled, the process of testing would be cautious and incremental. Argonne Lab West (now called Idaho National Laboratory), where most of the new reactor designs were built and tested, was the focal point of this development. Once the bugs had been worked out, companies like GE or Westinghouse could come in and, in concert with the national lab employees who’d designed the reactors, design commercial-scale reactor designs and submit them to the Atomic Energy Commission (later to its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for approval to build and sell them to power companies.

This system worked quite well, and the Sixties and Seventies saw a boom in nuclear power that resulted in about a hundred reactors being built to supply about 20% of the country’s electricity. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. That event, though not a single person was harmed in any way (except its investors), heralded a slow and seemingly inexorable decline in the nuclear power industry. Public pressure from anti-nuclear groups contributed to an attitude of extreme caution at the NRC, a regulatory ratcheting that slowed nuclear projects down and raised the cost of construction to the point that building new plants became a financially untenable proposition, even though the fully capitalized power plants that had been built were reliably cranking out clean electricity for less than two cents per kilowatt-hour.

The last major nuclear development project under the old system was begun in 1984. The director of Argonne West at that time, Charles Till, realized that the increasing concerns about nuclear power would have to be convincingly addressed if its potential to power modern societies was to be realized. Problems and challenges regarding safety, economics, proliferation risk, fuel supply, spent fuel, waste products, and even public perception would have to be grappled with and solved. As daunting as that looked, Till set out to manage it and put together a crack team from far and wide to accomplish all that. The government was putting its trust and money behind him, and he didn’t let them down.

By 1994, this team had accomplished what they’d set out to do. The pride in their accomplishment was palpable, for they’d literally solved humanity’s energy problem. The integral fast reactor (IFR) technology they’d developed would be able to use unwanted nuclear weapons material, spent nuclear fuel (deplorably tagged with the misnomer “nuclear waste”), and even the vast stockpiles of depleted uranium for fuel, and leave no long-lived radioactive byproducts to bedevil future generation. So much potential fuel was already out of the ground that such reactors could power the planet with carbon-free energy for a thousand years without any further mining or enrichment. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Alas, it seems that it was, but not through any fault of the technology. Pure misguided politics killed and essentially buried the project just as it was in its final demonstration phase, and it languished virtually unknown for over a decade. Russia still had a fast reactor running reliably (as it does to this day), but it lacked the key features that made the IFR so economical and fail-safe. After that brutal disappointment in 1994, groundbreaking nuclear development at the national labs pretty much ground to a halt.

But the need for nuclear power was only increased, a realization that dawned on countless millions of people concerned about both climate change and global development. France and Sweden had demonstrated that entire countries could convert their generating systems to nuclear in a mere decade, and soon young nuclear engineering graduates and some of those who’d worked on the older and very promising projects began forming startup companies and creating reactor designs that built upon previous work to create nuclear power plants that promised to be walk-away safe and economical.

Unfortunately, by this time the regulatory regime that had developed at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had morphed into a virtually insurmountable obstacle to evolutionary development. Long-established companies like Westinghouse and GE found themselves having to spend upwards of a billion dollars and waiting a decade or more just to get approval to build reactors that were merely evolutionary modifications of existing light-water reactor concepts. Those (including GE) that wanted to build different types of reactors like the fast reactor patterned after the IFR faced hurdles even greater than that, for such designs had never been approved and it’s doubtful that the NRC even has sufficient qualified personnel to adequately put them through the certification process.

Since the national labs are no longer developing new designs and a lot of startups are taking on that role, the actual building and deployment is essentially moribund. How can a small startup face a billion dollar (or more) hurdle in hopes of selling a product that’s never been built and tested yet? The license and certification system requires approval before anybody can even turn a wrench. The new reactor designs have to be built on paper and in computers. In the old days, at the national labs that gave birth to the nuclear power era, the system could be described as test-then-license. Today, that’s been turned on its head, to a license-then-test system.

Unless we can turn this system around and return to a test-then-license development model, countries like China and Russia will be the future leaders of nuclear innovation. Those command economies make a test-then-license development model possible, and the advantages to leading the world in this important field are obvious. As they and other nations pass the USA in advanced reactor development, they’ll also be the leading voices when it comes to international oversight regimes that will apply to the dozens of countries where they’ll be selling their reactors.

But there is a way to turn the situation around in the USA, and it could happen quickly. It would take very little legislative change, if any. Mostly it requires a different vision, and a recognition that trusting our eminently qualified national laboratories is as critical today as it was at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Let’s illustrate such a vision with a hypothetical case. We’ll take a reactor designer called Newclear as an example, though it could be any of a number of reactor startups. Newclear wants to build 100MWe small modular reactors to be clustered as required, with a 10-unit (1000MWe) configuration being most frequently mentioned. How might that be done with a new developmental policy?

In this scenario, instead of submitting their design to the NRC for review, Newclear submits it to a national laboratory. Idaho National Laboratory is the logical candidate, both for its variety of experts but also for its remoteness and large area, characteristics that led to it being chosen in the first place for nuclear reactor development. Newclear ponies up a certain amount to cover the initial costs to INL, say five million dollars. Their plan is to build a full-scale 100MWe reactor module.

INL establishes an oversight group (OSG) that will monitor the project from start to finish. The group brings in nuclear engineers, fuel specialists, chemists, materials scientists, and other needed specialists from outside if there aren’t suitable experts already at INL who are available to lend their talents to the OSG. The group would also include at least one person from the NRC, so that when the design is eventually submitted for licensing they will have been there since Day One and will have a greater understanding of both the reactor design and the process that led to its construction.

The first duty of the OSG, which will work closely with Newclear’s people for the duration of the project, is to evaluate the design in detail to determine, primarily, its safety qualifications. The economics of Newclear’s reactor is beside the point as far as INL is concerned. If the prototype reactor can be built and started up safely in the estimation of the OSG, they get a green light.

Now the site for the prototype is determined. It will be built along the perimeter of the INL property, within the security zone, but close to the edge since later on it will be excised from the lab’s property if the project is successful (more on that later). Alternatively, a sufficiently large annex just outside INL’s land can be chosen and temporarily incorporated into the lab’s security perimeter for the duration of the project.

At this point Newclear gets to work. Access roads are built if necessary, and construction commences, all at the expense of Newclear. The OSG monitors all aspects of the project and evaluates and approves the construction in phases as it progresses. Newclear and the OSG will have already settled upon a stepwise process for construction, each step being approved by the OSG before the next is started. This process continues until the reactor is fully built and ready for pre-fission testing.

Such testing and the subsequent fuel loading and stepwise fission testing of the reactor mirrors the development process that served perfectly well through the entire development phase from the dawn of nuclear power until the last major project, the aforementioned Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), was terminated in 1994. During all those years of impressive developments, our nation trusted the judgement of its national lab scientists and engineers. The logic of this new approach is to copy and renew that old approach. If we could trust these people to develop, build, and test new reactor designs when they were figuring it all out with slide rules, how much more capable will they be today with powerful computer simulations to assist them, and with years of training that built upon the work of the early pioneers? The argument upon which this entire proposal hinges is this: We trusted them then. We can—and should—trust them now.

So we return to our Newclear project: Obviously if the reactor design is found faulty at any point by the OSG, the stepwise process will be stopped and Newclear will have to alter the design to the satisfaction of the OSG until it can be restarted. Thus the bugs get worked out until the reactor project is either abandoned or until it’s successfully operational at full power.

One fly in the ointment is where that electricity goes. Though the EBR-II (the IFR project’s reactor) distributed power to an outside utility, there has been at least a resistance to national labs selling power to the outside. Though I don’t believe there are any statutes forbidding it, it would be good to clarify as part of this restructuring of the reactor development process a clear permission for the lab to contract with outside utilities to sell power from such projects.

It’s been pointed out that the local electricity demand in the INL area is probably too small to deal with anything but a fairly small reactor, and that for SMRs over 50 or 100 MWe the more logical sites would be Oak Ridge or Savannah River National Laboratory. Whichever site is judged to be optimal, the same procedures would apply.

Newclear will be responsible for negotiating a power purchase agreement with a local utility, with whatever line construction and other infrastructure will be necessary to connect their reactor to the grid. A reasonable expectation would be that Newclear would sell electricity to the utility at half the wholesale rate, enabling the utility to earn a decent profit as they distribute and sell it.

The money that would be taken in from the utility would go to INL, not Newclear. At this point, the reactor will be up and running, and Newclear would only then apply to the NRC for certification to allow them to build the reactors and sell them commercially. Obviously it would be far easier for the NRC to certify such a design since there would already be a reactor up and running, with all the data from the entire process in hand. Meanwhile, during the entire certification process (which can reasonably be expected to proceed far faster than it does under the current system), electricity would be generated and the DOE would be collecting money for funding the national labs. While it wouldn’t be a huge amount of money, it should easily cover all the costs of the OSG’s work and other expenses that have been incurred by the lab for the duration of the project. Remember, Newclear ponied up some money at the outset (we’d used five million dollars as a reasonable estimation), so the lab should be in the black for the entire project.

Once the NRC certifies the design to allow Newclear to sell their reactors commercially, the last phase of the project is to excise the reactor site from INL. Since Newclear could decide to simply leave the reactor running for several decades, it should be outside the lab’s perimeter to avoid the complication of its employees and visitors having to be admitted to the lab’s property. This is why the reactor is to be built along the perimeter. Once this perimeter issue has been cleared up, Newclear is the proud owner of a functioning reactor, which they can either choose to operate or to sell to another owner. Since in many cases the reactors being developed like this would be modular, they could also opt to move it to a commercial site if that would be considered practical.

But there’s one more aspect of such a developmental framework that could be a boon to our national labs. For reactors developed in this manner, a royalty would be levied for every reactor of that type to be built in the future. It could be a very modest one, similar to the spent fuel tax attached to nuclear-generated electricity. A tiny royalty of one tenth of one cent per kWh wouldn’t impact any potential reactor buyer, but would bring in a constantly increasing income to the DOE to fund our national laboratories. Ten Newclear clusters with their proposed configuration of 1,000MWe each, operating at a 90% capacity factor (a realistic expectation since our current fleet runs at a bit better average than that) would earn nearly eighty million dollars per year in royalties for the national labs, likely for 60-100 years. Obviously the royalty rate could be higher or lower, to be determined by the legislation that would enable these changes in reactor development and licensing.

The return to a test-then-license system would not only allow for rapid development and testing of advanced reactor designs, but it would make the NRC’s job a lot easier. And even if this didn’t lead to a reduction in the cost of NRC certification (it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t), a company with an operational reactor that was already cleared at all levels by our national laboratory would be able to find investors to come up with the billion dollars because licensing would be all but a fait accompli.

Without a transformative approach that sweeps away the upside-down license-then-test system that we have now, the considerable efforts being made both within and without the government to expedite the process will very likely make barely a dent in the problem. The nearly impossible position of private companies hoping to get a new reactor built and tested will consign the USA to the back of the technology race, and as that happens our country will also lose its leverage in designing international protocols to reduce proliferation risk and improve safety. We can reverse the nation’s slide into near irrelevance quickly, safely, and decisively without any risk to the public from the process of developing transformative new reactor designs. But nibbling at the edges of the existing system like we're doing now won’t get us there. We have to recognize the problem clearly that has evolved over the last few decades into an unworkable and counterproductive impasse. It’s time we trust our national labs again.