Nuclear fusion is always 20 years away, or so goes the saying. Yet scientists are convinced that this time, it is closer than ever. A group of researchers at MIT recently published a series of seven papers purporting to prove the viability of a compact nuclear fusion reactor that the former are developing. As opposed to fission plants that split uranium atoms to release energy, fusion reactors mimic the sun’s energy production by colliding hydrogen atoms. This “fusing” process releases four times more energy than a fission reaction, while producing far less radioactivity and waste. If the MIT research is accurate, then the future of nuclear energy is very bright indeed.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), a type of next-generation nuclear fission technology, are also being developed, largely through private sector leadership. Though not as revolutionary as fusion technology, these smaller nuclear plants promise to be cheaper, faster to build, and safer than their older counterparts. Importantly, the fission technology is already fully established and commercially viable.
Much of the optimism surrounding nuclear advancements pertains to private-sector innovations being generated and fine-tuned by scientists and engineers around the world. Indeed, these innovators are rightly seen as the flag-bearers of the most revolutionary energy source discovered by humanity. Yet, it is impossible to overlook a crucial hurdle for any kind of innovation: the regulatory process. And while it’s typically best to keep bureaucracies away from new innovations, it is here that the government has the opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and be both bold and pioneering.
The major problems facing next-generation nuclear power, be it fusion or small modular reactors, are the licensing and regulatory requirements prescribed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). For decades, the only commercially viable nuclear plants have been large, light water-cooled reactors that have more or less remained stagnant in terms of design. The NRC has taken a prescriptive regulatory approach to these existing technologies. That means that the agency creates specific safety features and designs that each project must adhere to, rather than setting safety standards that allow companies to experiment with the most effective design, to submit for approval.
Not only does such an approach stifle innovation in reactor designs, but it also is representative of a better-safe-than-sorry, over-zealous regulatory regime. Studies show that nuclear regulations introduced in the 1970s increased the quantity of concrete per megawatt by 27 percent, electrical cable by 36 percent, steel by 41 percent, and piping by 50 percent.
One of the reasons why regulators have taken such a heavy-handed approach to nuclear power is the perceived danger of nuclear accidents. While the safety concern is overblown even for traditional designs—studies indicate that nuclear power is responsible for the fewest fatalities of any energy source—the NRC approach is downright absurd for next-generation nuclear reactors. Indeed, both fusion and SMR designs build in passive safety mechanisms that automatically shut down a plant in case of an accident. Applying an outdated, existing regulatory framework to a new generation of different, advanced reactor technologies is the surest way to stifle much-needed innovation and scale.
While SMRs have already been going through this process with the NRC, at great cost in money and time, regulatory streamlining is needed to further boost the rollout of these small reactors, and provide fusion designs a smooth path to commercial viability. Ensuring certainty in the regulatory process is crucial to the future of nuclear energy.
First, it is vital that any licensing process designed by the NRC be performance-based and technology-inclusive, rather than prescriptive. Indeed, as the British scientist Matt Ridley and I have pointed out on this website before, innovation thrives off of experimentation, trial and error, and creativity. Allowing various reactor designs to compete for cost-effectiveness and safety will place upward pressure on innovation, and downward pressure on both time and cost.
Second, as has been called for by the Director of the Fusion Industry Association, nuclear fusion and fission should be entirely separated in the regulatory process. Given fusion reactors’ inherent safety designs, it would be counter-productive to confine them to the regulatory paradigm of fission reactors. A specific framework must be devised that only applies to nuclear fusion reactors, and avoids entangling older generation regulations with newer, safer plant designs. This framework should take into account fusion’s dramatically lower risk profile.
Ultimately, innovation comes from the private sector and scientists, but can only thrive when unencumbered by government distortion. While it is of course sensible for politicians to ensure that next-generation nuclear reactors are safe, a more market-based, light-touch regulatory framework is necessary to avoid stifling innovation. A clear pathway that provides regulatory certainty for decades to come is crucial in ensuring that the United States stakes its place as the world-leader on next-generation nuclear technologies.