Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Get Out of the Way, NRC!

At the closing dinner of the recent ANS Student conference in Las Vegas, Westinghouse’s Michael Anness, Manager of Advanced Reactors, gave a presentation on the new AP1000 and sister SMR design. What caught my attention, specifically, was when he mentioned that the SMR recycled much of the design of the AP1000 to lower regulatory approval times and costs. Regulatory design approval is something the folks at Terrapower are having to take into consideration with their experimental reactor, and I’m sure every other commercial reactor designer does the same thing. To make a design economical, a new technology is merely applied to an existing or older design.

This got me thinking: How much more advanced could nuclear technology be if it wasn’t under such stifling regulation? Even the SMR had to wait for the NRC to come up with a completely new framework--it couldn’t be approved under contemporary regulatory structure. During some research, I stumbled across this little gem from the Journal of Business Ethics, a peer-reviewed article on how many aspects of nuclear power would thrive in a free market environment. A quick excerpt relevant to experience at the dinner:

Michael Porter and Claas van der Linde (1995) disagree with the claim that too much government direction stifles technological advancement, and instead argue that it can stimulate innovation. However,their idea that ‘‘regulation signals companies about likely resource inefficiencies and potential technological improvements’’ (1995, p. 98) is completely untenable. Buried in this statement is the assumption that the government somehow has knowledge of a ‘‘more efficient’’ resource allocation and benevolently informs entrepreneurs of their oversight via regulations that guide private industry down the socially beneficial road. For example,Porter and van der Linde might imagine the NRC discovering that the benefits of a particular valve (in terms of increased energy production, decreased risk of accident, or whatever) are greater than the costs of that valve. Porter and van der Linde would then have the NRC mandate that nuclear plants use that valve. But how did the NRC discover this, while this was somehow kept hidden from the practitioners of nuclear energy production? If we have learned anything from the fall of communism in 1989, it is that the owners of property have the most expertise in the application and preservation of their property, not a coalition of "experts" commissioned by the government.

The article also raises good points regarding the negative consequences of the Price-Anderson Act, private property issues, and Shoreham, to name a few. I urge you to check out this article and objectively think about the role the NRC (and other regulators for that matter) plays in the nuclear industry and whether it really is beneficial or not to the producer and consumer alike.

Nuclear Power by Levendis, et al: http://www.futurehouston.com/cmsFiles/Files/Nuclear%20Power.pdf

Thomas Eiden