By Donald Larson
04/25/2016 CLEVELAND,OH – Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), and three other committee members—Sens. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)—this week introduced the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S 2795). The legislation addresses the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) fee structure and processes and includes provisions intended to accelerate the NRC’s licensing of advanced reactors.
The proposal would amend the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 which requires the NRC to recover, through fees, approximately 90 percent of its current fiscal year budget authority, not including amounts appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund, amounts appropriated for Waste Incidental to Reprocessing, and amounts appropriated for generic homeland security activities.
The way the NRC recovers fees has been problematic for advancing technology in the U.S. Nuclear Industry. Unlike other countries, like China, that finance research and development into new nuclear technologies and then recoup their costs by taxing the energy produced by the new technologies; the U.S. requires the NRC to recoup its costs from the nuclear industry in the year in which it was incurred. This normally means the company that wants a license for a new type of reactor pays for it by themselves. Normally, this is cost prohibitive. Inhofe’s proposal allows the NRC to attach an annual fee to its licenses for nuclear power plants in order to raise funds from the entire industry to finance the development of rules and regulations for new technologies. This would definitely relieve the development bottleneck in the U.S. The bottleneck exists because no single company can afford the risk to develop rules and regulations for new type reactors that can cost billions of dollars before the first watt of power is ever generated.
Additionally, the legislation directs the NRC to approach the development of rule and regulation making differently. America has many reactors that are perfectly safe and were developed and built in a fraction of the time that reactors are built now (some in less than 12 months whereas todays reactors can take up to 10 years to build due to rules and regulations). There is a tremendous compliance cost in meeting NRC regulations and it is questionable that with new types of technologies that many of these rules and regulations are even applicable. It is kind of akin to making a rule that horses had to wear diapers to keep the streets clean in the horse and buggy days and then enforcing that rule upon an automobile (a diaper on an automobile sounds as ridiculous as some of the rules that the NRC wants to take from old technologies to apply to new nuclear technologies.) The legislation directs the NRC to take a fresh approach to rule making with new technology instead of trying to apply current rules and regulations for present day reactors to future technology. This is not unlike what Canada has done with their nuclear program.
If Inhofe’s bill passes it could mean a major boon to Ohio in nuclear energy development if a pair of associated proposals are passed by the State of Ohio. Currently, Ohio’s Renewable Portfolio Standard’s (RPS) are frozen, but if they are re-implemented, they favor a market conducive only to wind and solar technologies. The Molten Salt Reactor Association (MSRA) has proposed a technology neutral carbon standard that would allow all technologies to compete on a level playing field to produce low carbon and zero carbon energy. This type of standard would be needed for Ohio to exploit other low-carbon and zero-carbon technologies like nuclear power. Why? No company or organization will invest in other technologies for our energy grid when they will not be able to compete on a level playing field with federally subsidized and state mandated wind and solar technologies.
Another proposal by the MSRA is the formation of an Ohio Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority (ONECA). This proposal would compliment Inhofe’s proposal and aid the nuclear industry in Ohio (which is the second largest in the nation) in financing new nuclear technologies. Ohio has made liberal use of Innovative Technology Tax Credits and bonds to finance the development of new technologies in many different industries, including energy. ONECA proposes to build a medical isotope production center with a new type, very small, and safe desktop sized reactor that would produced badly needed medical isotopes for the United States. What is so exciting about this proposal is that these small experimental reactors, we know from previous test reactors built and operated in the 1970’s, can produce commercial quantities of medical isotopes and create a $billion industry here in Ohio. Furthermore, the medical isotope production park would prove the viability of commercialization for this technology to produce power. It has even been hypothesized by a NASA paper that the technology could power off planet bases and interplanetary travel.
The Molten Salt Reactor Association has been in very preliminary talks with Ohio energy companies about the possibility placing a Medical Isotope Production facility adjacent or nearby its current Power Plants in Ohio. The MSRA has also looked at the possibility of working with NASA Glenn and NASA Plum Brook in the commercial development of a modularly built assembly line nuclear reactor that could be transported by ship, truck, or rail to a power production site. Such a facility would employ thousands of Ohioans in great paying jobs.
If we want to think small and embrace the status quo, we should realize that we will only ever have small gains in our economy. If we think big and are forward thinking, there is no telling how much our economy will profit. One thing is for sure, if Senator Inhofe’s bill passes into law, Ohio needs to pass legislation if it wants to exploit the opportunity that has been provided.
Development of these technologies would cement Ohio as a leader in medicine and energy and one day could cement it as the leader in interplanetary space travel. How cool would it be to one day claim that Ohio was “First in Flight, First in Orbit, First on the Moon, and First to Mars” (paying homage to the Wright Bros, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong).