It Pays to be Prepared

In April 2018, I gave testimony to the now Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense that underscored the critical importance of the first sentence in its 2015 national blueprint report, “The United States is unprepared for biological threats.” That assessment has now proven to be prescient.

The commission was not the first or the last expert group to make this assessment. But it is led by policymakers who have had responsibility to constituents, understand the severity of the threats the U.S. and the world face from pandemics and other biological dangers, and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the domestic and international government systems in responding to them.

Unfortunately for all of us, we talked a lot about the systemic weaknesses without doing much to strengthen them when we had the chance. We can’t let that happen again.

The devastating impact of the coronavirus will shock the U.S. system – and hopefully the world - into being better prepared for the next bio threats that inevitably will occur. But we can’t repeat the pattern of seeing significant national security challenges on the horizon and observing them as they advance without adequately preparing the policies required to effectively address them.

This requirement also carries over to the nuclear field, where it is becoming increasingly clear that the next generation of smaller and exotically fueled nuclear reactors are advancing. But it is unclear if the world is prepared for them.

There are numerous signposts of next-gen reactor acceleration.
A first of its kind agreement was signed by the nuclear regulatory authorities in the U.S. and Canada to collaborate on technical reviews of advanced and small modular reactor (SMR) technologies. Ten reactor concepts are under evaluation by these regulators.

The Canadian government and its nuclear industry collaborated to publish an SMR Roadmap to chart a path for the deployment of small reactors. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is inviting demonstration projects.
The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded contracts to three companies to develop mobile microreactors and is assessing other small reactors for military base power.

The bitterly divided U.S. Congress has passed two laws with bipartisan support that are designed to advance next-gen nuclear technology and has increased the funding for these reactors. Congress also has provided about $100 million in support of the Department of Energy’s plan to build a Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) to test advanced reactor fuels and materials. And additional legislation supporting the clean energy role of next-gen nuclear is progressing through the legislative process.

The first new U.S. small modular reactor is scheduled to be demonstrated at the Idaho National Environmental and Engineering Laboratory (INEEL) and a micro reactor may soon follow. The lab also has created a National Reactor Innovation Center to facilitate the construction and operation of innovative reactor concepts.

These actions indicate significant technological and political momentum. But the policy for this next generation of reactors is lagging this drive. It quickly needs to catch up for two reasons.

First, the policy framework for next generation reactors is going to be different than that which currently exists. The reactor fuels and coolants for advanced reactors are very different from those of most existing power reactors, while there is more commonality with SMRs. The smaller generating capacity of these reactors make them applicable for use in small grid, developing economy nations that do not have a history of nuclear operations. They also are applicable for use in remote areas and to support industrial processes. Also, DoD, outside of the nuclear Navy, has not been deeply involved in the use or operation of nuclear power systems. These issues raise many new questions that need to be answered, not pushed off into the future.

The second reason is that, because of the myriad new policy challenges, and controversy around some elements including the VTR, it is critical to have a balanced, effective policy framework in place as the technology accelerates through the development and demonstration phase to deployment. Already the green sprouts of questionable policy ideas are becoming visible. Bad policy can be counterproductive and could strengthen the ability of Russia and China to dominate this developing new market. If that happens, it is unclear if they will require the high levels of safety, security and safeguards that can instill global confidence in the deployment of these technologies.

There was no shortage of warnings of inadequate preparation for pandemics over the past 20 years. But they were largely ignored. Progress on small and advanced reactors is now clear. But it is a mistake to believe that the value of the technology will prevail without an effective policy framework that will provide global confidence in its benefits. It pays to be prepared.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security