The Italian parliament, demonstrating confidence in Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, this week formally backed her plan to reintroduce nuclear power plants into Italy’s energy mix, reversing the nation’s 1987 moratorium on nuclear power. Meanwhile, energy-starved Germany is feeling the pinch from shuttering all of its 17 nuclear power plants.
The U.S. has closed 11 nuclear reactors since 2013, with another eight of the 94 remaining reactors scheduled for decommissioning by 2025. Although Presidents Trump and Biden have favored bolstering the U.S. nuclear energy portfolio, America’s bureaucrat-heavy regulatory jungle remains designed to drag out facility permitting and construction for decades.
The sad truth is that the energy crisis is imminent – we don’t have decades to play gotcha political games. Another truth – wind and solar cannot fully power the U.S. grid.
Meloni’s plan would enable Italy to generate up to 35 MW of power from nuclear energy by 2050 (likely from small modular reactors). The plan adds nuclear to the list of low-carbon technologies with guaranteed sales of the energy they produce. The move towards nuclear also bolsters Meloni’s negotiations over Italy’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Germany’s removing nuclear power from its energy mix makes little sense, given the cutoff of Russian natural gas. Higher energy prices and shortfalls have led many German manufacturers to shut down or relocate to other, more energy friendly, nations. Germany has had negative economic growth since last October.
The German delusion is perhaps best exemplified by Steffi Lemke, minister for the environment and nuclear safety, who glowingly praised the shuttering of the last German nuclear power plants as an “excellent – indeed, visionary – move.” By contrast, fellow Green Party minister for the economy Robert Habeck recently bemoaned that German industries face an existential threat due to high electricity prices.
Habeck’s proposed solution is a massive (Bidenesque) subsidies program that would guarantee a fixed consumer price per megawatt-hour until 2030 – at a back-end cost to the public of 25 to 30 billion euros (not included in the “fixed” price).
As nuclear energy advocate Todd Royal points out, Congress in 2018 passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act that requires the Department of Energy to “develop a versatile fast neutron test reactor that could help develop fuels and materials for advanced reactors.” It also authorized DOE national laboratories to host reactor testing and demonstration projects.”
Congress in 2018 also passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, which requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “develop an optional regulatory framework suitable for advanced nuclear technologies.” This February, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance released draft recommendations for addressing barriers to NRC licensing of advanced reactors.
The draft recommended bolstering staff capacity and capability for licensing advanced reactors; upgrading unaccountable regulatory processes and procedures for scheduling, breadth of scope, and depth of review; developing regulatory processes that streamline rather than inhibit the commercialization of advanced reactors; and establishing practices that increase stakeholder understanding and public trust in the regulatory process.
As a follow-up, in April five Republican and five Democrat Senators introduced the bipartisan ADVANCE ( (Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy) Act, which addresses licensing fees, insurance, and a host of other barriers to moving proposed nuclear reactors from drawing board to full operation.
Today, companies that develop and sell new reactors pay up front the government’s $290 per hour cost for analyzing license applications. The 18,000-plus hours for reviewing even small test reactors presents a massive financial hurdle, especially for startups with innovative designs.
The bill recommends deferring these fees until the applicant has a license and can generate revenue from sales. The NRC would be compensated from a small rolling fund seeded by the government. A second proposal adds a time cap for the review of an accepted application, with additional billable hours paid by Congress.
The bill also grants a 20-year extension to the Price-Anderson Act, which pertains to civilian power plants, that would otherwise expire in 2025. The extension gives policy makers sufficient time to tweak the law while reassuring potential investors and developers that its reauthorization will not be a barrier to startups.
Regulatory reform appears to be a hot issue, as President Biden just this week endorsed a reform bill proposed last fall by Sen. Joe Manchin (D, WV) that would streamline permitting for mining of critical minerals and remove barriers for renewable energy.
White House energy spokesman John Podesta said delays caused by the current permitting process “are pervasive at every level of government,” with the result that “we got so good at stopping projects we forgot how to build things in America.”
Manchin last fall stated, “No matter what you want to build, whether it’s transmission pipelines or hydropower dams, more often than not, it takes too long and drives up costs. You can double your cost within a five to six, seven-year period from what the original cost may have been.”
If the regulatory reform momentum that covers transmission lines and mining extends to nuclear, that bodes well for widespread efforts to revitalize the long-bearded U.S. nuclear energy industry. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is spearheading an effort to restart a decommissioned reactor in her state, with help from Holtec Decommissioning International, whose primary focus is, as its name implies, decommissioning old plants.
Whitmer now says that keeping the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station open “is critical for Michigan’s competitiveness and future economic development opportunities.” But the 800-MW reactor that had provided 5 percent of Michigan’s electricity was plagued with complaints about poor maintenance, including instances of nuclear fuel container weakening – serious issues that forced its shutdown weeks earlier than originally anticipated.
On the other end of the spectrum, Westinghouse just announced the launch of its AP300 reactor, which it calls “the only small modular reactor offering available that is based on deployed, operating, and advanced reactor technology.” CEO and President Patrick Fragman is confident that the $1 billion per unit, 300-MW reactor design can win NRC approval by 2027.
From these developments, it appears the U.S. is aligning itself more with the so-called “right-wing” Italian government than with the Green Party-infused German leadership – at least on nuclear energy. Nuclear energy has powered U.S. submarines since the U.S.S. Nautilus was commissioned in 1954. And nuclear has supplied up to a fifth of U.S. electricity despite heavy propaganda and lack of government support.
Maybe, just maybe, after seventy years of nuclear submarines, America will finally believe – as Todd Royal believes – that carbon-free nuclear power is the nation’s best hope for meeting growing U.S. demand for electricity and global needs for basic economic growth. With worldwide energy consumption expected to grow by 50 percent by 2050, reliance on wind and solar (and, yes, geothermal) alone to meet that demand is a pipe dream.
This article originally appeared at Real Clear Energy
- Duggan Flanakin
- Duggan Flanakin is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow.
- A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas.
- A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, “Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout.”
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