The Role of Civil Society in the Next Generation of Nuclear Power

The potential of next generation nuclear power was boosted last week with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) selection of two advanced reactors for demonstration no later than 2027.  But the project’s aggressive timeline, novel technologies, and private-public sector collaboration present major challenges, and timely success is not assured.

Despite its significant resources and current commitment, government action alone will not guarantee that next-gen U.S. nuclear technologies will thrive. To ultimately be successful, the next phase of civil nuclear power needs a deeper collaboration with the civil society sectors that understand what is at stake if this important experiment fails. This partnership needs to be much more than technology cheerleading because there is a long and thorny list of issues that need to be tackled.

At issue is DoE’s spotty track record of pushing cutting edge non-military technology projects to completion.

For example, the worthy goal of disposing of 34 metric tons each of U.S. and Russian excess nuclear weapons plutonium under a 2000 agreement was abandoned in 2018. While Russia bailed out of the effort in 2016, the U.S. project continued until it was “$13 billion over budget and 32 years behind schedule.”

Similarly, in 1993, DoE ended the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project after 14 of 54 miles of tunnel was bored, over $2 billion was spent, and the cost projection increased to over $10 billion.

In recent years, the U.S. government decided that it needed to reinvigorate its civil nuclear capacity, including developing advanced reactors. Congress provided legislation and funding. DoE launched the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). And it created the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to centralize technical activity on the next phase of nuclear innovation.

DoE also supported the deployment of NuScale Power’s first-of-its-kind small modular reactor (SMR) which will be located at INL, and recently pledged $1.4 billion to bolster the project. The Pentagon is pursuing a parallel small reactor program for its purposes.

These steps represent significant progress and demonstrable political commitment. That is vitally important. But red flags are beginning to rise as the process moves forward and further uphill.

NuScale’s timeline for the completion of its 12 units already has been extended by 3 years to 2030. The project also could face the cost increases inherent in most nuclear construction. This financial uncertainty has caused some of the small cities allied under the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) to withdraw from the Carbon Free Power Project which would receive the electricity from the NuScale reactors.

As the lead horse in this race, if NuScale falters before the finish line it could knock out the more exotic technologies galloping behind it.

A significant delay in the implementation, or the ultimate demise, of the U.S. next-gen nuclear effort will have serious real-world consequences. The coming reactors are being promoted as a partial solution to climate change, a way to rebuild U.S. nuclear export muscle, and a lever in the intensifying technology competition with China.

Achieving all of those objectives is essential for the U.S. and its alliance partners as they collectively face a constantly evolving and highly competitive international environment.

The worry is whether the government’s and national laboratory’s traditional encumbrances, obligations, and processes are dynamic enough to allow them alone to drive and sustain this technology push in a timely and effective manner. Their rhetoric is right, but a checkered history of success, along with near-record low public trust in the ability of the government, creates concern.

A support system outside, but alongside, official channels that is credible, knowledgeable, flexible, and focused on success could provide many advantages. These include: technical support; policy analysis and recommendations; education and training; market identification and preparation; geopolitical assessment; finance and legal planning; and communications and messaging insight. In addition, it could offer informed observations if the process is failing to meet milestones.

To some degree the infrastructure for this type of collaboration already exists. Organizations in the energy, environmental, climate, and nuclear security communities are already working on the next-gen nuclear agenda, including under the Global Nexus Initiative. But much of this engagement has been ad hoc and in some cases highly siloed.

These interactions can become more systematic, cross-cutting, and beneficial. But they cannot become distorted. Civil society has the opportunity and the credibility to help ensure that the next generation of civil nuclear power is safe, secure, climate-friendly, and not a contributor to nuclear weapons proliferation.

However, while civil society’s credibility is powerful it also is exceptionally ephemeral. A candid collaboration can immeasurably strengthen next-gen nuclear and its contributions. A devolution of it into technology tub-thumping that ignores or excuses problems and failures will undermine precious public trust in the objectiveness of these organizations and erode confidence in their judgments and recommendations. If that happens, then the foundation for a new generation of nuclear energy will be significantly weakened, perhaps fatally so.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security