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Research Questions

  1. Why do light-water reactors (LWRs) require expensive engineered safety systems to protect the public?
  2. Why does the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have difficulty evaluating non-LWR nuclear plants?
  3. What discourages the U.S. Department of Energy and industry from investing the time and resources needed to establish the operational and safety characteristics of these technologies?
  4. What candidate reactor designs might offer alternatives to the current technological paradigm?
  5. What can policymakers do to overcome the barriers to the commercialization of next-generation nuclear reactors?

This perspective examines the institutional and technical obstacles to the commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors for electrical power generation in the United States. The nuclear renaissance that seemed imminent ten years ago has failed to materialize, in considerable part because of the failure of large light-water reactors (LWRs) to achieve the envisioned improvement in capital costs. If nuclear fission is to play a substantial role in the future of the U.S. energy supply, a more cost-effective type of nuclear power plant must be commercialized. This piece examines the underlying technical reasons LWRs require expensive engineered safety systems to protect the public. It then explores the institutional barriers that make it difficult for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to evaluate non-LWR nuclear plants and discourage the U.S. Department of Energy and industry from investing the time and resources needed to establish the operational and safety characteristics of these technologies. Finally, it provides an overview of several candidate reactor designs that might offer alternatives to the current technological paradigm and outlines steps policymakers can take to overcome the barriers to the commercialization of next-generation nuclear reactors.

Key Findings

U.S. Reactors, the Fuel They Use, and U.S. Attitudes Toward Nuclear Energy Drive the Need for Costly Safety Engineering and Inhibit Innovation of Alternative Reactor Technologies

  • The physics of large U.S. LWRs and the zirconium-clad uranium oxide fuel they employ requires the inclusion of costly engineered safety systems to protect the public from the consequences of severe accidents. The nuclear renaissance hinged on the assumption that standardized design and modular construction would reduce the expense of these systems to manageable levels, but experience has not borne out this hope.
  • Unfortunately, because of the historical predominance of LWRs in the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is poorly equipped to evaluate the safety of alternative technologies.
  • Although the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to collaborate with industry to develop and commercialize new nuclear reactor technologies, several attempts to do so have consumed billions of dollars without producing a prototype plant.
  • In the face of institutional dysfunction, regulatory uncertainty, and unpredictable economic prospects for nuclear energy, industry is understandably reluctant to invest again in new technologies.

Some Possible Alternatives to Current Light-Water Reactors Have Not Been, and Might Never Be, Commercialized in the United States

  • Small, modular LWRs; fast reactors that use molten metal for cooling; modular reactors that use gas for cooling; and reactors that use molten salt as fuel are four types of reactors that address many of the concerns about the use of nuclear energy in the United States.

Recommendations

  • The objective of nuclear safety regulation should be to minimize the health and economic impacts of large-scale accidents, rather than to minimize the theoretical incidence of damage to reactors. Rather than focus on saving the reactor, the goal should be to protect the public from the outside in. Plants might be designed so that, in the worst-case scenario, they fail elegantly so as to create an accident with characteristics more favorable to effective emergency management. Instead of perpetuating the hubristic, and infeasible, ambition to somehow prevent all accidents, the aim should be to prevent accidents from becoming catastrophes.
  • To encourage the development of new civilian nuclear technologies, the United States should forge relationships with other nations to develop the operational experience and technical data necessary to commercialize non-LWR nuclear plants. To face the possible energy challenges of the 21st century, the department has a responsibility to explore all potentially promising energy technologies, and this is feasible only by partnering with nuclear research programs in states that are aggressively developing advanced reactors. Working with international partners, instead of competing with them, will help ensure that U.S. values regarding safety and proliferation resistance will be reflected in future nuclear plants wherever they are built and potentially produce the knowledge base needed to commercialize advanced nuclear reactors in the United States.

The research reported here was conducted as part of the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellows Program at the RAND Corporation.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation perspective series. RAND perspectives present informed perspective on a timely topic that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND perspectives undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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