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By Andrew Follett
Government regulations and bureaucratic red-tape are killing the U.S. nuclear industry’s ability to innovate, a prominent nuclear scientist told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The regulations are causing U.S. nuclear reactors to shut down, which will be both an economic and environmental disaster. Red tape adds millions of dollars in costs to each new reactor and leads to delays lasting for years.
“Nuclear is failing because its nearly impossible to innovate,” Dr. Jeff Terry, a professor of nuclear physics involved in energy research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told TheDCNF. “Think of all of the other industries we have. They don’t need to call up the government and get permission to change processes … industries that can innovate survive, and those that can’t die.”
One of the big bureaucratic hurdles to building new nuclear reactors is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Current regulations involved in constructing a conventional reactor can take up to 25 years to wade through, while building the reactor only takes 10 years.
“The regulators want so much proof that nothing can possibly go wrong that they often prevent you from doing things that are safer, better or cheaper,” Terry said. “The big advantage of wind, solar, natural gas and other low carbon sources is that they’re a lot less regulated than nuclear.”
U.S. nuclear plants spend an estimated $4.2 million each every year to meet government paperwork requirements and another $4.4 million to pay government-mandated security staff, according to an American Action Forum report. In addition to paperwork requirement costs, the average plant spends approximately $14 million on various government fees.
The NRC requires so much paperwork from nuclear power providers that the average plant requires 86 full-time employees just to go through it all.
“The new reactors are safer, but they’re still light-water reactor technology,” Terry said. “It really should not be that hard for the NRC to get these new reactors licensed. It should not take four or five years … we used to build and experiment with things, but we’ve got so risk adverse that we’re afraid of anything. And that may put us at great danger of something else.”
Due in part to regulatory burdens, the U.S. isn’t building new reactors. The average age for a U.S. nuclear reactor is 35, making it nearly obsolete by modern design standards and near the end of 40-year operating licenses. Sixteen American nuclear reactors are more than 42 years old, according to government data compiled and mapped by TheDCNF.
“Paperwork is great for covering your ass, but it doesn’t make it safer,” Terry said. “Look at China. They’ve recognized that you have to build some of these things and keep people involved or the industry goes away. Frankly, the U.S. will be in much worse shape if we cede this technology to China and Russia.”
Terry called for the NRC to build advanced nuclear reactors for testing so real world experience could be gained operating them.
“If the NRC doesn’t do this, there simply won’t be a U.S. nuclear industry,” Terry said. “They’ll stop getting built and you’ll start losing students in the pipeline and losing innovation. … You’re already losing the ability to build anything. We have to keep building and operating test reactors and right now that’s coming out of China, Russia and South Korea.”
China is building 20 new nuclear reactors while South Korea alone has five more under construction. Meanwhile, only four reactors are under construction in the U.S. That’s barely enough to replace older reactors going out of service. More than half of the world’s nuclear reactors under construction are in Asia with the majority of those in China, according to Seeker.
“If you build one of these things, you’ll see some problems,” Terry said. “Everything we build has some problems, and you have to let them be built to get the innovation. To have all this paperwork upfront means that nothing ever gets done.”
NuScale Power has so far spent $500 million and 2 million labor hours over eight years to ask the federal government for permission to build an advanced nuclear reactor. The energy company filed a 12,000-page application to build an advanced nuclear reactor.
“NuScale is probably halfway through the process,” Terry said. “The world doesn’t work like that. It can’t. It just can’t. There’s no way. All the while this is happening real people are getting killed from air pollution. You’re killing real people to protect from something that might happen.”
The full review process for the reactor will likely take an additional 4o months and could cost NuScale another $600 million to finalize the decision. NuScale has to pay NRC officials $258 per hour to review the lengthy application.
As a result of these difficulties, the U.S. is building five times fewer new nuclear reactors than China.
“These countries are absolutely not friendly and we’re losing the expertise to build nuclear reactors,” Terry said. “We’ll have to rebuild that expertise up from scratch all over again.”
Terry blames environmental groups for much of the red tape, as they have always heavily lobbied against nuclear power.
“Environmental groups are making big mistakes,” Terry said. “There’s a lot of data showing problems with wind and solar power. There’s no question the government is favoring those technologies. The batteries and energy storage necessary to support wind and solar technology isn’t there. Chemistry just doesn’t work that way.”
Nuclear power plants generate power without emitting carbon dioxide (CO2), which is blamed for global warming. It also doesn’t suffer from the indeterminacy of wind and solar power. But environmentalists aren’t onboard with nuclear power. Many green groups were founded with the explicit goal of opposing it.
“I think the tremendous environmental push-back in the 1970s and 1980s was part of the failure,” Terry said. “Maybe we shouldn’t have listened to the teenagers protesting and listened to the trained professionals.”
Nuclear power currently provides about 63 percent of America’s CO2 free power. A single nuclear reactor can prevent 3.1 million tons of CO2 emissions annually.
“Nuclear power is the only carbon-free source you can scale up,” Terry said. “Environmental groups shouldn’t be afforded the title of environmentalists. There are trade-offs and those environmental groups want perfection in nuclear but are more than willing to ignore imperfections in the things they like and that’s when you get yourself into big trouble … they’re putting all their eggs in a few baskets and refusing to adjust for what they learn.”
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