Social License for Deployment of Advanced Nuclear

The deployment of advanced nuclear technologies is anticipated to be part of the actions required to mitigate global climate change. The successful deployment of these new technologies, like all new infrastructure projects, will be more successful if the projects have strong public support. Successful deployment of energy infrastructure correlates with thoughtful approaches to equitable energy transitions.

Not only will the world need to replace or retrofit existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure, but total energy consumption will grow significantly. Even without explicit climate policy, demand for electricity will at least double by 2050, simply based on projected economic growth. With a focus on deep decarbonization, electricity demand will likely triple or quadruple by 2050, due to an increased need for electrification of transportation, industry, and residential heating.

Some have argued that such a massive build-out of clean energy infrastructure presents significant opportunities, including high-paying jobs and new industries to revitalize economically depressed regions. However, there are also significant challenges, particularly with regard to siting new energy infrastructures.

While technocratic models can tell us how much energy infrastructure needs to be built and even where, they come up short on how to actually get things built in the real world. This is where there is a growing need for expertise from other disciplines like public policy, sociology, science, and technology studies.

For these reasons, there has been a growing consensus among climate advocates and policy-makers to shift towards a climate policy framework referred to as Standards, Investment, and Justice (SIJ).
For advanced nuclear projects in the US, there is urgency in developing new siting processes. Beyond the targets for steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions set by the Biden Administration, several advanced reactor designs are working through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and could break ground on demonstration projects in the next five years. Reactor developers will need to start identifying potential sites for their first commercial projects on similar timelines.

Importantly, as opposition to renewables and transmission has grown in recent decades, there is a need to develop just and equitable processes for siting and deployment across the energy sector. Here, there might be some lessons that nuclear can share, from its own failures and more recent successes. This study will conclude with recommendations for how to incorporate social sciences into engineering standards for clean energy deployment.

Read the full study “Social License in the Deployment of Advanced Nuclear Technology,” by J.R. Lovering, S.H. Baker and T.R. Allen, published at MDPI on July 16, 2021.