Nuclear Innovation Alliance formally launched

On November 19, 2015, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance formally announced its existence. The group, based in Cambridge, MA, has the following mission description:

The NIA’s mission is to lead advanced nuclear energy innovation.

The NIA assembles companies, investors, experts, and stakeholders to advance nuclear energy innovation and enable innovative reactor commercialization through favorable energy policy and funding.

The NIA researches, develops and advocates policies that enable the efficient licensing and timely early-stage demonstration of advanced reactor technologies.

The Clean Air Task Force has been one of the leaders in identifying the need for the group and in helping to get it organized. That process has been in progress for about a year.

When she testified to Congress in December 2014, Dr. Ashley Finan, Senior Project Manager for Energy Innovation Clean Air Task Force, described how she had been working with what was then an informal group of advanced reactor stakeholders calling themselves the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA). The NIA includes entrepreneurs, environmental organizations, investors, nuclear experts in academia, policy experts and other stakeholders who are interested in finding ways to finance, develop and deploy advanced nuclear technology.

NIA members believe that the United States has a range of valuable assets that should enable it to lead the world in developing nuclear energy into the kind of affordable, reliable, dispatchable, ultra low emission energy source that would be a welcome tool to address many of our more pressing challenges, including avoiding rapid climate change.

The U.S. is home to some of the world’s most innovative developers, a world class university system, an infrastructure of national laboratories, a federal agency with a large budget for energy supply systems, a respected technical regulator whose approval of designs and procedures provides valuable credibility and capable investors willing to provide financing under appropriate conditions.

If all of those assets were reasonably well aligned, there might not be a pressing need for the NIA, but that’s not the case. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. is not leading in the deployment of new nuclear technologies.

Some observers have sounded almost jealous of the apparent successes of countries like China, Russia and South Korea in nuclear technology because they have autocratic governments that can decide to invest in deployment without much public opposition. Though I don’t believe that the free market can solve all problems, I’m also not willing to be a subject of an autocratic regime.

The NIA seems to be taking a more constructive approach of figuring out how to bring more democratic decision making and investment concepts with a proven track record of success to nuclear technology.

An example of a major issue that the NIA plans to tackle is the current process for obtaining permission to build and operate nuclear facilities.

Our current licensing system takes an all or nothing approach, without any fixed stages that can be established as investor milestones to show that firm progress is being made. Many sources estimate that achieving a design certification requires an investment decision to spend about a billion dollars; there is no partial credit for an organization that starts the process and need to attract additional investors in order to finance the completion.

Under current conditions, the initial investment decision would be even larger for non-light water reactor designs that cannot rely on decades worth of experience, code development and testing validation.

The NIA is advocating a staged licensing processes with more moderately achievable decision points. Their proposed modifications to the current system can be attractive to all kinds of investors, from private venture capitalists to public power organizations.

The NIA also plans to address the difficult challenge of moving from paper reactors to operating machinery while recognizing that the currently visible path is fraught with risk. The NIA recognizes that there needs to be something between a paper design and full commercial construction under a combined operating license.

Many of the advanced concepts rely on technical concepts and models that work well in theory but will most likely need full scale demonstration in a prototype facility before they can be validated and approved for commercial use.

Though prototype/demonstration plant licensing is allowed by current regulations, there are no established prototype application review plans. Conversations with regulators and close attention to their public commentary leads me to believe that they would default to adapting the current standard review plans for a full scale commercial license.

Perhaps the NIA can help the NRC recognize that the Atomic Energy Act section 104(c) (p. 43) says that the Commission “is directed to impose only such minimum amount of regulation of the licensee needed” fulfill its obligations under the Act to “promote the common defense and security and to protect the health and safety of the public and will permit the conduct of widespread and diverse research and development.”

Their idea of using federal land and infrastructure as a place where private sector partners can build and test their concepts is also intriguing.

I recommend reading what the NIA says about the importance of Advanced Reactor Technology, especially its four part strategy for achieving the goal to maintain and enhance the U.S.’s capability as a nuclear technology leader.

In case time is tight, here is the short version of the strategy.

  1. Provide a staged, and ultimately more technology-neutral licensing process based upon risk-informed principles.

  2. Provide a test bed where nuclear innovators in the private sector can demonstrate advanced technologies.
  3. Cooperation to provide for international commercial testing, demonstration, and deployment of advanced technologies.
  4. Financial support for early stage technology development and early commercial deployment.

The NIA has capably identified a number of important issues that need to be addressed. Their approach seems reasonable and well focused. It would be good for the U.S. and for the rest of the world for the newly announced Alliance to achieve each part of their strategic plan.

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