Failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Process
I’m asked why we don’t have Thorium based power plants operating today. The question is usually phrased this way after one of my presentations.
“It sounds like Thorium reactors have lots of advantages. Why aren’t these reactors operating right now if those advantages are real and there isn’t some big problem you didn’t tell us about?”
It is a reasonable question. The answer is the politics of regulation.
By the 1960s, the military and regulatory apparatus had already licensed pressurized water reactors (PWR). People made their careers designing, licensing, building, inspecting and operating these power plants. These interests had nothing to gain by licensing a novel competing design. Prominent nuclear scientists brought up their safety concerns about PWRs and pointed out that LFTRs were safer. These scientists were driven out of government employment, though experience proved them right. The US government was not a neutral regulator, but was committed to conventional uranium fueled reactors. There was no government funding for thorium reactors, and you can’t get private funding if there is no regulatory path for licensing.
I hope that is clear and obvious; you can’t make money on a technology if the government regulates it and demands you license it, while at the same time denying you a method to obtain that license. In contrast, there was considerable funding for uranium fueled reactors because you could make bombs out of uranium. The US government needed the atomic bomb and we understood the technical processes in the uranium fuel cycle.
Politics are inherent in government regulation. Those regulatory/political processes were at work in the 1970s and they remain the reason we don’t have thorium reactors today. Industrial firms make billion dollar investments with technical risks, but they won’t make billion dollar investments with regulatory/political risks. The business reward has to justify the risky investment, and the political/regulatory uncertainty is too high to justify the reward. Let me give you some contemporary examples of the problem.
- We have not licensed a new oil refinery in the US since 1976. It certainly isn’t because we don’t need, use and understand oil production. What investors understand too well is that regulations change at a politician’s whim. Investors quit trying to build new refineries after they lost billions of dollars trying to get their licenses approved.
- The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed in 2008. This pipeline would move Canadian crude oil to Texas refineries. Both the environmental lobby and other petroleum interests opposed the project. We expect that from special interests. Though the project passed regulatory approval, President Barack Obama said he will delay the project by executive order. That sounds like crony capitalism and the work of special interests.
- Alternative energy sources are trapped in the same regulatory/political process. The Cape Wind project would put wind turbines off the shores of Cape Cod. Cape Wind sought federal, state and local approval for ten years. That costs money, and Cape Wind has not installed one wind turbine.
- It is happening with solar power plants in the western desert. These days you line up your political backers first because you can’t pass the approval process without them. This is before you even think of applying for a permit or begin engineering studies. The latest scam is to risk government “investment” money in your failed projects. There is government money for the taking, and Robert F. Kennedy Junior is deeply involved.
This political/regulatory strangle hold is an old problem. Fortunes were made and lost during the 1700s and 1800s as politicians chose their favorite shipping lines and railroads. In contrast, the Hoover dam was built in about five years, but that was in the 1930s. Government corruption has seriously damaged our current standard of living and destroyed millions of jobs. All my experience tells me that government at all levels is too corrupt to regulate anything.
Those who want to commercialize Thorium face these regulatory and political risks. The LFTR design will be licensed outside the US civilian regulatory process, or licensed and built outside the US.