Memo to the President-Elect (Part 2)


A clear and present need for nuclear energy expansion.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2008

If the recent presidential election campaign is any indication, energy-policy issues will rank among the new Obama Administration’s top priorities. This extended memo to the new administration—which began in the November issue of Fortnightly—describes the clear and present need for additional nuclear power in the United States, and proposes policy changes that will ensure America meets this need in a timely and effective way.

Part 1 of the memo established that nuclear-power plants generate approximately 20 percent of electricity in the United States, and the country’s future depends on policies that provide greater support for this vital source of energy. Part 2 recommends actions for the new administration to ensure the existing nuclear fleet can continue operating safely, reliably and cost-effectively for decades to come—and also to lay the groundwork for an expansion of nuclear energy in the United States.

Nuclear Life Extension

America’s 104 operating commercial light-water reactors (LWRs) constitute the largest domestic source of non-greenhouse-gas (GHG)-emitting energy production. Most of these plants began operation in the 1970s and 1980s with an initial licensed period of operation of 40 years.1 Approximately half of these plants have demonstrated they can continue operating safely beyond this initial licensed period and have applied for, and received, license extensions from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to allow for extended operation periods of up to 60 years in total. All licensees are expected to apply for this extra 20 years of operating life.

Whether those plants can continue operating beyond that time depends on additional action to further extend licenses beyond this 60-year period. Without such action, more than 100 GW of electric generation capacity will be lost between 2030 and 2045 (see Figure 1). It’s unlikely that cost-effective sources of non-GHG-emitting generating capacity will be available to replace this loss and also serve growing demand. Other technologies to produce clean power either have not been proven yet or are unlikely to be deployed quickly enough to meet expected demand growth. Therefore, to ensure the nation’s energy security needs are met in an environmentally benign manner, investigative research must begin now to determine if the current generation of nuclear plants can continue to be safely operated beyond 60 years.

Central to the question of whether or not the current fleet of nuclear reactors can operate beyond 60 years are two primary concerns: 1) ensuring continued long-term safety; and 2) maintaining economic viability. Ensuring safety is a prerequisite to all other decisions. For continued operation, adequate safety margins must be shown to exist in subsequent license-renewal periods. Once this precondition is adequately demonstrated, utility companies then must be able to justify the costs associated with continuing to maintain and operate their LWR plants, and that those costs remain in the best interests of stakeholders. As nuclear power plants operate beyond their original license period, these costs likely will increase. Operators will need accurately to predict these costs in order to make sound business decisions regarding continued long-term plant operation. To be able to make these determinations, the nuclear industry will need to conduct research into the effects of aging on plants. The results of such research will determine whether operators can make a technically justified case when applying for subsequent license-renewal periods. Further, to support the regulatory reviews of these potential applications, the NRC also needs to conduct confirmatory and over-the-horizon research into these areas, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) needs to work with the domestic industry to support, where appropriate, collaborative efforts to keep the existing fleet of light-water reactors (LWR) safely operating.

The NRC and DOE began efforts in this area under the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration can show its continued support of this activity through increased funding for organizations that are leading this work. Additionally, the administration can assert leadership by proposing enabling legislation to encourage long-term safe operation of these vital national assets, and by actively engaging our allies in developing a cooperative program to help ensure aging reactors around the world are appropriately inspected, maintained, and operated. Such action is necessary to assure that operations can be safely and securely continued into the long-term future,2 since, as former NRC Chairman Nils Diaz often said, “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.”

Close the Fuel Cycle

The second Bush Administration initiated an innovative multilateral program, the Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP),3 which would support development of proliferation-resistant technologies to recycle nuclear fuel, and reduce waste by supplying fuel and nuclear services to developed and developing nations. These nations in turn would commit to refrain from developing enrichment and recycling technologies of their own. GNEP also includes the development and construction of Advanced Burner Reactors (ABRs), which would be designed to produce electricity and process heat while transmutating previously-burned fuel into less reactive isotopes.

U.S. federal policy always has been that nuclear energy should be utilized in a manner worldwide that is safe, secure, and proliferation-resistant—and that policy should continue. Encouraging others, especially developing nations, to adhere to the letter and spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty4—and doing so publicly and transparently—will bolster America’s stature in this area. Further, actively working with developing nations as equal partners will help the United States influence nuclear-energy activities worldwide.

GNEP’s success, however, hinges on resolving several significant issues. First, non-proliferation should be permanently linked with assurance of supplies and services throughout the nuclear-fuel cycle to any country who joins GNEP. Second, participants in the GNEP shouldn’t suffer exclusion from the program because of other conflicts with the United States, involving such issues as human-rights offenses, support for terrorism or lawlessness, or even direct military conflict. Finally, GNEP should appropriately be funded by all participants.

The Obama Administration should continue to support a version of GNEP. However, it should no longer be perceived as a purely American initiative. For a more effective approach, the United States should lead the effort to create a multinational, government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) corporation responsible for achieving the goals of GNEP. Specifically, this multi-national GOCO would be operated by a consortium of well-regulated nuclear component and fuel vendors of the participating developed nations, which would be overseen by a cadre of inspectors (seconded on a fixed rotation cycle from the participating governmental regulatory authorities) and reporting to a ministerial-level board of directors from the signatory governments. This corporation would be responsible for servicing utilities in signatory nations, and provide not only fuel services, but also overall technical and craft support for refueling and maintenance outages. Ultimately, this nuclear-services corporation would provide a consistent and assured level of technical expertise and services to nuclear-plant utilities worldwide, thereby increasing their overall ability to operate safely.

The spent fuel that’s recovered by this GNEP GOCO would be reprocessed at some centralized facility, and the materials that presently are uneconomical to process and use further could be stored at some remote facility that can be readily secured, for possible retrieval at some future date.

As an example, this international GOCO corporation could build and operate mid-ocean floating facilities that would provide appropriate GNEP-type processing facilities. This GNEP GOCO must be monitored as closely as the participating nuclear operators are monitored to ensure that no materials are being diverted for illicit purposes. As such, the security for GOCO’s facilities and shipments should be provided by the signatory nations. For instance, contingents from two or three of the participating nations’ naval forces would be jointly based, on a rotating basis, at the GOCO’s facilities and would accompany the shipments. The actual reprocessing work and delivery of materials would be accomplished by the GOCO using the consortium’s personnel. This allows for a sense of ownership and oversight by all parties, and would contribute to making GNEP less subject to shifting political alliances and world events.

The GNEP concept should also be expanded to require participants to have their facilities inspected by a multi-national cadre of inspectors, on a routine and unannounced basis, and to have non-intrusive sensors installed to allow for remote verification that nuclear materials are not being diverted for proliferation purposes. Moreover, participants from poorer nations, like Pakistan, that have a record of deficient operational and maintenance practices, could be given low-interest loans, backed by the more developed signatories, to ensure their plants are quickly returned to a safer operating status.

Grid-Appropriate Reactors

Several start-up domestic firms (e.g., NuScale Power and Hyperion Power Generation) already are developing new, smaller reactors for innovative purposes. In addition, the U.S. Air Force recently hosted a public workshop to discuss using small nuclear power plants on their domestic and overseas bases to provide long-term assurance of sufficient electrical supplies.5 Further, the more established nuclear vendors are working on new and safer reactor designs that use non-LWR technologies. Finally, DOE is budgeted to build a demonstration non-LWR next-generation nuclear plant (NGNP).6

Most domestic nuclear-power plants are large units (about 1,000 MWe) located near easily accessible transportation centers. Newer power plants are even larger— at about 1,500 MWe. There are no commercial reactors presently located within the Rocky Mountain states due to challenges involved in transporting large components into these areas. Therefore, if there is to be an expansion of nuclear power generating capabilities throughout the nation, and if nuclear power is to be encouraged in developing nations whose grid infrastructure can’t support large units, smaller, safer, grid-appropriate, proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants must be developed and deployed for both domestic consumption and export.

This administration actively should support the research, development and deployment of these new plants through: 1) increased funding for the lead federal organizations (i.e., DOE and NRC) performing the development and regulatory work; 2) leadership in proposing enabling legislation to encourage new development of these critical national assets; and 3) engaging the country’s allies in developing a cooperative program to help develop new reactor types. Further, while these smaller power plants might not enjoy the scale economies of their larger brethren, they could—and should—be encouraged through appropriate financial incentives (e.g., tax incentives and guaranteed rate-base treatment).

These new plants are being considered not just for countries with existing commercial nuclear programs, but also for developing nations7 with no such experience. As a result, the administration will need to make a substantial commitment of assistance and resources to aid these nations in developing the appropriate legal, regulatory, and technical infrastructures necessary to ensure safe and secure long-term operation of these plants. Technical assistance could be provided through the GOCO GNEP corporation, to ensure that local operators have adequate training and oversight as they gain experience and confidence in building, operating and maintaining their new facilities. However, there also will need to be appropriate and adequate legal and regulatory infrastructures. These can be developed with the assistance of the NRC, DOE, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA).8 A strong and independent regulatory oversight authority will help to provide the needed assurance that these facilities will operate safely.

Tying together the GOCO GNEP corporation with the development and deployment of these new plants will make for a more seamless expansion of the nuclear infrastructure.

Rebuilding Nuclear Expertise

The United States no longer has the necessary domestic industrial capabilities needed to support the nuclear renaissance, or much else that requires large-scale manufacturing capacities. The U.S. nuclear industrial infrastructure has degraded significantly since the 1980s. Simply stated, the manufacturing capability for the major components of nuclear-power plants, including containment vessels, reactor vessels, steam generators and pumps, exists only in other countries. With the decline of the domestic and European nuclear industries during the 1980s and 1990s, the equipment and facilities to construct these major components were shifted off-shore, to be closer to where the nuclear plants were being built—in Asia. In preparation for building new plants domestically, the industry has placed orders with companies in South Korea and Japan, since these companies have the capabilities that domestic ones have lost.

EES North America

According to a recent article published in Science, nine out of 10 scientists and engineers worldwide now can be found in Asia. The United States has lost the skilled manufacturing and construction workforce to other industries and to retirement. Further, the average age9 of the personnel needed to run commercial nuclear power plants safely has continued to rise as fewer young engineers and technicians are attracted to what became known as a moribund field. This is reflected by four-year university nuclear engineering programs, which went from 38 in the 1970s to 25 today. If not for operators trained by the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program, and attracted by relatively high wages upon leaving the military, the commercial industry would have had significant skilled workforce concerns years ago. However, while this trickle of trained operators has been sufficient to make up losses for the existing plants, a resurgence will require significant numbers10 of engineers and technicians to design, build, maintain, and operate the next generation of power plants.

The administration actively should support development and maintenance of the necessary industrial and human capital needed to support the nuclear renaissance. This includes:

Working closely with Congress to develop legislation that supports the domestic reestablishment of nuclear-grade manufacturing infrastructure;

Working with vendor and international partners to ensure that materials and major components needed to build new nuclear power plants can be manufactured and delivered in a timely manner;

Working with Congress to develop legislation that allows for additional visas (i.e., H-1B) for highly educated engineers, scientists, and technicians;

Developing public-private university partnerships that will provide scholarships, paid internships, cooperative education programs, and training programs to address these emerging needs, including craft capabilities;

Partnering with trade unions and industry trade groups to develop training programs for apprentice and journeyman blue-collar jobs that support maintenance and construction of the energy infrastructure; and

Expanding the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program (and perhaps the nascent U.S. Air Force program) to attract more technicians and engineers, with the understanding that they will be placed in the ready reserve upon graduation and will maintain their operational skills by working at new and existing commercial power plants.

Nationalizing Regulation

The United States tends to have a schizophrenic personality when it comes to governmental oversight; this is evident by the number of Congressional committees and federal and state agencies that share regulatory oversight for various issues. Such diversity of authority leads to challenges and gaps in assuring that the regulated industry is in full compliance, and it can lead to conflicted requirements from the diverse groups. This can be particularly challenging when dealing with the federal-state nexus of authorities, especially if the administration wants to foster the burgeoning domestic nuclear renaissance.

To resolve these concerns for commercial nuclear power generation, the administration should champion legislation to federalize all nuclear regulatory oversight under one authority, an expanded NRC, which would be responsible for overseeing the nuclear renaissance. This would give the NRC the nuclear-power oversight authorities and responsibilities11 that presently reside in such diverse organizations and agencies as the U.S. Departments of Defense (DOD), State (DOS), Justice (DOJ), Commerce (DOC), Interior (DOI), and Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the many state utility commissions. This realignment of duties and responsibilities would better facilitate the government’s ability to minimize delays in reacting to safety and security concerns, in siting and licensing new nuclear facilities, and in dealing with existing and emerging issues.

An expanded NRC would incorporate seconded staff from DOD, DOS, DOJ, DOC, DOT, DOI, EPA, and FERC, as well as assignees from foreign regulatory authorities, to liaise with the U.S. military, state utility commissions and international partners and facilitate information sharing on ongoing and planned activities. This would avoid unnecessary regulatory impediments, and ensure that regulatory actions remain timely and predictable, and to the extent practicable, consistent across national regulatory authorities.

An example of this would be in licensing a new grid-appropriate reactor design and deploying it domestically (and internationally, as the case may be). The NRC presently has in place a program called the Multinational Design Evaluation Program (MDEP), which intends to share global knowledge, resources, and operating experience in a cooperative effort to establish common regulatory standards for new reactor designs and to jointly complete necessary regulatory reviews. MDEP is being used in the NRC’s design certification review of the standardized U.S. EPR nuclear-plant design, and involves cooperation with the nuclear-regulatory authorities of Finland and France. Ultimately, MDEP could ask participating nations to agree to similar safety codes and standards, so that once a design is approved under MDEP, all of the participating countries would recognize its acceptability for deployment, similar to what is done with aircraft, subject to certain nation-specific requirements. The NRC could expand on this by allowing participation, as appropriate, by the above-mentioned seconded staffs, especially representatives from the state utility commissions—but not including veto authority, instead providing a peer review function for certain regulatory decisions.

Obviously, there will be issues with federalizing this regulatory authority, both from within the administration, from regulators that don’t want to give up their turf, and from the various states, who will decry this assault on their sovereignty. However, if the nation’s energy infrastructure is truly of such vital importance, then there is a need to ensure that parochial concerns not be misused to slow the development and deployment of this resource.

The Apollo Project

The Energy Information Administration estimates that global and U.S. energy demands will increase by as much as 50 percent by 2030, with more than half of the growth coming from the world’s emerging economies, most notably China and India. Further, with increased concerns about greenhouse gases produced by fossil-fired power plants, and the national security consequences related to increased reliance on non-domestic energy supplies, the nation needs to embark on an Apollo Project level of effort to convert itself, and ultimately all national economies, to a carbon-free energy infrastructure. This will require replacing the vast majority of carbon-based fuels with energy generated by nuclear power, which is the single best base-load energy source for the coming decades.

The five recommendations in this memo—maintain the safe, long-term operability of the existing nuclear fleet; close the fuel cycle; develop and deploy a new generation of improved, grid-appropriate, reactors; invest in necessary infrastructure improvements; and nationalize regulatory oversight—provide a starting point for achieving energy security.

This will not be cheap nor easy. However, this administration is the last, best hope for implementing the necessary steps that can ensure America’s continued security—economic as well as physical—throughout the 21st century.



1.  The Atomic Energy Act established a 40-year initial operating license based upon anti-trust considerations, not engineering limitations. Additional 20-year license extension periods are authorized under the law (e.g., 10 CFR Part 54). For additional information on the license renewal process, see “Reactor License Renewal Overview.” 

2.  Engaging with other nations that maintain a civilian nuclear power program will require appropriate collaboration between Federal Agencies (e.g., NRC, DOE, U.S. Departments of State and Commerce), foreign regulatory agencies, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations (e.g., Electric Power Research Institute, foreign utilities). 


4.  The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons:

5.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian military bases were so strapped for money that they were unable to pay their utility bills. Local utilities cut power deliveries until payments were made.

6.  Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, 2008:

7.  Nations with no existing commercial nuclear power infrastructure that are considering building nuclear power plants include Algeria, Australia, Chile, Estonia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Poland, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arabic Emirates. Nations with existing commercial nuclear power infrastructure that could benefit from additional assistance include Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Slovenia.

8.  Report GAO/RCED-99-243, United States General Accounting Office; 1999;

9.  A survey by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) indicates that nearly half of current nuclear-industry workers are more than 47 years old, and that nuclear-energy companies could lose about 40 percent to retirements over the next five years. Also, the architect/engineering firms, fuel suppliers and reactor manufacturers, anticipate that 32 percent of their workers will be eligible to retire within the next three years.

10.  NEI has estimated that some 90,000 entry-level workers are needed to support existing industry operations through the next 10 years. 

11.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains its responsibility for ensuring the security of the nation’s infrastructure, while the NRC maintains its oversight of security readiness at the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants; therefore, DHS and NRC will continue to closely cooperate to ensure appropriate coordination of security measures at these nuclear facilities.