The nuclear energy startup Kairos is interested in building a small reactor for testing at a government lab. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has no objections to these plans. After reviewing the California company’s application for months and holding public hearings, agency staff were satisfied enough with its environmental and safety assessments to recommend formally that the commissioners approve the construction permits. The proposal is so uncontroversial, that opponents of nuclear power have not challenged the regulators decision. Kairos still has to overcome one more hurdle: an administrative hearing, which will cost almost $500,000 for the company and delay any permits by at least six months. The current NRC does not defend the hearings, but only says that they are required by law. Federal scientists who are not part of the regulatory agency believe it should be abolished. Both parties have tried to achieve this for decades. The United States has built too few reactors over the last 40 years to give the issue much traction in Congress. Members of Congress with an average age of 59 will have more memories of hiding beneath school desks for nuclear bomb drills during the Cold War than they will be worried about their own survival in a world that is predicted to become hotter, more chaotic and unpredictable in the next decades. Experts say that as the U.S. turns to nuclear power to replace fossil fuels as well as backup renewables such as solar and wind, they cannot afford to hold expensive and time-consuming hearings. They will only delay construction. “In the past, it was implicitly assumed that building energy projects slowly was okay because the status-quo was acceptable,” Judi Greenwald said, executive director of Nuclear Innovation Alliance, an nonprofit think tank which promotes atomic electricity in the public’s interest. We know that the status-quo is no longer acceptable. While progressive nuclear advocates are in agreement, the only bill that was introduced by the right-wing Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida to relieve the NRC from its legal obligation to hold the so-called compulsory uncontested hearings is the
. The bill has only one co-sponsor so far, Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas). The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has also proposed a separate
to eliminate the hearing.The impending legislative push comes at a time when lawmakers from across the political spectrum are warming up to nuclear power. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden contained billions in subsidies to keep nuclear power plants operating. And the Inflation Reduction Act’s various clean-energy programs could direct billions to future atomic stations. The Senate passed another bill
in July. This one was authored by Republicans as well as some of the Democrats who are the most climate-hawkish. It aims to boost U.S. nuclear fuel and reactor technology exports. The NRC approved the first ever design of a small modular nuclear reactor earlier this year. And just this week, a company that enriches uranium was given the green light to begin producing a type of special nuclear fuel not produced in the U.S. for years. The first U.S. reactors to be built from the ground up in decades are located at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro. The support for nuclear energy has grown among Americans. In August, 57% said they supported more nuclear power plants. This is up from 43% by 2020. Those results mirror similar findings from other surveys this year by the pollsters
and Ipsos. It is difficult to determine whether voters are willing to relax the regulations for clean-energy infrastructure. Last September, 61% of voters backed making the government permitting process more efficient for clean-energy projects in a survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the pollster Morning Consult. In May, 76% of voters said they preferred to maintain current environmental and public health rules regardless of whether they wanted more low-carbon energy or fossil fuels, according to a
survey that the Democratic pollster Data for Progress conducted on behalf of two environmental groups. Also, loosing regulations is not always the best way to win political support. This is especially true for industries that people may perceive as dangerous. Local protests have erupted in places as diverse as New York, Boston and rural New Mexico over the past few years. Many of these protests were sparked by demonstrators who misunderstood the dangers of radiation. Dan Dorman, the NRC’s executive Director for Operations at a House hearing in July, said that eliminating mandatory hearings wouldn’t reduce oversight or harm public confidence in new nuclear facilities. “That would not affect any party’s interests who would seek an hearing,” Dorman said. He noted that those who want to challenge a nuclear plant can still participate throughout the process by contesting NRC staff approval of a licence. The NRC responded that they are “required” by the Atomic Energy Act (which requires them to hold these hearings) and provided a link to the statute. The Atomic Energy Commission regulated nuclear energy until the NRC was created in 1974. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had a dual mandate, unlike the NRC which is solely responsible for protecting the public from the dangers associated with nuclear power plants. It also promoted the use of fission. At that time, there were no federal laws that mandated extensive scientific assessments, hearings in public, and the access to federal documents. Lewis Strauss, the chairman of Atomic Energy Commission in 1955, appeared before a Senate subcommittee that reopened hearings about a cancelled multimillion-dollar contract. Strauss’s reluctance to reveal the internal debates at the AEC, a predecessor to Nuclear Regulatory Commission, prompted Congress to amend the Atomic Energy Act to require mandatory uncontested hearings.Bettmann via Getty Images
Kairos declined to comment on how much the hearing would cost internally, saying it’s “business-sensitive, and we do not broadly communicate about it.” But a letter the NRC sent the company in August shows the agency estimating that the process would require 1,500 hours of work from the regulators, which Kairos would need to pay. The NRC charges about $300 an hour. That would cost at least $450,000. This does not include the amount paid to the company’s lawyers. In an April paper examining ways to improve the nuclear licensing process, the Idaho National Laboratory looked at 13 mandatory hearings from 2009 to 2019 and found that only two led to any changes, and it was only to add new conditions based on the Fukushima disaster that unfolded months earlier, which like would have occurred regardless of the hearings.
The conclusion mirrors what an internal NRC task force looking at how to make licensing more efficient recommended in 2007. The conclusion is similar to what a 2007 report by an internal NRC task force that looked at how to make licensing more efficient recommended. It costs half a mil to pay staffers to prepare questions that the commissioners can ask. It’s hard to imagine a more “bureaucratic” waste than that. Jackie Toth is the deputy director of Good Energy Collective. She said that it was an anachronistic hangover. It’s only natural to react when you hear that an agency is looking at reducing a certain level of oversight and review. Good Energy, however, is not concerned.
At a 2016 hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety at the watchdog Union of Concerned Scientists,
that “mandatory hearings provide an important independent review of uncontested issues addressed in new reactor license approvals.”
In an interview this week, Lyman dismissed the findings of the NRC task force and the national lab, insisting the agency’s staff “is not fully objective” because “it’s in their interest, or they see their interest, as supporting the applicant.” “The staff tends to be biased in favor of approving the safety of applications, so they can’t be regarded as a completely objective scientific or technical body,” he said. Likewise, he said the Department of Energy and the Idaho National Laboratory “are not neutral observers in this, either, because unfortunately their mandate is
, and that means getting funding for their nuclear power research, development and demonstration.”
At a mandatory hearing in 2006, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing
Americans’ faith in the federal government has plummeted since the 1960s, when the public trust peaked at 77% before plunging to 16% in 2023, according to the Pew Research Center. In a survey conducted in 2021, a pollster found that 77% of U.S. adult citizens have “a good deal” or “a lot” of trust in scientists to “act in the best interest of the public”. The group stated that researchers have been in agreement for many years about the benefits of scrapping the hearings. The nonprofit public-interest group representing academics, industry professionals and other stakeholders said in a statement that it supports the idea. The American Nuclear Society stated that eliminating hearings without a contest would increase the efficiency of the NRC’s license process. The benefits of eliminating NRC hearings that are not contested have been well understood, and even internal to the Commission.