Congress just passed legislation to greenlight nuclear energy


The Senate just passed the “Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy Act” (ADVANCE ACT), which was part of the “Fire Grants and Safety Act” (S. 870)

The House passed a similar version back in May. The legislation is now headed to the President’s desk and is expected to be signed after receiving majority support in both chambers. 

The ADVANCE Act is more than a year in coming and constitutes a compromise between different factions concerned with the future of nuclear power development in the US.  

The legislation does a few important things. The most widely discussed change is the reform of the regulatory process for advanced reactors. For the many small modular reactor companies currently working on licensing new designs, this regulatory process reform should simplify the path of development and eventual demonstration of advanced reactors. Two less-covered aspects of the law are also incredibly interesting and worthy of note.

1. Improves the nuclear regulatory commission’s mission

The ADVANCE Act updates the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) mission to acknowledge the potential utility and benefit of nuclear power technology. This is an important departure from the current mission which is only focused on maintaining protection from nuclear technology, rather than stewarding its possible benefits. 

The current mission reads: “The NRC licenses and regulates the Nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and to promote the common defense and security and to protect the environment.”

Nowhere in this mission are the benefits or utility of the regulated technology acknowledged. This is a mission focused exclusively on the threat posed by the regulated technology. This framing is contagious and leads to an agency culture that fails to see the positive possibilities of the industry over which it operates exclusive control.  

Over time, this has created incentives toward regulating more, without acknowledging that regulatory decisions have inherent tradeoffs. It also doesn’t acknowledge that strangling new development with excessive regulation means fewer reactors ultimately get built (and their resultant benefits are missed).

The ADVANCE Act requires that within a year of it going into effect, the NRC will add the following to its mission statement: “licensing and regulation of the civilian use of radioactive materials and nuclear energy be conducted in a manner that is efficient and does not unnecessarily limit— (1) the civilian use of radioactive materials and deployment of nuclear energy; or (2) the benefits of civilian use of radioactive materials and nuclear energy technology to society.”

Although a mission change may seem like a small step, an acknowledgment in the NRC’s mission that nuclear power technology has benefits, and that the NRC’s mission is to not “unnecessarily limit” the potential of those benefits, is an important and positive step. 

2. Creates a pathway for US nuclear companies to obtain export licenses

Many countries want to reap the benefits of nuclear power technology without establishing a robust domestic industry (a process that takes considerable time, research, and expense). In recent years, these countries have often depended on China for power from reactors that China would generally continue to control.  

China has been using nuclear power technology as a means to have leverage over the countries that use its nuclear reactors. It’s more than reasonable that the US should be able to counteract this and provide alternatives to developing nations looking for electricity. The ADVANCE Act creates a pathway for export licenses to allow US nuclear technology to be used elsewhere in the world with specific nonproliferation safeguards in place. Such a pathway does not currently exist. 

The ability of the United States to utilize nuclear power in this way will allow our nation to play a larger role in the establishment of global norms and rules around nuclear development, prevent China from using this technology to wield a significant foreign policy advantage, and bring reliable power to countries that may otherwise struggle to provide it. Creating an export license framework for US nuclear companies is one of the most important impacts of this legislation.

The act is far from being a comprehensive solution to the multitudinous problems with nuclear regulation in the US, but it takes important steps toward acknowledging the potential benefits of nuclear technology and allowing the technology to be utilized more both at home and abroad. China is building reactors both domestically and internationally at an incredible pace, and the ADVANCE Act removes some of the barriers that are preventing the US from doing the same. 

Of all the available energy sources out there, nuclear power is 93% reliable across the year, provides 24/7 baseload power, and occupies the least amount of land of any type of power plant. The ADVANCE Act is expected to help these benefits be realized as the regulatory barriers to this technology are reduced.

A version of this article first appeared on Independent Women’s Forum.