NRC: An Undercover Climate Agency

NRC: An Undercover Climate Agency

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If you were to list the federal agencies that most influence climate change, some obvious choices would be the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Energy or Transportation. But there’s another agency flying under the climate radar: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Our existing nuclear fleet provides over 55% of our clean power and is the clean energy foundation upon which we will build to meet our goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 in the U.S. But many plants are scheduled to retire over the next decade. Because the 2020s are a critical decade to launch a carbon-free future, we cannot afford the unnecessary loss of these clean generators. Thankfully, the NRC is working hard to extend operating licenses for plants with a record of safe operation.

The end of this new decade will mark an important beginning, as countries and utilities around the world will be developing their energy strategies and purchasing electricity and manufacturing assets with lifespans reaching beyond 2050. As this window opens, it is critical that carbon-free advanced nuclear is available to replace retiring coal and gas facilities, reduce industrial emissions, and expand reliable electricity access in the developing world. But before any advanced nuclear power plant can plug into the grid, it must navigate the NRC’s licensing process.

The good news is that the NRC is on the case, modernizing its processes for next generation reactors. Kristine Svinicki, chair of the commission, said at a recent hearing that regulators should adapt rules to new design features. Evolving technologies that must lug on their back the legacy of previous versions of the same technology have a difficult time moving forward on pace with our climate goals, Svinicki said.

While the NRC has regulated and licensed large, traditional light-water plants for decades, this new class of reactors really changes the game. There are dozens of different designs under development across the U.S. -- all with unique characteristics. For example, the two designs farthest along with the NRC are vastly different. NuScale will soon cross the finish line as the first-ever small modular reactor to receive a design certification from the NRC. These are light-water reactors, but at 60 megawatts per unit, they are of a much smaller variety than the plants online today. At the other end of the spectrum, Oklo recently submitted the first license application for a non-light-water advanced reactor design. Oklo’s Aurora plant, sited underground, will produce about 1.5 megawatts using metal fuel, without the need for cooling water.

This is just the beginning of what may become a steady stream of next-gen designs knocking on NRC’s door. Currently, over 70 advanced nuclear projects are underway in North America.

Stalwart climate champions from all corners and both parties have recognized the role that advanced nuclear can play to address climate change -- and the role that the NRC plays in realizing that future. In 2018, Congress enacted legislation to bring the commission into the 21st century, directing it to adapt its licensing process to make room for innovation and commercialization of next-gen reactors. 

The measure “will help provide the regulatory structure needed for safe, advanced nuclear energy to play an important role as we transition to a carbon-free energy future,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said upon the introduction of its first iteration.

Concurrently, co-sponsor Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called on Congress to “remove barriers to adopting promising low-carbon technology like advanced nuclear reactors to address the serious threats from fossil fuels.” With today’s advanced reactor innovation, the NRC "needs to be able to adapt to these new technologies and this legislation will give it that flexibility.”

Every day, the 3,000+ employees of the NRC are hard at work both preserving our clean energy foundation and acting as gatekeeper to a technology that could prove vital in getting us on the fastest and fairest path to net-zero emissions. The commission has shown it’s up to the task to adapt to exciting emerging technologies. So, from the technical analyst sitting in their cubicle in Rockville, Md., to the inspector out in the field: Know that you are contributing to an undercover climate agency.


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