America’s misguided nuclear policy threatens tech advantage, climate goals

Daniel Lyons

Oklo wants to revolutionize nuclear energy. The startup, founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni and funded by investors including Peter Thiel and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, is developing microreactors that can run on nuclear waste. Unlike the behemoth reactors of the 1970s, designed to power whole cities, Oklo’s 1.5-megawatt reactor fits inside a shipping container. If successful, Oklo could provide a zero-carbon alternative to ubiquitous dirty-diesel generators and reduce the carbon footprint of industrial sites, colleges, and remote, off-the-grid communities.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dealt Oklo a setback last month when it denied the company’s license application. In fact, since the commission was created in 1975, exactly zero licenses initially submitted to the NRC have begun operations (hat tip to Eli Dourado). Meanwhile, America is decommissioning its installed nuclear capacity at an alarming rate. As China, Russia, and other countries continue to push the envelope on nuclear power, America’s problematic approach to nuclear power jeopardizes both our technological leadership and our climate goals.

Oklo’s microreactors challenge many of society’s assumptions about nuclear energy. The company’s “fast reactor” design is more efficient than traditional thermal reactors, meaning it can extract more energy from nuclear fuel and also reprocess waste from conventional reactors. The units are small, meaning they can be built quickly and deployed broadly. And the microreactor is “sealed” when built: It contains a lifetime supply of fuel, so there is no need or ability to access the reactor during operations. This reduces a big operating cost: protecting against theft of nuclear fuel. The company secured a site permit from the Department of Energy to build a prototype in Idaho using government-owned spent nuclear fuel — but needs the NRC’s permission to proceed.

Oklo is part of a broader wave of innovation in the nuclear sector. Bill Gates’s TerraPower is developing small modular reactors that, at 345 megawatts, fit comfortably in the space between Oklo’s microreactors and larger traditional reactors. In the large reactor space, breakthroughs in molten salt technology as an alternative to water cooling obviates the need to build near rivers and bays.

Nuclear benefits

These new nuclear designs could yield significant benefits, particularly for a world increasingly concerned about climate change. Nuclear power is an efficient, reliable source of carbon-free electricity. According to the Department of Energy, the 93 percent capacity factor for nuclear power is higher than any other source of electricity. This means that nuclear plants produce maximum electricity 93 percent of the time each year, compared to 57 percent for natural gas, 35 percent for wind, and 25 percent for solar.

Like fossil fuel plants, nuclear plants are dispatchable. They produce energy on demand, rather than merely when the sun shines or the wind blows. But they produce electricity without the carbon footprint of their coal and gas counterparts. And they use less land than renewables. A gigawatt nuclear plant sits on approximately 1.3 square miles. To generate the same amount of electricity each year, a wind farm would need 260–360 square miles of land.

But America has not embraced nuclear energy, having retired several nuclear workhorses over the past decade without installing replacement capacity. Not all of this is the NRC’s fault. The economics of nuclear power is also a factor. To its credit, the NRC did approve Westinghouse’s Vogtle project in 2011 — to be America’s first new nuclear plant in 30 years — but construction has been waylaid by cost overruns. And the NRC has begun to embrace small modular reactor designs. But as Robert Bryce explains, the NRC’s approval process is costly: He quotes a Nuclear Innovation Alliance report suggesting the approval process could cost tens of millions of dollars and several years of review. When coupled with regulatory uncertainty about the result, this process deters investment in American nuclear power.

Meanwhile, other countries are leaning into the nuclear revolution. Bryce notes that last month China connected two new high-efficiency reactors to their grid and have 46 planned or under construction. And there are 20 fast reactors using the same technology as Oklo deployed worldwide, driven by Russian technological leadership. Nuclear power is a global game, and America is falling behind.

Importantly, the Commission’s rejection of Oklo was without prejudice. The agency said the company needed to provide more information before the regulator could complete its review. (Oklo may have found this hard to believe, since its application tipped the scales at 600 pages). But Oklo will respond, and one hopes its second attempt will be more successful. America simply cannot achieve the Biden administration’s carbon footprint goals without advanced nuclear power. Our regulatory ambivalence toward the nuclear revolution not only undermines our credibility on environmental policy, but risks yielding significant technological advantages to rival nations in the coming years.

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