Nuclear Firms Seek Eased Export Rules as U.S. Demand Wanes

The U.S. nuclear-power industry is seeking to ease export restrictions so it can sell equipment and technology to nations including China and Russia as domestic demand wanes for reactors.

Regulations unchanged since the end of the Cold War impede U.S. companies in gaining export licenses, putting suppliers at a global disadvantage, according to a report released today by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based group whose members include Exelon Corp. and Southern Co.

U.S. rules are “more complex, restrictive and time-consuming to fulfill” than in France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, where competing suppliers are based, according to the report. The global market may be worth a quarter of a trillion dollars within a decade.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission this year issued its first reactor-construction licenses in more than three decades, while U.S. companies struggle to arrange financing for additional units. A glut of natural gas has lowered prices for the fuel, discouraging investment in more expensive sources including nuclear power.

Southern’s reactor project in Georgia is awaiting final approval 2 1/2 years after winning a conditional $8.3 billion Energy Department loan guarantee. The NRC in August imposed a two-year freeze on final decisions for power-plant licenses in response to a court decision requiring a reassessment of risks associated with storing nuclear waste.

Reactors Advance

Nations are advancing plans to build reactors, even after a tsunami and earthquake in March 2011 triggered a triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. At least 65 reactors are under construction, with 26 in China, 10 in Russia and seven in India, according to the World Nuclear Association, a London-based group that promotes nuclear power.

Demand for commercial nuclear technology may be worth $500 billion to $740 billion and support tens of thousands of jobs during the next decade, NEI said in comments filed with the Energy Department in December. Goods for commercial use include reactor components and fuel.

While other nations have one agency to oversee export licensing, the U.S. process is regulated by the Commerce, Energy and State departments, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to the report. The NRC bars commercial exports to six nations, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

‘Bureaucratic Maze’

“For U.S. exporters and their customers, navigating the bureaucratic maze for a U.S. export license presents a challenge in itself that has no parallel in the other countries surveyed in this study,” its said.

The Energy Department, which has jurisdiction over nuclear-related assistance for foreign countries, has proposed rule revisions that “would significantly expand the scope of technologies covered by the regulation,” according to today’s report, prepared by for the NEI by the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

Compared with the regulatory systems Russia, France, Japan and Korea, “the U.S. regime imposes few deadlines for decision-making on export license applications,” according to the report. Processing export licenses in the U.S. can take a year or more, it said.

Exelon of Chicago wants to export its operations methods, which would involve sending top managers abroad to provide guidance on reactor technology and safety, according to Bradley Fewell, vice president and deputy general counsel for Exelon Generation Co. LLC.

“These regulations are hampering our ability to expand the sale of and the implementation of” the product, he said at a press conference today in Washington. Exelon is the largest U.S. owner and operator of commercial nuclear reactors.

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