As a progressive nonprofit, we understand the concerns raised by Grossman in his November 2022 opinion piece on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing modernization efforts. Naturally, we don’t want to see communities put at risk, and we share concerns that new licensing procedures, if poorly developed or executed, could further disempower underserved communities. Yet, this piece fails to understand that concern over the impacts of climate change on communities — and the urgency of deploying carbon-free energy — was a motivating factor for Congress to push for NRC modernization.
The writing is on the wall: We must reduce emissions as fast as possible while allowing communities more control and ownership over their energy systems. To combat climate change, we need to explore every option open. Traditional renewables will be vital to decarbonization efforts, but it is becoming clearer to utilities, academics, and policymakers that wind and solar can’t do it alone. Nuclear energy, while it has its problems, provides value to the grid that can ease some of the shortcomings of wind and solar. Nuclear requires less mining for critical minerals, vastly less land, and produces electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Nearly all of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s pathways limit warming to 1.5℃, including new nuclear energy.
Of course, we need strict regulations for new nuclear power plants to protect the public. That’s where the NRC comes in. The NRC was created to separate federal nuclear energy regulation from promotion. Its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, was disbanded to avoid conflicts of interest between those advocating for the technology and those assessing its safety. As a result, calling the NRC the “Nuclear Rubberstamp Commission'' or “Not Really Concerned” is inaccurate. In fact, the NRC has not approved a new reactor design since the agency’s establishment in 1975. NRC rules and guidance are strict, and the procedure for applying for new approval has been a barrier to new reactor development.
We have an incredible need for innovation – decarbonizing our grid is not easy. There is broad, bipartisan understanding that nuclear reactors can help. This is why the NRC is now required to modernize its licensing procedures as the result of The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), a bipartisan act that the House passed by a vote of 361-10. Within this act is a recognition that the current procedure for licensing nuclear energy isn’t working and disincentivizes innovation. Additionally, NEIMA requires NRC to provide greater public clarity about NRC operations.
New reactors have different use cases, benefits, and drawbacks. Some are much smaller, which allows them to fit more unique applications. Almost all new reactor designs have passive safety features that enable reactors to stay safe with little or no human intervention. All new reactors use fundamentally different technologies from reactors of the past, incorporating vital lessons and innovations from the last 70 years of commercial nuclear power. We need a different way to regulate them. Lumping all advanced reactors together in the same category and calling the lot of them bad neglects consideration of the actual innovations in safety, cost, and efficiency.
For instance, some of these smaller reactors could be useful in weaning us off coal for energy production. Coal sites are some of the dirtiest in the country, emitting CO2, fine particulate matter, and plenty of other harmful pollutants that hurt communities and the environment. Coal plants also emit at least 100x more radioactive material than nuclear plants. One category of advanced nuclear, small modular reactors (SMRs), is an advanced reactor intended to be more flexible and less expensive to construct. Developers could build these reactors offsite and ship them anywhere, making them easily adaptable to retiring coal plant sites, offering similar benefits to the grid while eliminating nearly all emissions. A coal-to-nuclear transition can also preserve the local workforce, retaining jobs in plant operation while supplying tax revenue for local schools, infrastructure, and community programs.
For us, the coal-to-nuclear transition is an important opportunity for a just and equitable transition for energy communities. These reactors could decrease pollution burdens on residents and offer a path for these areas to join the clean energy revolution. For example, take the coal community of Kemmerer, Wyoming, where TerraPower’s new Natrium reactor is scheduled to be built in the coming years. The closure of the Naughton coal plant without an alternative could have meant the loss of jobs and community services and the erosion of a town. Yet, due to new reactor developments, they have a fighting chance to survive and hopefully thrive in a zero-emissions future.
To realize benefits like coal-to-nuclear, we need new procedures to regulate reactors that weren’t written 50 years ago. A new and modernized procedure that allows for design flexibility means that the agency will be better equipped to make judgments on safety. It makes sense that the NRC is changing regulations. Regulators aren't relaxing standards; they're working to understand the ways in which these new reactors have changed and how use cases may be different.
At the same time, calling willing and participating communities “guinea pigs” isn’t fair to areas that see real opportunities in the creation of new nuclear. More efficient licensing procedures that enable the operation of safe reactors can help these communities grow their economies and reduce local air pollution. And, while it may seem scary that reactors may be sited close to cities, this particular change in regulation will likely not change much for those living in densely populated areas. Nuclear reactors are already operated near and within cities safely. For instance, many people aren’t aware that MIT already has one of the country’s most powerful nuclear research reactors on campus, across the river from the heart of Boston.
Climate change is already wreaking havoc on our planet, hurting historically disadvantaged communities the most. Assumptions that renewable energy can solve these problems alone are proving costly and untrue. There is broad recognition that nuclear power needs to be part of a clean energy future. This is why California has reversed its decision to close the Diablo Canyon power plant in light of severe reliability issues and ambitious emission reduction goals. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves seven states and 10 million people, has already committed to building multiple small modular reactors. Elsewhere in the country, West Virginia has reversed bans on new nuclear power plants. However, we can only create a just future for nuclear energy in these spaces if we have an efficient, functional regulatory agency.
If a town or county doesn’t want a nuclear plant in their community, it should not be built there. However, most communities that host nuclear plants are supportive of existing facilities. Many communities are expressing interest and excitement about new nuclear projects. Nuclear reactors offer consistent, high-paying jobs and help fund community budgets through investments and taxes. Helping communities access these opportunities, if they want them, is a crucial pillar of a just energy transition.