The nuclear power industry is betting its future on a new generation of reactors small enough to fit on a truck—an emerging technology that mostly uses alternatives to water for cooling, runs at lower pressure than traditional units, and costs far less than the behemoth power plants and cooling towers that define the nuclear landscape today. But advocates of the idea insist that the folks in Washington who police their business lack the tools they need to assess the rapidly evolving technology.
Congress has ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to replace a rules framework that dates to the 1950s. The new guidelines aren’t expected until at least 2025, so for now the agency is operating as it has for decades, evaluating plants that bear scant resemblance to those the regulations were meant to assess. To prove the safety of designs, for instance, the commission demands data from similar plants, but none of the smaller installations have been built in the U.S., so there’s no performance history. And the rules are geared toward so-called light-water reactors, which split uranium atoms to create steam that drives turbines. The newer technology typically uses substances such as molten salt and lead, or gases like helium, to keep the core from overheating. No company employing these technologies has won a construction license, and only one design—a water-cooled model from NuScale Power LLC—has been approved.
Today’s rules are “really a square peg in a round hole for these advanced reactor designs,” says Amy Roma, a partner with the law firm Hogan Lovells who’s worked on dozens of license applications. “It’s complicated, and you have to remember, too, that the NRC is developing this framework largely divorced of actually understanding—in depth—the technology.” The NRC declined to make any commissioners or staffers available for an interview on the subject.