Is the NRC hostile towards innovators?

Robert Bryce writing in Forbes, raises the question  . . . though in not so many words.  Comparing the NRC’s treatment of Oklo to the galloping progress that the Chinese are making with their own industry to build new advanced designs, Bryce suggests that it is the NRC’s rather hostile attitude towards our advanced nuclear innovators that is holding back American competitiveness in the design and commercialization of Advanced Reactors.

Proof, he suggests, came in early January when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected Oklo Power LLC’s application to build and operate a 1.5-megawatt fast reactor in Idaho. It wasn’t exactly the decision to reject the application so much as the rather abrupt and even hostile tactic the agency used, which was not to communicate with the company but to publish the dismissal without indicating its intention to the company.  This display of disfunctional behavior is clearly why, as Bryce claims,

“China is beating the pants off the United States in the race to deploy next-generation nuclear reactors. Wait. That’s not quite true. To have a race, the competitors have to be assembled at a starting line. The hard truth for the U.S. nuclear sector is that bureaucratic inertia is preventing it from even approaching the starting line.”

Bryce cites Nucleation Managing Partner, Rod Adams, in explaining that the NRC had accepted Oklo’s 600 page application back in June of 2020.  They were well aware, when they did that, that Oklo’s application was not like traditional or even modular lightwater applications, which had most recently clocked in at over 12,000 pages.  Then, the NRC proceeds to work through the application with Oklo for 22 months, billing the company at a high hourly rate for that work, and routinely asking for additional items. At that point, they suddenly switch course and, out of the blue, feel the need to pronounce “Oh, hell, you’re missing stuff that we want to see, so we’re just done and denying this application.” 

I’m sorry, that’s just the wrong on so many levels. That is not the way to work productively with a group that you also make clear, you expect to work together with again. Wow, it is difficult not to believe that there is much more going on within the NRC that is broadly disfunctional when they treat a group like Oklo that way. Not to mention that they obviously have no understanding of the way that private ventures and their investors work. 

More importantly, the NRC’s action evidences the fact that they utterly fail to recognize that climate change is operating at a scale of threat to humanity that is several magnitudes worse than any possible risk from Oklo’s 1.5 MW design. The whole world need more clean energy solutions, with next-gen nuclear being the one with the best chances of scaling up in time. The NRC does not seem to realize at all that If American developers cannot get their designs licensed, the 150 or so nations seeking to increase the access to nuclear power will purchase designs offered them by Russia or China.

One can only hope that the Biden Adminstration, which has placed Advanced Nuclear on its Critical and Emerging Technologies List, takes these legacy NRC blinder issues under advisement when it selects new commissioners or nations that are more or less hostile towards American interests, will eat our lunch.

Read Bryce’s piece in Forbes, NRC’s Rejection of Oklo Application Shows US is Miles Behind China in Advanced Nuclear Reactors, by Robert Bryce, published Jan. 31, 2022.