Next-Gen Nuclear Stumbles Out of the Starting Gate

There is only one imperative for the next generation of nuclear energy – deliver a working, safe, and secure reactor that can support the global clean energy revolution in a ten-year window.

For heralded micro-reactor rising star, Oklo, when that rubber hit the road it went flat.

Last week the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission denied the company’s license application for “failure to provide information” related to “key” safety features of its Aurora reactor design. The NRC invited Oklo to reapply and provide the requested missing information, meaning the design is not rejected, just shelved for the moment.

In mid-2020, Oklo was the first to submit, and have accepted by the NRC, an historic combined construction and operating license application for an advanced reactor. It has stated that it intends to continue to move forward with the process despite this setback.

So far, no one inside the administration has made a public statement responding to  Oklo’s punctured ambitions, despite its financial promotion of the technology.

Instead, this faltering of new nuclear technology has thrilled its opponents and roused their anticipation of more failure. Already, in 2017, the claims for Transatomic's molten salt reactor, also a hyped start-up, melted down under serious scrutiny.

It seems bizarre that there could be delight at the potential failure of a major zero-carbon energy source when 2021 was one of the hottest years on record, but we live in an era of incomprehensible ideological irrationality.

The Oklo-NRC situation, however, has raised a number of pressing real world questions that need to be quickly answered because there are a number of additional advanced reactor companies now lining up in the NRC licensing queue. Some of these are recipients of significant federal investment.

Chief among the issues is whether the U.S. has a well-conceived strategy for how to advance the world’s second largest zero-carbon energy source. Or whether it intends to replicate on the nuclear front its COVID playbook of fumbling around in a crisis while praying for positive developments.

The next generation of nuclear energy is more than a technology program, there are financial, export, geopolitical, and global security issues that need to be managed as an integrated package along with the reactor. But it is completely unclear who, or which executive branch entity, is responsible for shepherding these new technologies through this complex, multi-faceted, and fraught process.

A second question is about the NRC and its processes. The NRC is widely hailed as the gold standard of regulatory bodies that other nations look to for precedent. That’s an important position of global trust that should not be relinquished.

However, there are thoughtful criticisms of the agency and whether it is adequately modernizing its licensing requirements to meet new realities. There also are expert recommendations for how to streamline licensing reviews for next-gen nuclear technologies without compromising quality. Even the Congress has directed the NRC to develop a better licensing framework for advanced reactors.

American policymakers need to understand that this regulatory process is not taking place in a vacuum or at a pace that they control. There are at least five other major democratic nation high-quality regulatory bodies, in Canada, the U.K., France, South Korea, and Japan, that are going to make judgements on the new nuclear technologies that are rapidly being developed by their national innovators.

Then there is the question of Russia and China. Their regulatory bodies are nowhere near gold quality. But they too are racing forward with small modular and advanced reactors that are well suited for export, including to meet developing economy nation’s energy needs. And they have the advantage of having cultivated many of these countries to smooth the acceptance of their technologies.

This is a crucial geopolitical competition, especially for an administration that is facing heightened aggressiveness from Russia and is locked in a fight for technological supremacy with China.

It’s importance is further intensified by the coming carbon tsunami from about two dozen developing economy nations. The response to this building wave of greenhouse gasses is expansive low-carbon energy, including new nuclear.

The U.S. is investing billions of dollars in a technology and infrastructure support system for next-gen reactors with even more parked in the moribund Build Back Better bill.

But if the U.S. can’t get a horse approved to run in this race, not only can’t it win the global market competition it could actively undermine the achievement of the nuclear governance advances that are required to assure the security and nonproliferation of the new reactors.

The final question is what signal Oklo’s rejection, however temporary, sends to the financial and investment markets.

Finance is the Achilles Heel of nuclear power. The almost certain decision of the European Union to include nuclear energy in its green investment portfolio provides cover to a financial community concerned with ESG investing to reconsider nuclear power. This could be the foundation of a powerful private-public partnership.

Coming out of COP 26 in Glasgow it is very clear that renewable energy is going to have to be undergirded by low carbon firm output. That is why China and a number of European nations announced new nuclear initiatives around the summit.

The U.S. can be central to this resurgence, but its nuclear innovation community needs a comprehensive strategy, an effective support system, and an experienced government sherpa to achieve success. None of this exists at the moment or is on the horizon. The result is a potentially paralyzing stumble out of the starting gate.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security