It's Time for a Homegrown U.S. Nuclear Manufacturing Base | Opinion

On January 16, 2019, acting as assistant secretary for nuclear energy, I testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the state of U.S. nuclear technology development. I indicated that American nuclear was declining faster than anticipated. I explained that "sustaining the current fleet of operating nuclear power plants is a priority for the nation because without a robust nuclear industry, we will not be able to reestablish...U.S.-based supply chains, nor maintain the...infrastructure and workforce necessary for a vibrant civilian nuclear industry."

Fast forward to 2022, and reactor closures are hampering the nation's greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Case in point, the 2021 closure of Indian Point, New York, increased the state's emissions by 30 percent! Meanwhile, China's reactor fleet is quickly growing and will become the world's largest by 2026.

China's recently announced $440 billion investment in nuclear energy should be a sign to the U.S. that the CCP is challenging our superpower status. Unless we can build a strong domestic industrial base to respond to this challenge, the CCP will use nuclear (and other sectors) as a multi-faceted geostrategic tool to control global markets. If current conditions persist, it will be China, not the United States, that sets the health, safety and security standards in the nuclear field.

U.S.-based nuclear innovation is in dire need of commercialization. One such high-impact project is the Transformational Challenge Reactor, or TCR for short. This Department of Energy program, which I advanced, aimed to build the world's first 3D-printed reactor—vessel, fuel, sensors, the works! If proven, TCR commercialization would mark a paradigm shift in nuclear manufacturing, much like SpaceX did with rockets.

At the same time, the U.S. must focus on streamlining and updating regulations, making the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) more agile. Amid a recent NRC inspector general report that raises questions about nuclear plants' reliance on counterfeit parts, it's clear that investing in and licensing innovative projects like the TCR will require an adaptable regulatory body that does not inadvertently delay innovation. Other key nuclear questions, such as that of America's "nuclear waste," will require a bold and innovative approach. Nuclear waste remains a major issue because the U.S. nuclear industry presently has nowhere to dispose of it. Political gridlock, coupled with court-ordered payments, has bred complacency. It was for this exact reason that I recently argued that categorizing used nuclear fuel as "waste" is holding back a second nuclear era.

Indian Point, NY, power plant
TOMKINS COVE , NY - APRIL 22: A solar panel is seen in front of The Indian Point nuclear power plant is seen from Tomkins Cove, New York on April 22 2021. Nuclear Plant Indian Point will cease operations next Friday, April 30.New York is moving forward with its plan to dismantle and decommission the nuclear power facility in the Hudson Valley. Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Getty Images

It goes without saying that safety must be a top priority. However, nuclear power has the safest track record of any power source in America—period. What's holding us back is our current approach to building nuclear power. The U.S. fleet is far from reaching the scale and size needed to make a meaningful difference. Only two reactors have come online in the U.S. since 1990. Tried-and-true Light Water Reactors cost utilities billions, with regulatory fees—including permitting, inspections, materials and specialized construction—increasing the expense. Design changes during construction add further delays and costs. This makes building a nuclear power plant in the U.S. a high-risk endeavor. It's time for lawmakers to remove these roadblocks and unleash the American private sector.

Congress must evaluate the entire regulatory structure of the NRC, especially its timeframes and fee structures and the impact these have on the nuclear industrial complex. The NRC, singularly focused on safety, has no incentive to ensure that reactors come online or that the materials and components necessary to do so are readily available. As a result, ironically, inherently safer technologies are not being commercialized.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act codified an Obama administration initiative to cut environmental review and permit decision-making timelines for infrastructure projects. Title 41 of that act (FAST-41) established new coordination and oversight procedures for infrastructure projects being reviewed by federal agencies. While the effectiveness of these procedures remains untested, the nuclear industry desperately needs a mechanism to disentangle the regulatory process—and can start by classifying next-gen nuclear construction as "Major Infrastructure Projects."

With the Biden administration supporting nuclear development as a critical step toward decarbonizing our economy, the infrastructure bill included a much-needed $6 billion in federal subsidies for existing plants. Such appropriations signal bipartisan support for a second nuclear era. Congress and the administration would be wise to further invest in the build-up of a nimble and productive industrial base. Judiciously leveraging American ingenuity will secure the nuclear industry of today and create the tools to build the nuclear industry of tomorrow.

Ed McGinnis is CEO of Curio, a nuclear innovation and technology development company. As a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Energy, Ed previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy (Acting) and at the White House as Executive Director of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.