Speaking on June 13 at the opening plenary of the 2022 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Ted Nordhaus, founder and executive director of The Breakthrough Institute, said that the nuclear community has a “generational opportunity to reset both public opinion and policy with regard to nuclear energy.”
Driving the change in the discussion, Nordhaus said, are three items: the growing concern over climate change, a broader recognition that renewable energy sources are insufficient, and a “post-pandemic price shock” over rising energy prices.
In discussing shifting opinions over nuclear, Nordhaus distinguished between public opinion and “elite opinion.” Noting that the general public doesn’t have a strong opinion on nuclear energy one way or the other, Nordhaus said that it is the opinion of elites—political leaders, policymakers, social figures—that is important and that influences the broader public perception of the technology.
Nuclear growth: Nordhaus also noted that there is a growing pronuclear environmental movement, which he called a “historical development” that is changing the discussion of nuclear energy. The debate over nuclear, he said, is no longer solely defined by industry and government on one side and an antinculear civil society movement on the other.
The bad news for nuclear, according to Nordhaus, is that the industry continues to be “saddled with an antiquated and sporadic regulator.” In his opinion, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not prepared to license advanced reactors and is too focused on regulatory and procedural minutiae overly concerned with risks that are low or nonexistent. “We regulate today theoretical risk rather than observable risk,” he said, adding that the current licensing process is “Kafka-esque.”
NRC challenges: Former NRC commissioner and chairman Kristine Svinicki, who also spoke at the plenary, did not completely disagree with Nordhaus regarding the NRC’s shortcomings. “We will have that dialogue here, but let me just say that the core of the concerns and disconnects that Ted mentioned, we have a lot of agreement on that,” she said.
Svinicki, who currently is an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan, said that given all the challenges the NRC faces, she’s not confident that it will be “equipped and ready to fulfill the role it needs to in order for nuclear to occupy its role in a clean energy future that it has the potential to occupy.”
Svinicki said that it will be difficult to change the NRC because, as an organization, it has been historically successful. She also said that there is little incentive for the agency to make the changes it needs to—adding that despite this, she doesn’t believe moving responsibility for advanced reactors to an outside regulator is a good idea.
For more information on the 2022 ANS Annual Meeting, please visit ans.org/meetings/am2022.
Keep an eye on Newswire for more Annual Meeting coverage this week.