Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation has published an issue paper titled Senate Attempts to Promote Small Nuclear Reactors Fall Short that is worth reading. He notes that the sector is showing some significant private activity already. He expresses concerns that I share that some of what the Senate is proposing will be counter productive by bogging down progress in reviews, task forces, and public hearings. The proposals also include a provision that scares me – especially after working in the government and being associated with government research projects. According to one bill, S. 2812:
The Secretary shall carry out, through cooperative agreements with private sector partners–
(A) a program–
(i) to develop a standard design for each of 2 small modular reactors, at least 1 of which has a rated capacity of not more than 50 electrical megawatts; and
(ii) to obtain a design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for each of the 2 standard designs by January 1, 2018; and
(B) a program to demonstrate the licensing of small modular reactors by–
(i) developing applications for a combined license for each of the designs certified pursuant to subparagraph (A); and
(ii) obtaining a combined license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for each of the designs by January 1, 2021.
I have watched how projects like this attract companies that employ full time business development types who watch for opportunities to bid on demonstration projects. One of the best things for businesses that perform demonstration project work for the government is that no one writing the checks really expects any results. The government is not very well equipped to ensure that intellectual property developed at government expense gets shared with the people who are paying the bills – taxpayers.
As Jack points out, selecting two projects for government support can stifle other developments.
By choosing winners and losers, the DOE would take away the incentive to compete and replace it with the incentive to lobby Washington.
I will modify that slightly – in this case I do not think that any project that the government would choose would actually win anything. The paper designs might get developed and the existing license process might get demonstrated but nothing will get built and operated. It is not yet 2010; a lot will happen in the energy market before 2021 the time at which this demonstration project might be ready to begin construction.
Jack offers a list of suggestions that Senators and their staffs who honestly want to enable smaller reactors to enter the market in a sustainable fashion should take to heart. Here are two of my favorites from the list – though I cannot argue with any of the others on his list.
Build Expertise at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC is built to regulate large light water reactors. It simply does not have the regulatory expertise to efficiently regulate other technologies, and building that expertise takes time.
Helping the NRC to develop that expertise now would help bring new technologies into the marketplace more smoothly.
Establish a New Licensing Pathway. The current licensing pathway relies on reactor customers to drive the regulatory process. The problem is that the legal, regulatory, and policy apparatus is built to support large light water reactors, effectively discriminating against other technologies.
Establishing an alternative licensing pathway could help build the necessary regulatory support on which commercialization ultimately depends.
Implementing these ideas would certainly help to ease the introduction of a market changing technology.