Energy Policy

Breakthrough's Nordhaus on pathways to advancing nuclear, licensing and regulatory hurdles

How could proposed cuts to the Department of Energy budget affect innovation and efforts to advance nuclear technology? During today's OnPoint, Ted Nordhaus, co-founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, discusses the future of nuclear under the Trump administration and explains how current advanced industries can provide a framework for nuclear on innovation. He also discusses the licensing and regulatory changes he believes would be needed to facilitate the growth of advanced nuclear.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Ted Nordhaus, co-founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. Ted, nice to see you again. Thanks for coming on the show.

Ted Nordhaus: Thanks for having me back, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: So, Ted, with the new administration now in place and the new Department of Energy beginning to take shape, how do you believe the administration's focus on nuclear will differ from that of the Obama administration?

Ted Nordhaus: Well, I mean, I think rhetorically this administration may be more positive towards nuclear. I think the devil will be in the details. If you look at the initial budget that came out — big cuts to the research budgets at DOE and at the national laboratories for nuclear. So we'll see what comes out in the wash, but if we want a future for the industry in the United States we're going to have to invest in better nuclear technologies.

Monica Trauzzi: And how do those cuts specifically that we see in the president's proposed budgets cut into advanced nuclear's future, if we were to see Congress move forward with those cuts?

Ted Nordhaus: I think we don't know yet because they're pretty just across-the-board cuts at this point. So it remains to be seen how the department will handle those lower funding levels. But you know, the funding for advanced nuclear is extraordinarily small now, so if you sort of cut a lot from a little there's not a lot left to do much of anything. So I think that's the concern.

Monica Trauzzi: And so the Breakthrough Institute just released a new report where you take a look at other advanced industries and pull from their experiences to make recommendations for how nuclear can be innovative. Which industries provide a good framework?

Ted Nordhaus: We looked at four high-tech industries that have — and highly regulated industries that have been a lot more successful than the nuclear industry in recent decades at innovating. So we looked at commercial aviation, we looked at commercial space flight, we looked at biotechnology, and we looked at shale gas.

Monica Trauzzi: What are some of the current limitations facing nuclear that you think it sort of needs the most help with?

Ted Nordhaus: Well, it's — you know, the biggest problem we have today is that we're still trying to build 1-gigawatt light-water reactors. These are huge construction projects. The plants are meant to operate for 60 to 80 years. And in an electricity market where demand is flat, electricity markets are liberalizing, there's lots of competition from cheap gas and subsidized renewables, understandably there haven't been a lot of utility executives or investors willing to make 60-year, $10 billion, 1-gigawatt bets on future electricity demand. So if there's going to be a future for the nuclear industry, our argument is that it's got to get off of the large light-water reactor treadmill and we need to develop reactors that are smaller, that are faster to build, that can be mostly manufactured offsite, and that have a number of technological characteristics that should make them a lot cheaper to build in scale.

Monica Trauzzi: So then there's this bigger picture question about whether nuclear really has a future, whether there is a future for advanced nuclear. Is it a given that sort of the government and the private sector will come together and give it the push that it needs? Or is that that big question right now?

Ted Nordhaus: That is the big question. It's absolutely not a given. And today, you know, if there's going to be — outside of China, Korea, a few other state-led Asian economies, in Western Europe, in the United States, in Japan even it's just not clear that there's a future for the industry. And if there's going to be a future, it's going to be because we make some pretty big changes to that sector. It's got to move from being a top-down sector to a bottom-up sector. It's got to move from sort of economies of scale — if you can just figure out how to build an even bigger reactor, that's how you'll make it cheaper to economies of multiple. How do you build a bunch of smaller reactors? There are a bunch of changes that we're going to need to make both on the private side and the public side in terms of the structure of the sector, how it's regulated, how it gets public support to innovate if we're going to actually assure that there's a future for the industry.

Monica Trauzzi: What role should the national labs be playing?

Ted Nordhaus: Well, I think the national labs need to move from what was an old, sort of mid-20th-century top-down model where, you know, a set of technocrats at the national laboratories and DOE decided what the next nuclear technology was going to be and then sort of did the research at the laboratories, hire General Electric or Westinghouse to then go sort of build a demonstration of the reactor, to a model where the national laboratories are really much more supporting private-sector innovation, where small startups, entrepreneurs can come to the laboratories, access the technical expertise that's there, access the facilities, have someplace to build a demonstration reactor, because right now it's not even clear where you would build a first-of-its-kind reactor. And obviously we need then along with that a licensing process that it's plausible for someone other than a General Electric or a Westinghouse to get through.

Monica Trauzzi: So what changes need to come to the licensing and regulatory process? I know there's some legislation.

Ted Nordhaus: Yeah, there's legislation. In fact the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee today I believe just passed bipartisan legislation to modernize the NRC, basically directing the NRC —

Monica Trauzzi: EPW I think it was —

Ted Nordhaus: EPW, I'm sorry. EPW just passed bipartisan legislation to modernize the NRC, to bring — to come back to congress with plans for a user-friendly licensing process. You know, our argument is that it needs to be a staged licensing process, more like how the FDA licenses drugs where there are clear benchmarks that both build confidence for the companies that they're going to be able — that they're making progress through the licensing process and for investors that these companies have a decent shot at getting licensed. So there is promising legislation. It is bipartisan. Licensing is a key part, but clearly it's not the only thing we need to do.

Monica Trauzzi: What is the potential? What does the 21st-century model look like?

Ted Nordhaus: Well, I think the 21st-century model looks like that we're manufacturing reactors, and as we are manufacturing things like natural gas turbines today, that they're smaller designs that we're looking at, reactors that might be 10 megawatts or 100 megawatts instead of a gigawatt. These are advanced reactors, in many cases not light-water. They operate at ambient atmospheric pressures, which means that you don't have to have a pressurized cooling system, which in turn means that you don't need multiple redundant backup cooling systems in the event of a loss of power like what we saw at Fukushima. You don't need huge containment domes because again you don't have a system that's under high pressure to operate. There are a bunch of things — potential in terms of these technologies that mean that they could be much, much cheaper, scaled much faster. And in a world in which we've got a lot of fossil fuels and there seems to be very limited appetite at best to regular carbon, if you're going to decarbonize the global economy you're going to have to do it with technologies that are cheaper and bring other sorts of benefits without needing huge subsidies or regulatory regimes to scale them.

Monica Trauzzi: Very interesting conversation. Thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ted Nordhaus: Thanks. Thanks for having me, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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