THE ATOMIC ENERGY ACT OF 1954 DIRECTS FEDERAL AGENCIES TO PROVIDE AN ATMOSPHERE  TO FOSTER MAXIMUM SCIENTIFIC AND INDUSTRIAL PROGRESS IN NUCLEAR RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT.

Experts within the nuclear industry will point out that new startup companies are essentially forced to develop new nuclear technologies overseas due to the economics of developing nuclear technology domestically. THE QUESTION HAS TO BE ASKED “ARE FEDERAL AGENCIES PROVIDING AN ATMOSPHERE OF MAXIMUM SCIENTIFIC AND INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT WHEN WE ARE ASSISTING OTHER NATIONS IN DEVELOPING TECHNOLOGY THAT EXCEEDS OUR OWN?" It is hard to comprehend that when the 1954 Atomic Energy Act was passed into law that maximum scientific and industrial progress could possibly mean taking a back seat to other nations. Time makes strange bedfellows, and even though we have a law on the books to the contrary; our bureaucratic institutions have unwittingly undermined America’s dominance and leadership within the nuclear industry.

America’s Leadership is No More

The United States built the biggest, safest, and most efficient civilian fleet of reactors in the world — 104 of them in all. As the nuclear industry was prevented from building more reactors for a number of different reasons the industry focused on efficiency and reliability. The nuclear industry improved the performance of their fleet of reactors so much, that in the 30 years that America did not build a single new reactor, we increased our effective capacity by the equivalent of 35 new 1GWe reactors. An almost impossible accomplishment for any other industry and energy source.

The competition to export reactors is fierce and those that build reactors; win. While Westinghouse has sold four reactors, France, South Korea, and China all are selling reactors based on U.S. designs.

South Korea won the contract to build the first four reactors for the United Arab Emirates at Barakah. China is slated to build more than 20 reactors domestically and China bought a one-third share of the Hinkley Point C project in the UK and agreed to sell Argentina its fourth and fifth reactors.  Russia now has a $300 billion order book to build 30 new reactors in 12 countries.

Competition

As Americans, we welcome competition; we do not shrink from it. Many times though, government policies prevent us from competing on an equal footing with other nations of the world. When this happens, it can have profound reverberations throughout America’s domestic markets.

America is not competitive with these other countries solely because of policy reasons and not because of economic or scientific reasons.

We need to change our policies if we are going to lead the world in nuclear technology – a technology that we ushered into existence.

Politicians, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act profoundly changed the way America treated nuclear energy and took exclusive development of nuclear energy out of the hands of the federal government and decentralized the development of nuclear energy to civilian industry and to the states.  Provisions were even made to make sure that the contractors that worked with the federal government on the Manhattan project did not have an unfair advantage to monopolize the newly created nuclear energy industry.

Here are some provisions of the Atomic Energy Act:

  1. “to promote an orderly regulatory pattern between the Commission (Atomic Energy Commission) and State governments with respect to nuclear development and use and regulation of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials”
  2. “to encourage widespread participation in the development and utilization of atomic energy for peaceful purposes to the maximum extent consistent with the common defense and security and with the health and safety of the public”
  3. provide for a program of conducting, assisting, and fostering research and development in order to encourage maximum scientific and industrial progress
  4. “a program of administration which will be consistent with the foregoing policies and programs, with international arrangements, and with agreements for cooperation, which will enable the Congress to be currently informed so as to take further legislative action as may be appropriate.”

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act is still law and these provisions of the law are still in effect.

How we Re-centralized Nuclear Development

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) originally balanced safety with progress. When that entity was disbanded there was no one to ensure that there was any balance to policy decisions. Indeed, the newly minted organizations that replaced the AEC were directed by Congress (either knowingly or unknowingly) to not consider the cause and effect of policy on each other. Our current government administrators are not responsible for the situation we are in though they get demonized for it. Most of the blame goes to the past legislators that make the laws and the lawyers that currently interpret the laws. We should hold in respect those that work for the United States Department Of Energy (DOE) and those that work for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as they have a very difficult job in fulfilling the objectives of Congress.

When the AEC was split, what we essentially wound up with were laws that effectively delegated research and development of nuclear to the DOE and regulation of the civilian nuclear industry was delegated to the NRC.

Neither agency really took on the challenge provided by Congress to provide for a program of maximum development. Yet, it is a law that cannot be ignored.

The NRC has provided for an orderly regulation of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials for State governments with member states that have signed agreements with the NRC. These States are known as “Agreement States".

On the other hand, the DOE has not developed a common regulatory pattern with State governments for the research and development of new nuclear technologies. One of the clear reasons why this has not happened is because no State has created an entity specifically tasked with asking the DOE to create these regulations.  

With no States stepping forward to task the DOE to develop research and development rules for nuclear technology the DOE had no clear and compelling reason to create these rules.

After the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, and no consideration of balancing safety with progress due to the AEC split, regulations began ballooning. As costs rose, the industry consolidated, leading to the very thing that President Eisenhower intended to prevent with the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. Eventually regulations became so costly that substantive private research and development was phased out and only the DOE could afford to provide research and development of new types of reactors.  You can argue whether or not there is too much regulation within the nuclear industry but that is not the argument that eGeneration is making. The eGeneration Foundation is making the argument that because the NRC is a regulatory authority it is not allowed to legally consider promulgating rules and regulations for maximum development because safety and protection is its sole focus.

Legally, the role of providing a program for maximum development should fall to the DOE if we want to keep safety considerations separate from development considerations.

To reinforce this legal argument we can look at the historical problems of civilian development under the NRC and in conjunction with the 1990 Omnibus Reconciliation Act.

The 1990 Omnibus Reconciliation Act made the NRC a cost recovery agency. This means they must charge for their services to produce new regulations. This means that the first movers in the industry pave the way for their competitors by paying for the regulations that they all will be regulated under. The competitors pay nothing and the first mover is stuck paying the tab.

This leads startup companies to moving to other countries where they are not burdened with paying for the full cost of regulations and can compete on a level playing field with competitors.

The DOE has no such cost recovery mechanism and as such can provide a program of regulation to the States embracing maximum development.

The eGeneration Foundation is encouraging States to create entities authorized to work with the DOE in the sphere of nuclear research and development. These entities can then request that the DOE promulgate rules for collaborative research and development agreements.